Deverell's Twelfth Night is one of the last major early Pre-Raphaelite paintings to remain in private hands. The artist (fig.1) was born of English parents at Charlottesville, Virginia, but in 1829, when he was two, the family returned to England. His father subsequently became Secretary of the Government School of Design at Somerset House, and there the family lived until 1852. In 1843 young Deverell was placed in the office of a Westminster solicitor, but his ambition was to be an artist and the following year he entered Sass's Drawing Academy, situated in Bloomsbury Street, and currently under the supervision of Mr Cary, son of the well-known translator of Dante. Sass's was recognised as a training ground for the Royal Academy Schools, and there Deverell met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his junior by a year, who was to go on to the RA Schools in 1844. Deverell himself followed in 1846, and not only re-encountered Rossetti but met William Holman Hunt (his exact contemporary) and John Everett Millais (two years his junior). In 1848 he joined this trio in a short-lived revival of the Cyclographic Society, a group of students and amateurs who circulated drawings among themselves, inviting criticism from fellow members. He was not, however, among the seven youths, led by the same trio, who launched the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at a meeting in Millais's Gower Street studio in September that year.
It has been suggested that Deverell deliberately hesitated to become a member of the PRB because he had recently been appointed assistant master at the Government School of Design, but he remained close to the Brothers. He was particularly intimate with Rossetti, with whom he shared a studio at 17 Red Lion Square (in the then the fashionably Bohemian quarter of Bloomsbury) for a few months in 1850-51. When Deverell made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1847, he did so with a genre scene, Reposing after the Ball, which is now lost. It seems likely that he was influenced by drawings made by Rossetti in 1845 showing bohemian figures in post-ball collapse. Certainly Deverell's next RA picture, Margaret in Prison visited by Faust, shown in 1848, trespassed on an area of subject matter that Rossetti had staked out for himself in the previous few years.
Rossetti's initiative can also be discerned in relation to Twelfth Night, Deverell's next exhibited picture, though in the choice of exhibition venue rather than subject. The picture was shown not at the RA but at the National Institution of the Fine Arts, the name adopted that year by the Society of Artists. The Society had hitherto shown under the title of the Free Exhibition of Modern Art in the Chinese Gallery at Hyde Park Corner, offering, as the name implied, free entrance to the public. In 1850, however, they transferred to the Portland Gallery, situated opposite the Polytechnic Institution at the north end of Regent Street, and not only changed their name but, as the Atheneum rather tartly observed, 'abandoned the pretence of gratuitous admission'.
Rossetti had shown his first exhibited picture, The Girlhood of the Mary Virgin (Tate Gallery) at the Free Exhibition (as it then was) in 1849. There has been much speculation about why he did so, rather than showing at the RA, where Millais and Hunt were exhibiting their first productions in the Pre-Raphaelite style. Hunt himself hinted darkly that he was afraid to stand up and be counted, while others have argued that he dreaded the embarassment of rejection by the RA selection committee. A third possibility is that he wished to exhibit with his friend and mentor Ford Madox Brown, who showed at the Free in 1848 and 1849. Whatever his motives, Rossetti returned to the same venue (now under its new name at the Portland Gallery) in 1850, showing Ecce Ancilla Domini! (Tate Gallery), his version of the Annunciation. It must have been he who encouraged Deverell to send Twelfth Night there that year.
Deverell's picture, painted when he was twenty-one, is undoubtedly his masterpiece. It is by far the largest of his few surviving paintings, and was clearly intended to be a major statement and a bid for recognition. Everything about it betrays his allegiance to the Pre-Raphaelite ideals currently being evolved by his friends, and in fact it caused him to be nominated for the PRB when one of the original members, James Collinson, resigned in May 1850. For some reason, possibly the scruple on his part already mentioned, he failed to be formally elected, but in a sense this is immaterial. Deverell remains one of the Brotherhood's closest associates during the period, only lasting some five years, when a prevailing set of Pre-Raphaelite values prevailed and the Brothers were working along more or less similar lines.
