Paton was a Scottish painter of historical, religious, literary and allegorical themes. He was born in Dumfermline and began his career as a designer of textiles. In 1843 he went to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools, and there met John Everett Millais (see pl.82), his junior by eight years. He did not join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, having returned to Scotland by the time it was founded in September 1848, but he remained on close terms with Millais and his work has a certain affinity with that of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Paton was an intellectual whose imagination was profoundly stirred by Celtic legends. He was also one of the greatest Victorian exponents of fairy painting, particularly during the early part of his career. His passion for fairy subjects was such that in 1850 the painter and photographer David Octavius Hill urged him to send 'historical and sacred subjects' to the Royal Scottish Academy in order to refute the critics who were accusing him of being 'fairy mad'. In fact in later life Paton did turn increasingly to 'sacred subjects', investing them with a rather sentimental piety that made them enormously popular. Queen Victoria herself was among his patrons and admirers. She appointed him her Limner for Scotland in 1866 and knighted him the following year.
Paton was eminently suited to receive these accolades. A.T. Story described him as 'so notable a figure that it would mark him out among a thousand as that of a man of distinguished parts and position, to a head that would have served, in his prime, as a model for a Jupiter ???, he unites a frame that is almost Herculean in breadth of shoulder and depth of chest. 'William Michael Rossetti' was similarly impressed, recalling 'a tall and very fine-looking man (who) received us with a stately courtesy, in which some degree of shyness seemed to be lurking... He had a handsome well-kept house, comprising a very noticeable collection of armour.' A.M.W. Stirling thought him 'the bean ideal of a Highland chief, good to look at and delightful to talk to, a poet and an artist'.
The present picture, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1866, the very year that Paton took up his royal appointment, is an early example of his later style, and typifies the religious sentiment he was increasingly anxious to express. It was accompanied in the RA catalogue by a long quotation reminiscent of Pilgrim's Progress explaining in pictorial terms that death, far from being an ending, is the beginning of eternal life. In an age noted for high mortality and beset by religious doubts, the appeal of such a message was obvious.
The picture is well documented in photographs of Paton and his home surroundings. An albumen print of c.1865-6, possibly by David Octavius Hill, who was his brother-in-law, shows him in his studio laying in the outlines on the almost blank canvas while a suit of armour, worn by the knight in the picture, stands in the corner (fig.1). The picture is also seen hanging above the door in the artist's drawing room at his house in St George's Square, Edinburgh, in a photograph reproduced in A.J. Story's article.
The picture has a curious capacity to remind us of images which are in a sense irrelevant. The phrase 'faithful unto death' so central to the accompanying text had been adopted by E.J. Doynter ?? as the title of his well-known picture, exhibited at the Royal Academy the previous year, of a Roman centurian standing at his post while Pompeii collapses around him (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). The concept of an angel at a doorway addressing an armoured knight recalls designs by Rossetti and Burne-Jones of Sir Lancelot failing to achieve the Holy Grail (fig.2). And the title Mors Janua Vitae was to be used by Alfred Gilbert for his extraordinary bronze shrine created 1905-9 in memory of Dr and Mrs Macloghlin and to hold their mingled ashes (Royal College of Surgeons, London). Ironically in view of the fact that the words imply eternal life, the couple were atheists.
A small (11¼ x 7in.) version of the picture was offered in these Rooms on 13 March 1992, lot 93. To produce two versions in this way was Paton's normal practice.