In the second half of the nineteenth century a Gothic revival in arts and architecture swept through Europe and brought a new interest in the age of chivalry. Poets and painters alike found inspiration in the legends of King Arthur. In England the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led the way to the more relaxed pseudo-medievalism of the Aesthetic Movement and artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Frank Dicksee, D.G. Rossetti and J.W. Waterhouse all produced important works influenced by this contemporary cult. There was also a renewed interest in early literary sources such as Thomas Malory's La Morte d'Arthur and Edward Spencer's Faerie Queen, which was reflected in the works of the poets, such as Matthew Arnold (Tristam and Iseult, 1852), Tennyson (Idylls of the King 1859) and Swinburne (Poems and Ballads 1866). In addition, the music of Richard Wagner had a significant impact on the artists of the Aesthetic Movement and his operas Tristan and Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882) fuelled the prevailing appetite for Arthurian legend and romance.
This painting shows an episode in the story of Tristran (or Tristram) and Iseult (or Isolde). Tristran is sent to Ireland by his uncle Mark, the King of Cornwall, to escort Iseult, the daughter of the King of Ireland, to whom Mark is betrothed, back to England. During the voyage they unwittingly partake of a magic love potion and become irretrievably enamoured of each other. Iseult marries the King, who later discovers their relationship and Tristran has to flee to Brittany.
Numerous artists from Waterhouse and Rossetti to Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham have depicted the moment when Tristran and Iseult share the love potion. William Stott, less conventionally, shows Iseult without Tristran, in a trance-like state, her right hand symbolically crossing the heart, having taken the fateful philtre from the phial which lies on the deck at her feet. Tristran is represented by his faithful hound Hodain which, according to a Middle English version of the story, Sir Tristrem, licks the discarded phial and becomes equally devoted to each of the two lovers. Sitting close by looking mortified is Iseult's maid Brengwain whose simple mistake in fetching the drink led to Iseult innocently sharing the love potion with Tristram.
When the picture was first exhibited, attached to the frame was the following inscription:
'Iseult, who is being conveyed to Tristram to Cornwall for her marriage to King Mark, drinks by mistake of a philtre which she has also proffered to Tristram believing it to be wine, "But by that their drink was in their bodies, they loved either other so well that never their love departed for weal neither for woe." - Morte d'Arthur.'
Iseult was completed in 1891, the year of Stott's success in Munich, when The Bathing Place was medalled and bought by the Bavarian Government. It is possible that at that time he may well have visited Bayruth and paid homage to the spirit of Wagner. Certainly in the 1890s London was in the midst of a Wagner revival with his operas being performed regularly. However it was another seven years before Stott returned again to this subject with a large pastel drawing of Tristram's Farewell (Private Collection).
William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900) trained in Paris with Gérôme. After early success in the Salon of 1882 with The Ferry (Private Collection) and The Bathing Place (Neue Pinokothek, Munich) he became a leading figure in the Anglo-American artists' community in Paris and at the Grez sur Loing. For a while he was seen as one of the most progressive of English artists and became part of the European avant-garde. Initially his work was in the realist mode of Jules Bastien Lepage, but in Paris, where he maintained an apartment throughout the 1880s, he was exposed to the radical cross-currents of the Impressionists and the Symbolists making many influential friends in the artistic community, including Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, who was to have a profound impact on his artistic development. In the 1890s he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, mainly highly decorative allegorical works and subjects derived from classical mythology.
We are grateful to Roger Brown for his help in preparing this catalogue entry. Mr Brown is the author of the catalogue to the recent exhibition William Stott of Oldham: A Comet rushing to the Sun, Oldham, Oldham Art Gallery, December 2003 - April 2004.