Cyril Flower, 1st Lord Battersea, by 1896 but probably directly from the artist;
Lady Battersea, until her death in 1931;
Sale of the contents of The Pleasaunce, Overstrand, 4 February 1935, lot 1627;
Fine Art Society, London, October 1975;
Private Collection, USA
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1905 (289) (lent by Lord Battersea)
Esther Wood, A Consideration of the Art of Frederick Sandys, Special Winter issue of The Artist, London, 1896, pp. 39, 45;
Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), exhibition catalogue, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, 1974, p. 38 (in the list of untraced subject drawings);
Betty Elzea, Frederick Sandys, A Catalogue_Raisonné, 2001, p. 258 (catalogue no. 3.79), plate 52
This large and elaborate drawing may be regarded as one of the masterpieces of Frederick Sandys’ later career and the period when he evolved a unique and highly characteristic working method in chalk. Dated by Esther Wood to 1878, Betty Elzea (compiler of the Sandys catalogue raisonné) has suggested that it might have been made early in the 1870s. The subject is taken from Greek mythology. Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter and who, according to legend, was abducted by Hades – god of the kingdom of the dead and the brother of Zeus – while she was picking flowers in a meadow in her home country of Sicily. Hades transported her to the underworld where she became queen. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, who was the goddess of the harvest and of corn, was devastated at the loss of her young and beautiful daughter, and searched for her by day and night (lighting her torches from the flames of Etna) and throughout the world, causing the earth to become barren by her neglect. She pleaded to Zeus to intervene and to allow Persephone to return to the land of the living, and – with the imminent threat of the destruction of mankind through famine weighing upon him – he determined that she should be released. Hermes was sent to negotiate for her freedom, but Hades tricked Persephone by persuading her to eat the seeds of a pomegranate – which was food of the dead – and for this reason she could not leave Hades for ever. From that time forward she was compelled to divide herself between the two spheres, passing half the year in the underworld and the other half on earth. The mythical return of Persephone to her mother each year was seen as a symbol of the return of spring. The legend of Persephone derives from a number of ancient sources. It occurs in the Homeric ‘Hymn to Demeter’, and was later treated by the Latin poets Ovid, both in the Metamorphoses (chapter v) and in his Faesti, and Claudian, in De Raptu Proserpinae. Any of these texts may have been familiar to Sandys, and in addition he is certain to have known Tennyson’s ‘Demeter and Persephone’.
In his treatment of the legend of Persephone, Sandys makes various references to the events of her abduction and partial release. The classically draped figure holds in her right hand a pottery vase which contains pomegranates – the consumption of which meant that Persephone could never be released entirely from her role as queen of the underworld – while in her right hand she holds ears of wheat, as symbol of the bounty of nature and in reference to her mother Demeter, the goddess of corn and the bringer of successful harvests. The immediate background before which Persephone stands consists of a dense hedge of oleander, which plant may be regarded as locating the scene in the Mediterranean south but which is also notorious for the poisonous nature of its leaves, and which is therefore to be regarded as a symbol of death. Growing beneath the oleander are poppies, the familiar emblem of drugged sleep or death by misadventure. The wider setting before which the figure stands seems likely to be intended as representing the mountainous interior of Sicily and, specifically, the Lake Pergusa, where in the surrounding meadows it was believed Persephone was first captured by Hades, and through the waters of which she later made her biannual transit between the underworld and the land of the living.
From about 1869 Sandys almost entirely abandoned the medium of oil but instead devoted himself to figurative subjects and portraits drawn in chalk. Why he should have made this switch is not entirely clear, but the late 1860s seem to have been a period of crisis for the artist, causing him perhaps to seek to rediscover himself through the adoption of a new specialisation. In 1869 the close friendship that had existed between Sandys and Dante Gabriel Rossetti for more than a decade broke down – with Sandys accused by Rossetti of having plagiarised his subjects and style of work. Sandys’ painting Medea (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), begun before the falling-out with Rossetti, but finished later, was also a matter of distress to him – as it was submitted to the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1868, but rejected at the last moment before hanging on unspecified grounds but likely to do with what was regarded as its moral unsuitability. Although Sandys continued to take subjects inspired by ancient literature (as for example on the occasion of the present work), he may have come to the conclusion that these were better treated in the more private medium of chalk drawing rather than in oil.
Furthermore, Sandys had long been recognised for his extraordinary and unrivalled skill as a draughtsman. As a young man he had studied the engravings of Durer, so as to understand how to construct pictorial form on the basis of close hatching of line. The pen and ink drawings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones of the late 1850s and early 60s must have made a huge impression upon him, validating as they did the principle that such elaborate drawings were to be regarded as complete works of art in their own right and that the medium of drawing was not something to be seen as something appropriate only to preparatory sketches or personal experiments. Sandys was also aware of, and tapped into, the longstanding tradition of portraiture in drawings, of which George Richmond was a living exponent, and believed that in particular circumstances a drawing might convey a greater sense of the individual represented than a painting in oil. Thus, by making the medium of drawing one for which he was especially renowned, and by creating drawings which would be placed beside oil paintings and which would be regarded as complete works of art, and which would in turn grace the foremost collections of the day, Sandys intended to be seen as an artist of complete originality and individuality.
Sandys’s drawing Persephone belonged to one of the most distinguished and discriminating collectors of the late Victorian age, Cyril Flower (1843-1907). Flower had served as a Junior Lord of the Treasury under Gladstone, for which service in 1892 he was raised to the peerage as the Baron Battersea. He was a familiar figure in literary and artistic circles, and was a close friend of Henry James and Edward Burne-Jones. He was also a patron of James Whistler. Flower made frequent purchases of drawings from Sandys in the 1860s and 70s, including a version of ‘Proud Maisie’, of c. 1867 (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), and Waters of Lethe, of c. 1874 (William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow). In 1872 Sandys made a fine portrait drawing of Flower, and another of his sister Clara Flower (both private collections). Cyril Flower was furthermore a generous benefactor to Sandys, for example providing him in the 1880s with a house and studio in Wales where he might work without disturbance. The present drawing remained at The Pleasaunce at Overstrand on the north Norfolk coast that Flower had commissioned from Edwin Lutyens in 1888, until the sale which followed Constance Flower’s death in 1931.
Christopher Newall, January 2018