The present work is one of a series inspired by Homer's Odyssey. In 1897, the year the picture was executed, Spence exhibited The Temptation of Odysseus by Circe at the Royal Academy (no. 604).
The scene depicted here represents an incident before Odysseus's return when Penelope his wife believed him dead and was surrounded by suitors. She repeatedly put them off by saying she had first to finish weaving a winding sheet for her father-in-law Laertes, but at night she secretly undid her day's work. Here, Phemius is prevailed upon to entertain the suitors and is singing of Odysseus's return from Troy, and of the disasters that Pallas Athene made his army suffer. Standing behind Phemius, Penelope pleads with the minstrel to sing something more cheerful:
O Phemius... I bid thee cease,
For the heart that is dear in my breast doth it ever waste and wear, Since I, and I above all, a ceaseless sorrow bear
For so dear a head sore longing, remembering still the man
Whose fame was abroad in Hellas, and through mid Argos ran.
(The Odyssey, Book I, translated by William Morris).
Thomas Ralph Spence was born in Yorkshire to a family of builders and stone masons. After an apprenticeship with a firm of architects in Newcastle he moved to London, where he became famous as a painter and architect. He exhibited at the Royal Academy throughout the 1890s and in 1910 the Fine Art Society held an exhibition of his oil sketches of Italy, Greece and Spain. His architectural work is exemplified by Jesmond Church in Newcastle, and his interior decoration can be seen at All Saint's Church in Ennismore Gardens, and in the Hall of St. Paul's School, Hammersmith.