Hillingford depicts one of the most famous moral tests in literary history, from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene II). Bassanio, a noble but poor Venetian, must chose between three caskets that the estimable Portia has presented those vying for her hand. The caskets are of gold, silver and lead. Bassanio correctly perceives that the gaudy charms of gold and silver are nothing to:
'...thou meagre lead,
Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me to eloquence;
And here choose I; joy be the consequence!'
The lead casket reveals a miniature of Portia, so proving to Bassanio both the success of his suit and the true accord between himself and Portia, who had devised the plan in the hope that it would elect her true love.
Hillingford was a historical genre painter who studied at Düsseldorf, Munich and London. He also spent many years in Italy before returning to London in 1864. His grand 'fancy dress' pieces owe something to his European training.