The Symbol was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, the year Frank Dicksee (fig.1) was elected A.R.A. At the age of twenty-seven, he was one of the youngest artists to have been elected. The picture was an instant and outstanding success and was reproduced in photogravure, thus ensuring it an even wider audience. Dicksee had close family connections with art; his father, Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895), his uncle, John Robert Dicksee (1817-1905), and brother and sister, Herbert Thomas Dicksee (1862-1942) and Margaret Isabel Dicksee (1858-1903), were all painters who exhibited at the Royal Academy. He once observed that he could not remember a time when he did not draw.
After training with his father, Dicksee entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he was taught by Millais and Leighton (1871-1875). He excelled at his studies, winning the silver medal in 1872 for a drawing from the antique. Three years later he won the gold medal for Elijah confronting Ahab and Jezebel in Naboth's Vineyard, with which he made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1876. While still a student Dicksee began to undertake pictorial work for illustrated periodicals, notably Cassell's Magazine, the Cornhill and the Graphic. Much of this work was done at night after the evening life school. Later Dicksee worked and studied under the artist and designer Henry Holiday, making cartoons for stained glass designs and assisting with decorative schemes. In 1879 he was commissioned by Cassell's to illustrate their edition of Longfellow's Evangeline, eventually published in 1882. The poem became the subject of his next picture, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1879 and sold to the Fine Art Society. This varied experience contributed to the fine quality of his drawing and the close attention to detail for which his work is noted.
Dicksee's first great popular success was achieved at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1877 with Harmony (fig. 2), which took London by storm and placed him in the foremost rank of living artists. It shows a young medieval girl seated in a room bathed in warm evening light filtering through a stained-glass window; she plays the organ to an enamoured youth, who sits beside her. In some ways the picture is not unlike The Symbol, both seeking to establish mood or convey emotion without becoming too involved in narrative.
The engaging qualities of Harmony set the seal on a highly successful career, during which Dicksee exhibited 153 pictures at the Royal Academy. In 1891 he was elected R.A., and in 1924 he became President. He received a knighthood shortly thereafter, and was made K.C.V.O in 1927. However, the advent of the Modern Movement, of which he was an outspoken critic, had left him an isolated figure, and by the time he died in October 1928 his work was generally considered outmoded and irrelevant. His obituary in the Illustrated London News could only describe him as 'a painter of very popular "sentimental" work'. For the Times, 'he made an artistic virtue of prettiness', while Tancred Borenius in the Dictionary of National Biography was even more dismissive.
The Symbol was the result of a particularly inspired session at the Langham Sketching Club, a meeting place for artists who, in accordance with the rules of the Club, expressed ideas that crossed their mind on the spur of the moment. The scene is set in a mediaeval Italian city, probably Florence, although it should be noted that Dicksee did not visit Italy until well after the picture's completion. It represents a procession of revellers crowned with wreaths of flowers and leaves passing beneath a stone archway, which frames the city in the distance. Two of the male figures are occupied with song; one plays a mandolin, the other an instrument variously described as a tibia or a double flute. Heading the group is a lover and his mistress, who emerge from the shadow of the archway into the bright sunlight. They advance between a marble bench over which hangs an orange tree, while to the left of the composition is a raised kerb upon which sits an aged relic-seller. From a box of wares, a skull is prominent among them, the vendor has chosen a crucifix; this he offers for sale, arresting the young man's attention, while the girl, stepping a little aside, plucks an orange from the tree. The moral of the story is not difficult to decipher, and is, indeed, reinforced by the sub-title taken from Lamentations 1:12: 'Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?' Thus a poignant note is added to an otherwise joyful scene, striking the perfect balance between jest and profundity and raising the picture to a higher level than if it was simply an exquisitely conceived and ordered composition of figures and architecture.
Dicksee was fond of evoking this kind of psychological tension. In pictures such as The Crisis (1891; Melbourne) or The Confession (1896; private collection) he shows himself a pioneer of the 'psychodrama' or 'problem picture', an art form that was to be taken up by other late Victorian artists, notably the Hon. John Collier. It is no accident that the 'agonised woman' in The Confession was described by one critic as 'writhing like Paula Tanqueray', since the parallels with contemporary theatre are close. The Symbol, however, belongs to a slighly different genre, one which goes back to the time-honoured subject of Hercules choosing between Virtue and Vice. Dicksee was to paint variations on this theme at later dates. The key example is The Two Crowns, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1900, at the height of the Boer War, and as popular in its day as Harmony had been a generation earlier (fig. 3). It shows a conquering hero returning from battle, with beautiful women casting flowers before him. The 'two crowns' are the adulation lavished on him by an adoring populace and the crown of thorns worn by the figure on the crucifix which he passes in the street as he rides by in triumph.
The Symbol received critical acclaim even before it was seen at the R.A. William Eastlake, one of the leading critics of the time, made a habit of visiting artists' studios before sending-in day. According to Sydney Hodges in an article published in the Magazine of Art in 1887, he declared on leaving Dicksee's studio that he had seen 'nothing to approach' the picture 'in colour and power in any of the studios I have visited'. Once on exhibition, The Symbol was hailed as the picture of the year and declared one of the artist's finest works. The Times, having described how 'Mr Dicksee's great picture hangs in a conspicuous position in (the) third gallery, and arrests the attention at once upon entering the room', went on to identify it as 'a serious and important example of imaginative art'. In Academy Notes, in which it was illustrated as the frontispiece, Henry Blackburn declared it 'a remarkable work, rich in ancient costume and colour'. F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, considered it 'a great advance on former productions of the fortunate A.R.A.'; indeed, he had no doubt that 'in motive, design, colour, and general treatment' it showed 'Mr Dicksee at his best'. The Art Journal thought The Symbol a 'beautiful, highly finished picture, resplendent in depth and glory of colour', and the Illustrated London News agreed that the colouring was 'splendidly rich - if inclining a little to "hotness"'. The colouring was almost the only aspect of the work with which some critics took issue. The Times wondered whether the architecture was not somewhat 'over-coloured', and felt that 'the green of the orange-tree leaves and the girl's dress in the background' were 'a little sharp and crude'.