These values were reflected, first, in the picture's subject. It illustrates Twelfth Night, Act II, scene 4, in which Orsino, Duke of Illyria, tormented by unrequited love for a rich countess, Olivia, orders his clown, Feste, to sing the song 'Come away, come away, death'. On the left, gazing at Orsino intently, sits Viola, who, disguised as a boy, is acting as his page, Cesario, and, unknown to him, loves him ardently. Later in the scene, stung by Orsino's claim that no woman can love as passionately as a man, Viola makes the famous speech in which she alludes obliquely to her own emotions. 'My father', she tells the Duke,
had a daughter lov'd a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship,
When the Duke asks her what was the girl's 'history' she replies:
A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek; she pin'd in thought
And with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
Deverell was far from being the first English artist to draw inspiration from Twelfth Night. In the 1790s William Hamilton and J.H. Ramberg had illustrated the play for the Boydell Shakespeare. About the same time John Hoppner painted the actress Mrs Jordan in the role of Viola in which she starred at Drury Lane (fig. 2); indeed she is probably declaiming the very speech just quoted. The Romantics, of course, idolised Shakespeare, and although Twelfth Night did not offer them the melodrama they adored in King Lear or Macbeth, it received its share of attention during their era. Turner, for example, exhibited a picture called What you Will! (private collection), the play's alternative title, at the Royal Academy in 1822, while Daniel Maclise made his RA debut with a scene from the play seven years later. He returned to Twelfth Night for one of his most famous works, a delightful account of Malvolio appearing cross-gartered before Olivia and her maid Maria in the garden, exhibiting it at the Academy in 1840 (fig. 4). No doubt research would reveal other instances. After all, the visual interpretation of Shakespeare was one of the most persistent themes in British art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is estimated that between 1769, when the RA held its first exhibition, and 1830, an average of five to ten Shakespearian subjects were shown each year, and the figure rose to twenty in the 1840s and 1850s.
The Pre-Raphaelites, who in so many ways inherited the mantle of the Romantics, played a full part in this process. When the Brotherhood met in 1848 to draw up a list of Immortals, Shakespeare was one of only two who received three stars, the highest number that anyone achieved with the exception of Christ (who was alloted four). Of the group's Shakespearian paintings, the most celebrated is probably Millais' Ophelia (Tate Gallery), shown at the RA in 1852, but hardly less familiar are his Ferdinand lured by Ariel (private collection), which appeared at the RA the same year that Deverell exhibited Twelfth Night, or Holman Hunt's two early masterpieces, Valentine rescuing Silvia from Proteus (1850-51; Birmingham) and Claudio and Isabella (1850-53; Tate Gallery). There are plenty of other examples. Rossetti made notable illustrations to Hamlet, Madox Brown was obsessed with King Lear and devised a passionate Romeo and Juliet, and so on.
It is arguable, however, that no Pre-Raphaelite was more addicted to Shakespearean subject matter than Deverell. Certainly Shakespeare accounts for a very high proportion of the small number of paintings he achieved before his early death. Twelfth Night inspired not only the Forbes painting but an etching which he executed for the last issue of the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ, published in May 1850 (fig. 4). He began at least three subjects from Hamlet, of which two are recorded but lost while the third, the famous ghost scene, is represented by a drawing at Birmingham. There are also two paintings based on As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia in the Forest of Arden (Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead), which was 'nearly finished' in October 1850, and The Marriage of Orlando and Rosalind (Birmingham), which appeared at the RA in 1853.
There was an element of association in the Pre-Raphaelite's response to Shakespeare. They believed they had a mission to revive British art, and with this is in mind they identified with Hogarth, generally perceived as the founder of the British school. They looked back to Shakespeare, the British national poet, for similar reasons. Their attitude was not unlike that of the organisers of the competions held in the 1840s to find artists capable of painting murals in the new Palace of Westminster. Shakespeare's plays were among the subjects deemed suitable for this great national enterprise, together with scenes from British history and illustrations to two other pre-eminent English poets, Spenser and Milton.
Shakespearian subjects also appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites because they helped them to realise their ideal of painting meaningful subjects, themes that treated real emotions or made some profound social comment. So many modern paintings, Hunt was to write later, were 'trite and affected; their most frequent offence in my eyes was the substitution of inane prettiness for beauty ... Pictured waxworks playing the part of human beings provoked me, and hackneyed conventionality often turned me from masters whose powers I valued otherwise'. Among the chief objects of his scorn were 'Books of Beauty' the currently fashionable albums of engravings after paintings of simpering models, often in the guise of historical or literary heroines, and 'Monkeyana ideas', a reference to the monkey subjects popularized by Sir Edwin Landseer and his brother Thomas, whose book Monkeyana, or Men in Miniature had appeared in 1828.
