Although Arthur Hughes was not officially elected to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), he is closely associated with the group and is constantly referred to as a Pre-Raphaelite. He met most of the artists while still a student at the Royal Academy, and quickly aligned himself with their philosophies and style. The PRB artists were obsessed with the medieval world and sought to change what they saw as the conservative direction of British art. In Fair Rosamund, 1854, one of Hughes’s earliest and finest works, the dry and scumbled technique combined with dazzlingly luminous colour is reminiscent of the gouache and watercolours of fellow artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The tragic tale of Rosamund de Clifford was a particular favourite for artists and poets in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and, much later, Evelyn de Morgan are among those who turned to this story. Rosamund, whose Latinised version of her name (rosa mundi) means ‘rose of the world’, was reputed to be one of the most beautiful women in England and the mistress of King Henry II. Legend has it that in 1176, Rosamund was poisoned by the King’s jealous wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry is said to have created a secret garden for Rosamund, accessible only via a maze. In this work, Hughes painted the moment Eleanor, seen lurking in the background, discovers the entrance to the garden, providing her with the opportunity to commit murder. The tall blue delphiniums close to Eleanor produce a strong poison, indicating her means to kill her rival.
The irises in front of Rosamund are also portentous: the Greek Goddess Iris chaperoned the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields, and purple irises were often planted on the graves of women. Irises are also related to the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the French Crown; prior to marrying Henry, Eleanor had been Queen of France.
Critics received Fair Rosamund well when it appeared in an exhibition at the French Gallery in London during the winter show of 1854, and again in London at the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition in 1857. It was also among a group of PRB works shown that year in the American Exhibition of English Art at the National Academy of Design, New York. Much later, in 1916, art crtic Robert Ross referred to the painting as being among the ‘brilliant’ works Hughes created during the 1850s in his Burlington Magazine obituary for Hughes.1Robert Ross ‘A monthly chronicle’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 28, no. 155, February 1916, p. 204. The painting was lent to the Tate, London, from 1920 until 1956 when it was given to the NGV by Eva K. Gilchrist in memory of her Uncle Peter Augustine Daniel, who probably acquired it directly from Hughes.
Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Text adapted from Medieval Moderns: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2015
Robert Ross ‘A monthly chronicle’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 28, no 155, Feb.1916, p. 204.