The fable of Chanticleer and the fox features in ‘The tale of the Nun’s Priest’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It tells of an elderly widow and her two daughters who live a simple life in a cottage with a few possessions including three sows, three cows, a sheep and some chickens. Amongst these chickens is the handsome cockerel named Chanticleer (meaning ‘to sing clearly’ in French), whose beautiful singing voice and fine plumage ensures that he soon has his pick of all the hens in the farmyard. One fine morning Chanticleer spots a large fox hiding in the cabbage patch. The cunning creature compliments the cockerel on his fine singing voice, earning the bird’s trust through flattery. Chanticleer responds immediately: he beats his wings with pride, stands on his toes, stretches his neck, closes his eyes, and crows loudly. The fox reaches out and grabs Chanticleer by the throat, and then slinks away with him back toward the woods. Luckily for the cockerel his hens raise the alarm and the fox is soon pursued by the widow and her dogs. Chanticleer cleverly suggests that the fox turn and boast of his success to his pursuers, and as soon as he opens his mouth the chicken takes flight into the trees. The moral of the story: never trust a flatterer.
Webbe’s meticulously detailed rendition of the tale depicts the moment before the fox strikes, as the handsome Chanticleer stretches out his neck and begins to sing. His adversary is hidden amongst vibrant cabbages, lettuces, dandelions and other foliage outlined in shades of verdant green, each leaf and stem exquisitely rendered in true Pre-Raphaelite detail. Further colour is injected by the pink foxgloves on the right, the orange fur of the fox and the cockerel’s scarlet beak. In 1857 when the picture was painted Webbe was living at Niton on the Isle of Wight, and the accuracy with which he has shown the cottage garden with its vegetable patch, beehives and wattled fence and the rolling hills beyond implies that the tableau was inspired by the countryside and villages around Niton. The painting was submitted to the Royal Manchester Institution in 1858, the year after the famous Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition, and was priced at £40.
Although Webbe is included in Percy Bate's early study of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters (four editions 1899-1910), he remains a shadowy figure. Even the spelling of his name is equivocal, 'Webb' and 'Webbe' both appearing in lifetime exhibition catalogues. He is said to have received his artistic training in Düsseldorf, an experience which must have laid him open to the influence of the Nazarenes. Not surprisingly for an artist trained in the Nazarene tradition, Webbe was an early convert to Pre-Raphaelitism. The ideas of the Brotherhood, which was launched in 1848, gained ground rapidly in the 1850s; and judging by the present painting and his other known works from this era Webbe had absorbed many of their philosophies. The Pre-Raphaelite painter to whom Webbe was perhaps most indebted was William Holman Hunt. Webbe's studies of sheep suggest that he was deeply impressed by Hunt's moralising paintings on this theme. In 1862 Webbe paid a visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, presumably inspired by the one that Hunt made in 1854-1856 and the works which had resulted from it, such as The Scapegoat (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856. Webbe himself exhibited at the R.A. from 1853, and his earliest pictures are painstaking studies of animals, birds and flowers, often with a touch of humour, such as The White Owl, 1856 (sold in these Rooms, 13 December 2012, lot 9, £589,250). Works by Webbe only rarely come to light and this recent rediscovery adds another exceptional work to the artist's canon.