Breakspeare has placed his bearded philosopher/priest alchemist in a position of mediation, within a cavernous interior. He is surrounded by phials, alembic, hourglasses and other equipment necessary to create the 'philosopher's stone'. This had the fabled property of transmuting base metal into silver and gold.
Prayer for the purification of both the alchemist and his equipment was an important part of the experiment, as it was thought that the secrets of the craft were handed down by God. Breakspeare suggests this by the brilliant shaft of light which beams down on the alchemist from above.
It was also believed that the 'philosopher's stone' had the power to prolong a man's life indefinitely. This delusion is signified by the presence of the black rats infesting the cavern. They are a symbol of decay, and hence the passing of time, and human mortality.
Breakspeare has identified this oil study as a 'Langham sketch'. In addition to being a founder member of the Birmingham Art Circle and a member of the Newlyn School in Cornwall, he was designated 'Keeper of the Wardrobe' to the 'Artists's society for the study of historical, poetical and rustic figures', founded in 1830. Other famous members included Sir Edward Poynter, Frank Dicksee, Vicat Cole, Benjamin Williams Leader and Stacey Marks, to name but a few. The Society's 'Sketching Club', known as 'The Langham', was founded in 1838.
Considered to be one of the oldest sketching clubs in existence, it operates today as 'The Artist's Society and the Langham Sketching Club'. In 1946 its rooms in Langham Place were bombed, and it has since shared the Chelsea premises of the 'London Sketch Club'.
This very fine Langham 'memory' sketch would have been executed within the allocated time of two hours, which was rigorously enforced, probably at one of the club's Friday evening meetings, preceded by the customary conversazioni. Many Royal Academy exhibits evolved from Langham sketches, but Breakspeare never developed The Alchemist.
The reverse of the sketch is annotated with the artist's initial conception of the subject, laid out in terms of colour arrangement.
We are grateful to Ruth Wood for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.