This is a fascinating rediscovery, a rare work by one of the most important of the group of young artists who came to prominence in the 1860s, inspired by the pictures that Burne-Jones was currently exhibiting at the Old Water-Colour Society. Bateman was a man of private means who could afford to work slowly. His oeuvre is consequently small and he has long been a somewhat mysterious figure, although the inclusion of his work in two recent exhibitions, The Last Romantics at the Barbican in 1989 and The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts : Symbolism in Britain 1860 - 1910 at the Tate Gallery in 1997, has made us more aware of him than formerly.
The starting point for anyone interested in Bateman is Walter Crane's Reminiscences, published in 1907. According to Crane, Bateman was the leader of the group of artists just mentioned, who took their cue from the series of intensely romantic watercolours that Burne-Jones showed at the OWCS. between 1864 and 1870. Thinking particularly of The Merciful Knight (Birmingham Art Gallery), which appeared in 1864, Crane recalled how these pictures had revealed to him and his friends 'a magic world of romance and pictured poetry, peopled with ghosts of "ladies dead and lovely knights", - a twilight world of dark mysterious woodlands, haunted streams, meads of deep green starred with burning flowers, veiled in a dim and mystic light'. In addition to Bateman and Crane himself, the group included Henry Ellis Wooldridge, later an eminent musicologist and Slade Professor at Oxford; Edward Clifford, remembered today mainly for his graceful society portraits and copies after his hero, Burne-Jones; Theodore Blake Wirgman, who was to make his name in the 1880s by drawing eminent Victorians for the Graphic magazine; the landscape painter Edward Henry Fahey; and Alfred Sacheverell Coke, who specialised in classical themes.
Robert Bateman, the son of a distinguished horticulturalist, James Bateman, had entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1865 at the age of twenty-three. He was to maintain a connection with the RA, showing six works there between 1871 and 1889; Crane particularly recalled a Raising of Samuel (1879),'a very wierd and powerful conception ... worked out with extraordinary invention...in symbolic and subsidiary detail'. But Bateman found his true spiritual home at the Dudley Gallery, which began to hold annual exhibitions of watercolours at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1865. The Dudley was a keen supporter of the younger generation of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic painters. It was a forerunner of the Grosvenor Gallery, which opened with such éclat in 1877, providing a showcase for Burne-Jones and his followers (including Bateman) and becoming the acknowledged flagship of the Aesthetic Movement. But the Dudley itself had a very definite ethos, and it is quite possible to speak of a 'Dudley style'. Critics recognised this at the time, dubbing its more characteristic exhibitors the 'Poetry without Grammer School'. By this they implied that while the artists' work was undeniably poetic, their drawing, from an academic point of view, left much to be desired.
Reading of Love, He being by was exhibited at the Dudley in 1874, together with works by Crane, Clifford, Fahey and Wirgman and many other artists of the extended Pre-Raphaelite circle: Alice Boyd, J.A. Fitzgerald, Albert Goodwin, E.R. Hughes, E.J. Poynter, and so on. The watercolour is a typical Dudley picture, being highly poetic in feeling but not too explicit in theme. This is truly Aestheticism in practice, the evocation of a mood, the creation of a formal and chromatic harmony, the deliberate avoidance of anything so vulgarly explicit as those staples of Victorian picture-making, narrative and moral. There are echoes of Burne-Jones, not only in a general reference to his 'magic world of romance and pictured poetry' but in specific details. The girl reading aloud from a book recalls his Green Summer (private collection), shown at the OWCS in 1865, while the figure of Cupid attending and inspiring a celebration of love looks back to his Chant d'Amour (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which appeared at the same venue the following year. It is hardly surprising that Bateman's work was bought by William Graham, the wealthy Scottish India merchant and MP who was Burne-Jones's greatest patron. Indeed, these very pictures by Burne-Jones, or a version of them, were in Graham's collection.
But Bateman was far from being a mere imitator of Burne-Jones (of which there were many). On the contrary, his style is highly personal, not to say sometimes, in Crane's words, 'very wierd'. There is a hint of this in the quirky title of our picture, and the trait emerges strongly in Women plucking Mandrakes, a bizzare and sinister watercolour shown at the Dudley in 1870 (see the catalogue of the Symbolism in Britain exhibition, no. 18, illustrated), and the unusual conception of The Pool of Bethesda, probably Bateman's masterpiece, of 1877 (fig. 1). A close relationship exists between this picture and ours. Each has a sense of intense stillness. The style and use of architecture are similar, and there are the same figures seen through an aperture (door or window) in the centre of the composition. Both pictures, moreover, appear to owe a debt to such Italian masters as Mantegna and Piero della Francesca, this of course contributing significantly to the strong sense of repose and equilibrium which each possesses. William Michael Rossetti, reviewing the Dudley exhibition in the Academy, hinted at this Italian influence when he wrote that the picture, while showing 'purity of sentiment and method', was an 'unnatural hybrid between Mr Dante Rossetti or Mr Burne-Jones and Overbeck or Fra Angelico'. As his use of the word 'unnatural' shows, he was not happy with the the result, which he went on to describe as an 'insipid kind of curds-and-whey'. But this was typical of critical opinion at this date, most of which was antipathetic to Burne-Jones and his followers.
Bateman's later career, from what we know of it, seems to have been less intense and more diverse. A man of imposing appearance, he married Caroline Octavia Howard, the daughter of a Dean of Lichfield, in 1883. They lived successively at Benthall Hall, a sixteenth-century mansion near Much Wenlock in Shropshire, and at Nunney Delamere, Frome. In later years Bateman was known not only as a painter but as a sculptor, a botanist, a landscape gardener, an Italian scholar and a philanthropist. Flowers, an interest in which he must have inherited from his father, were the subject of many of his later paintings, and Crane tells us that he was 'always experimenting...in methods and mediums'. He perfected a modelling material which he called 'plasma Bentellesca' (after Benthall Hall), and in 1905 he became a founder member of the Society of Painters in Tempera. A devoted husband, he died only five days after his wife in 1922, aged eighty.