After the Bible, which the Pre-Raphaelites also mined for subjects, Shakespeare was the most obvious source of themes rich in moral significance, with the possible exception of Dante (Rossetti's speciality). (One of Ruskin's complaints about the medievalism that Rossetti and his followers embraced so enthusiastically in the late 1850s was that Sir Thomas Malory, the chief inspiration behind the craze, did not have the gravitas of these other authors). In Hunt's Valentine rescuing Silvia and Claudio and Isabella, the artist deliberately chose incidents involving powerful emotional conflicts, and the same is true of Deverell's Twelfth Night. One of the ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites brought out the moral implications of their subjects was by making lavish use of symbolism, often, as George Landow has shown in the case of Hunt, of a typological nature. Deverell's picture would no doubt respond to analysis of this kind. The most obvious symbols are the honeysuckle which climbs the back of Orsino's throne, and the passion flowers which entwine the carved masonry between him and Viola. Both are time-honoured images of devotion and love.
But reaction to 'hackneyed conventionality' did not end with finding meaningful subjects. It was equally important to shun the tired formal language in which so much contemporary art seemed to be cast. Hence, of course, the name Pre-Raphaelite, implying a return to the freshness of vision that had supposedly prevailed before the time of Raphael, the artist on whom the exhausted academic conventions were ultimately based. Deverell's Twelfth Night embodies this formal revolution. The dim, murky colours and lush impastose paint associated with the grand manner are replaced by clear tones worked thinly, like watercolour, over a white ground. Theatrical charioscuro gives way to bright daylight. There is still something of the stage about the setting, no doubt reflecting the fact that Deverell was a keen amateur actor, but the picture space has a plane system of startling simplicity, while poses and gestures aim at a naturalism diamterically opposed to the old repertoire, based on academic rules for the correct expression of the passions. For good measure, Deverell seems to throw in a touch of wilful eccentricity, particularly in the figures of the dancers in the background and the two pages at lower right. Such passages remind us of Rossetti's comment to Burne-Jones that he deliberately included strange details in his pictures to 'puzzle fools'.
It was an axiom of early Pre-Raphaelite theory that everything had to be painted from nature in order to achieve the necessary degree of freshness and spontaneity. The artists often sat to each other or used their friends and relations as models, partly because this was cheaper but also because professional models themselves were products of the academic system. In Twelfth Night Deverell painted Orsino from himself (the likeness confirms the good looks also evident in Holman Hunt's drawing, fig 1), Feste from Rossetti, and Viola from Elizabeth Siddal.
This was the first time that this famous Pre-Raphaelite beauty had sat to any artist in the circle. Born in July 1829, the daughter of a cutler of Sheffield origin, Lizzie was currently living with her family in a small terrace house off the Old Kent Road. Deverell encountered her towards the end of 1849 when she was working as a milliner's assistant in Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Square, and was bowled over by her beauty. In his reminiscences, Holman Hunt recalled Deverell visiting him and Rossetti as they were working together and enthusing about his discovery. 'You fellows can't tell what a stupendously beautiful creature I have found. By Jove! she's like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling; ... she has grey eyes, and her hair is like dazzling copper ... And now, where do you think I lighted on this paragon of beauty? Why, in a milliner's back workroom when I went out with my mother shopping. Having nothing to amuse me while the woman was tempting my mother with something, I peered over the blind of a glass door at the back of the shop, and there was this unexpected jewel. I got my mother to persuade the miraculous creature to sit for my Viola in Twelfth Night; and today I have been trying to paint her; but I have made a mess of my beginning. Tomorrow she's coming again ...'
According to Hunt, Rossetti went to Deverell's studio next day to see the 'paragon of beauty', and there is evidence to suggest that in December 1849 he was helping Deverell to paint Viola's head, presumably from Lizzie Siddal. Lizzie was soon sitting not only to him but to Hunt and Millais as well, most famously lying in a bath of rapidly cooling water for the latter's Ophelia. By 1853 she was sitting exclusively to Rossetti, appearing time after time in his watercolours and being the subject of numerous drawings of astonishing beauty, one of Rossetti's greatest achievements. She also had ambitions to be an artist herself, producing watercolours and drawings with romantic themes under his Svengalian influence. After a long and traumatic engagement, they eventually married in June 1860, but in February 1862 she died from an overdose of laudanum, probably committing suicide.
