Hitherto regarded simply as a preliminary watercolour sketch for The Prodigal's Return, the major oil painting that Poynter exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869 (lot 29), this is in fact an independent drawing conceived for a definite purpose. It is one of four watercolours that Poynter executed in 1868 as illustrations for The Nobility of Life, its Graces and Virtues, published by Frederick Warne the following year. Poynter was not the only artist involved. Henry Le Jeune, Frederick Walker, J.D. Watson and others also contributed.
Poynter's designs took the form of figure subjects emblematic of four 'graces' or 'virtues', namely Mercy, Obedience, Cheerfulness and Youth. Our watercolour represented Mercy. Obedience, symbolised by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, was sold at Christie's South Kensington on 4 May 1995, lot 62, and is now in the collection of Dr Denis Lanigan. Cheerfulness appeared at Sotheby's Belgravia in 1971, while Youth seems to be missing. For further details, see the entry for Dr Lanigan's watercolour in the catalogue cited above, in which the help of Alison Inglis in illuminating this subject is acknowledged.
The four watercolours, all approximately the same size and with similar arched tops, were exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1869. The Dudley had held its first exhibition in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1865. It specialised in watercolours, and supported the younger generation of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic painters. Poynter was a regular exhibitor.
It is interesting to compare Mercy with The Prodigal's Return, the subsequent reworking of the composition on a grander scale in oil (lot 29). Quite apart from the obvious differences in the poses of the two figures, there is a degree of idealisation in the oil which is absent in the watercolour. Particularly striking is the more refined type chosen for the son and the ampler draperies given to the father. Obviously a lot of rethinking went on between the two versions, and it was probably during this period that Poynter made the following drawings (lots 165-8). However, from all we know of his working methods, the watercolour itself would have been based on studies from life.