Since the picture's first triumphant unveiling at the Royal Academy in 1881 it has been exhibited four times, on three occasions in Britain and once overseas. Each event inspired excited commentary in the daily press. The Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, opened by the Prince of Wales, was described by one local newspaper as the most remarkable of its kind ever to have been brought together in England or abroad. The portion of the building devoted to industrial design, machinery and chemistry was a fitting testimony to Manchester's considerable economic growth and industrial development over the last fifty years. Most impressive of all, however, were the thirteen rooms devoted to what were considered to be the best works of the British and Irish artists who had flourished during this period. Several paintings by Dicksee, including The Symbol, were among the exhibits, which also included such seminal examples as Madox Brown's Work (Manchester), Frith's Derby Day (Tate Gallery), Burne-Jones's Pygmalion series (Birmingham) and Leighton's Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis (Hartford, Conn.), to name but a few. The Art Journal commented that as a collection of contemporary art, this section of the exhibition was beyond all compare, being the quintessence of dozens of Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery exhibitions.
The Symbol was next seen in public in 1894 when it was included in a loan exhibition at the Oldham Art Gallery, held to celebrate the opening of a gallery extension. The exhibits were considered by the committee to represent a cross-section of the most distinguished pictures painted during the past century. They included several works by Millais, Leighton's Bath of Psyche (Tate Gallery), as well as many examples of George Frederic Watts, mostly lent by the artist himself.
At this period Dicksee's star was still in the ascendent. In some ways more interesting is to find the picture being exhibited twice in the 1920s, when Victorian art was rapidly going out of fashion. The Jubilee Autumn Exhibition held at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, in 1922, was a retrospective, representing the three principal art movements of the past fifty years, identified as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Whistler and the Scottish Colour Romanticists, and The Moderns. The works selected were all considered to have contributed in some significant way to the advancement of art. Sir David Murray, RA, President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, opened the exhibition on 23 September, declaring it to be of an extraordinary high level of excellence, and it attracted 60,000 visitors before it closed on 9 December. By this date the picture belonged to Lord Leverhulme, who also lent Sir Isumbras at the Ford by Millais and May Morning on Magdalen Tower by Holman Hunt, both now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. The picture's second public showing at this period was at the Canadian National Exhibition held in Toronto in 1924. This was an annual event which aimed to reflect every aspect of commerce, industry and the arts, both nationally and overseas. As the Toronto Daily Star put it on 23 August, the exhibits 'range all the way from a pencil to a mogul engine, from a cat to an elephant, embracing the products of mine and farm, shop and studio, school and factory, orchard and ocean.' The exhibition was staged in twenty buildings set in 260 acres of parkland. The Symbol appeared in the section entitled Paintings and Sculpture by British, American and Canadian Artists, Graphic Art and Photography.
The Symbol has a distinguished provenance. Its first owner was Thomas Dixon Galpin of Bristol House, Roehampton. A partner in the publishing firm of Cassell, Petter & Galpin, he would have known Dicksee through the artist's work for many of Cassell's publications, including Cassell's Magazine, the Cornhill, the Graphic, and an Ilustrated Shakespeare which appeared in the 1880s. In fact when Galpin's sale took place at Christie's in April 1911, it included not only The Symbol but several of Dicksee's drawings for the Shakespeare and another major painting, The Redemption of Tannhäuser, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890.
The Symbol was acquired at the sale by Agnew's on behalf of Lady Tate for 570 guineas, and entered the private collection of paintings and drawings formed by Sir Henry and Lady Tate at Park Hill, Streatham Common. Sir Henry Tate is remembered primarily for his munificent patronage of British art and for founding the Tate Gallery in 1897. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography describes the gallery at Park Hill as adorned with the best works by contemporary masters, including Millais' Ophelia and The Vale of Rest, both now in the Tate Gallery.
At the Park Hill sale in February 1920, The Symbol was bought by the first Viscount Leverhulme, the Sunlight Soap magnate and one of the last great collectors of Victorian paintings before they went out of fashion. The following day the Times carried the headline '800 Guineas for a Dicksee Painting'. In fact it was the highest price of the sale, outstripping Bouguereau's Daydream, which fell at 220 guineas, and Canaletto's View in Venice, which fetched 500 guineas. Lord Leverhulme founded the Lady Lever Art Gallery in 1922 and dedicated it to the memory of his late wife. Located in the village of Port Sunlight, near Liverpool, which he also created, the Gallery is famous for its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and eighteenth-century furniture. Following Leverhulme's death in 1925, the picture was included in his sale at the Anderson Galleries, New York, together with major examples of Leighton, Millais, Alma-Tadema, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and others; and was bought by Philip H. Rosenbach, along with other paintings and decorative art, for $1,300. Philip and his brother, Dr A.S.W. Rosenbach, achieved international fame in the early 1900s as dealers in rare books and manuscripts. Dr Rosenbach built the finest collection of such treasures in America, and was renowned as the doyen of his trade. The painting later found its way to Dr Rosenbach's former home, now the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia, where it has remained to this day.