Twelfth Night attracted considerable attention when it appeared at the National Institution, although reviews were inevitably mixed. The Illustrated London News was complimentary. 'Among the painters who have sought for subjects in the vast body of English poetry, no one is more succesful than Mr Deverell ... Amidst a certain oddity of treatment and hardness of manner, there is a right interpretation of the poet's meaning , and a minstrel and medieval feeling not commonly seen in the work of English artists'. William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's younger brother and a member of the PRB, contributed an anonymous review to the Critic. In this, a little pompously perhaps, he criticised the figure of Orsino for its lack of 'refinement' and 'noble action', and complained that the head of Viola, though 'beautifully intended', was 'not physically beautiful enough, owing, we fancy, to inadequate execution', a remark clearly based on inside knowledge. Rossetti also wondered whether Viola's 'short dress' was not a little 'immodest'. However, he concluded, 'Mr Deverell has here, for the first time in a form at all conspicuous, entered on an art boldly and with credit to himself; his faults are those of youth, and his beauties will doubtless mature into the resources of a true artist'.
Other critics joined in the current outcry against the Pre-Raphaelites for their apparent contempt for conventional canons of beauty. Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti were also suffereing from this barrage of abuse, and comments on Twelfth Night often took the form of comparison with Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini! in the same exhibition. The Times preferred the Rossetti, which it likened to 'a leaf torn out of a missal'. 'Mr Deverell', the writer continued, 'attempts to turn the flat medieval style to more human account, but his faces are common, and, though he is a careful worker, his mannerism is more conspicuous than his genius. Mr Rossetti's picture, on the other hand, is the work of a poet ...'
By contrast, the Athenaeum was happier with Deverell's picture than with Rossetti's. Having castigated this as 'an example of the perversion of talent which has recently been ... wasting the energies of some of our most promising aspirants', this critic observed of Twelfth Night:
We confess, we view this youthful effort with something more of tolerance than that of his more practised brother in in this affected style. He worships with more unassuming faith his false ideal. His very lack of knowledge befriends him. There are germs of fine perception, both of beauty and of character, scattered about the work. He has not been entirely able to enslave his mind to the task of puerile and affected imitation; but - perhaps it may be his own despite - has painted, here and there, heads and limbs with an appreciation of higher and better examples than those which enthral the minds of his Pre-Raphaelite brothers. We advise him to give way to that more generous emulation; to look at Nature as she is, and as the great masters have taught us to see her - and not through the eyes of those who were themselves in the trammels of ignorance.
Twelfth Night failed to sell at the National Institution. Early in 1853 Rossetti was trying to persuade his patron Francis McCracken , a Belfast shipping agent, to purchase it, but nothing came of this scheme, nor did a buyer materialise when Deverell re-exhibited the picture at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin later that year.
In fact Deverell never had the satisfaction of seeing his picture sold. When Rossetti quitted the Red Lion Square studio in May 1851, Deverell was force to return to the family home in Somerset House,. His mother had died the previous October, and in 1852 rearrangements at Somerset House meant that the Deverells had to leave. They rented an attractive eighteenth-century house, still in existence, near Kew Green, where Deverell found the settings for such later genre scenes as The Grey Parrot (Melbourne) and The Pet (Tate Gallery). But by this time both he and his father were ill, his own incipient Bright's Disease being excacerbated by his daily journey between Kew and Somerset House, where he was still teaching. In June 1853 Mr Deverell died, and Walter and his siblings moved to a smaller house in Chelsea where he himself died on 2 February 1854. He was still only twenty six. His remaining pictures, including Twelfth Night, which he had retouched in the last months of his life, following its exhibition in Dublin, were taken care of by Richard Burchett, a former colleague at Somerset House, and they remained with him until 1866, when Rossetti gave them shelter at his house in Cheyne Walk. Twelfth Night later belonged to Rossetti's neighbour in Chelsea, and fellow artist, William Bell Scott, a man well qualified, if his own work is anything to go by, to appreciate its eccentricities.