Thomas Seddon, 1821-1856: ‘Penelope’Posted: December 18, 2014
oil on canvas
91.5 by 71cm., 36 by 28in.
George Wilson of Redgrave Hall, Suffolk and thence by descent to Mr P.J. Holt Wilson, by whom sold Sotheby’s, 28 November 1972, lot 49
John P. Seddon, Memoir and Letters of the late Thomas Seddon, artist, By his Brother, 1859, pp. 16-17;
The Journal of the Society of Arts, May 1857, pp.360-362;
The Art Journal, 1857, p.198
This is the first recorded work from the hand of the short-lived and very remarkable Pre-Raphaelite artist Thomas Seddon. Thought of principally as a painter of eastern landscape subjects, the present beautiful and important work provides a fascinating clue to his artistic training and formative years. Although quite unlike the type of work for which he did become known, it reveals the instinctive creative talent and natural skill that he possessed. An unusual subject for an English painter to take in the 1850s, and therefore possibly reflecting his knowledge of contemporary French art, it shows Penelope looking out as the dawn breaks – her companions still sleeping – after a night spent undoing the previous day’s work on a woven shroud. Her reason for doing this was because – according to the story told in Homer’s Odyssey – during the long period during which her husband Odysseus was away, assumed by most to be dead, she remained faithful to him and, when pressed to give herself in marriage to another, always said she could not until the shroud was finished, a subterfuge which she maintained for ten years until a maid servant revealed how it was that the garment was never completed.
Seddon’s family were cabinet-makers based in London’s Gray’s Inn Road, and as a young man Thomas Seddon was trained to design and make furniture. He seems to have decided to take a career as an artist in the late 1840s, receiving drawing lessons from Charles Lucy, and – in 1850 – working in Ford Madox Brown‘s studio, making copies of Brown’s works including Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. Also in 1850, Seddon spent a summer season painting at Barbizon, making contact with French and British landscape painters.
The care with which Seddon prepared the mythological subject Penelope is emphasised by J.P. Seddon in his account of his brother’s early career: ‘He constructed a model of the apartment in which the heroine is represented, with an opening for the window, with the curtain partition, and with the loom itself; and he hung up a taper in order to study the effect of the double light; and at the British Museum and elsewhere he studied most carefully the costumes and manners of the Greeks’. John Seddon‘s verdict on the painting, which he makes clear had occupied his brother for an extended period, was that ‘there is considerable simplicity in the composition but it has a fine breadth and harmony of rich colouring; and many of the accessories, such as the leopard’s skin, are painted elaborately and powerfully’. The painting was in fact only completed once he had taken up his career as a painter in 1851, and as his first Academy exhibit in 1852 was clearly regarded as an opportunity to establish himself professionally. In the event it was little noticed, on account of its having been ‘hung in the very top row, where it could only be seen with an opera-glass, and attracted no attention’, as the artist’s brother reported. ‘However’, he went on, ‘it was some comfort to his friends to hear the strong terms of commendation in which it was noticed by connoisseurs sufficiently enterprising to search for it in its exalted position’….(read more)