This is the prime version of a smaller picture that was presented to the Tate in 1891 by Alice Boyd, Scott's intimate friend and patron. It depicts Noah, accompanied by his wife and sons, about to board the Ark with the animals they had gathered. Their compatriots meanwhile continue in their licentiousness, drinking and fornicating, oblivious to the storm cloud that will deliver their fate gathering on the horizon. Interestingly, for he was not a religious man, Bell Scott took his text not from the Old Testament book of Genesis, which recounts the story of Noah, but from St Matthew's Gospel, in which the evangelist likens the flood to the coming of Christ, irrevocably changing all that had gone before.
Bell Scott clearly relished the pictorial opportunities that the subject offered. In contrast to how John Martin might have treated the theme, dwarfing the human element in the face of terrifying meteorology, Bell Scott concentrates on the debauchery that precipated the debacle. His imagination has been fired by the costume and architecture of the ancient civilization, and by a sense of heat, langour and luxe. Its sensuality echoes that of Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, executed in 1828 and subsequently seen by English visitors to the Louvre.
The influences on Bell Scott's art were complex, but he would undoubtedly have been familiar with Delacroix's work as he amassed a vast collection of prints, which took five days to disperse at auction in 1885. Bell Scott studied at the Trustee's Academy in Edinburgh, and was trained by his father, Robert Scott, who instilled in him a lifelong admiration for William Blake. In London in the 1830s he mixed with Richard Dadd, William Powell Frith and other members of 'The Clique', while a meeting with Rossetti later brought him in to the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Visits to Italy in 1862 and 1873 found him copying Italian Old Masters, but his most consistent influence was German art: the early masters of German print-making and the later painters of the German romantic revival. He was the author of three works on German art: a life of Dürer (1869), a monograph on contemporary German painting (1873) and an introduction to the so-called Little Masters (1879).
Bell Scott's life became inextricably bound with that of Alice Boyd, whom he met in 1859 while he was master of the Government School of Design in Newcastle. Boyd was châtelaine of Penkill, a romantic turreted castle in Scotland, where Bell Scott was to spend each subsequent summer. Despite the presence of Mrs Bell Scott in the ménage à trois, Bell Scott and Boyd were to remain devoted till their deaths and Penkill became, like Kelmscott in Oxfordshire, a house frequently visited by Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Its 'relaxed atmosphere of art and animals, whisky, friends and endless talk' led to the house's inclusion in many memoirs of the period.