As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen;
One praised her ankles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien.
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been.
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
‘This beggar maid shall be my queen!’
Alfred Tennyson, The Beggar Maid
‘The king with courteous comly talke
This beggar doth imbrace:
The beggar blusheth scarlet red,
And straight again as pale as leade,
But not a word at all she said,
She was in such amaze.’
Thomas Percy in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry
The tale of King Cophetua and the beggar maid Penelephon, has origins in an Elizabethan ballad retold by Thomas Percy in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. However, it is best-known from Tennyson’s poem The Beggar Maid written in 1833 and first published in 1842. The story tells of an African king who rejected the affections of all women until he saw a beautiful young beggar from the window of his palace and fell deeply in love for the first time. He vowed to win the affections of the girl, or kill himself if she rejects him. Rushing into the street, he threw golden coins before him so that the beggars gathered around and when Penelophon stepped forward, he pledged his love for her and asked her to marry him and become his queen. Cophetua and Penelephon were wed and lived a long and happy life adored by their people, eventually being laid to rest in each other’s arms in their shared tomb. The story has become symbolic of the triumph of love and also a beacon of hope for those lacking love or wealth.
Leighton depicted the moment that King Cophetua pledged his love for the beggar maid, who he has placed on the dais of his golden throne. He kneels before her in supplication to her beauty, offering his bejewelled crown to her and gazes expectantly into her eyes. She steadies herself against the throne and modestly holds her cloak across her breast as she listens to his words of betrothal. The picture depicts the moment famously painted by Edward Burne-Jones in several versions of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid from the 1880s (Tate, Birmingham City Art Gallery, private collections and elsewhere). That Leighton knew Burne-Jones’ picture is made clear by the similarity of his king with the model depicted by Burne-Jones. Although Leighton was clearly influenced by Burne-Jones’ late Pre-Raphaelitism, his painting has a more decadent and cinematic effect.
The interior of the royal palace is of opulent Byzantine style, with ornate Romanesque arches and capitals carved with vine-leaves, a Persian carpet and leopard-skins and golden lanterns and baldachin over the throne which is Byzantine or Russian in style. Mosaics of winged angels in the niches symbolise Penelephon’s purity whilst the two carved doves in the design of the marble balcony relate to the king and beggar’s union. Leighton was an avid collector of objects that he used for his romantic and historic reconstructions, as his daughter noted; ‘It was really rather like a museum… The studio was entered from the oak-panelled hallway which had carved oak cupboards where steel helmets and other small pieces of armour were displayed. These had been collected for use in paintings of historical subjects.’ (Sophie Leighton Harding, Sophie – An Edwardian Childhood, 2012, p.16) The floor of Leighton’s studio in Bedford Park was covered with valuable Persian carpets but for A King and a Beggar Maid Leighton borrowed one of the Samarkand carpets belonging to his friend Frank Dicksee who painted it in the same year in his picture An Offering (private collection). Dicksee himself had posed for Leighton’s painting How Lisa Loved the King in 1890 and it is likely that it is his handsome profile that also appears in A King and a Beggar Maid. If this is the case it is possible that the model for Penelephone was Dicksee’s favourite model at that time, the red-haired Rachel Lee. Leighton was careful with the costumes he painted in his pictures as his daughter related; ‘Because Papa painted pictures set in earlier historical periods, he collected genuine costumes whenever possible and if none could be found accurate replicas would be made. For this a dressmaker would regularly come in daily for about two weeks at a time. A room on the top floor was taken over where she and my mother would make costumes based on fashion prints of the period or authentic contemporary drawings. They were undefeated and not only made beautiful dresses, carefully measured and fitted for the female models, but also entire male outfits. Some of the fabrics had elaborate patterns which my mother painted on with loving care.’ (ibid Harding, pp.20-21)
Leighton painted a world of medieval romance that was to be a potent influence on early film-makers, as significant perhaps to the conception of the medieval world at the cinema as Lawrence Alma-Tadema was to that of the classical world. Leighton's paintings met the need of those who wanted to immerse themselves in romance for a moment, as Yockney explained, 'We live in an age of unnatural haste and of wonderful scientific progress. The main roads and rivers bear witness to the changes which are taking place, while by-paths and back-waters and the very air we breathe are penetrated by the vibrating inventions of mankind. There seems to be little repose and no room for sentiment. Yet in the midst of this material world there is everyday evidence that the chief animating principles of life are lacking in force unless associated with affection. The audience of one remains the most potent inspiration, knight-errant survives, prisoners of love sue for deliverance, and journeys still end in lovers' meetings.' (Alfred Yockney, 'The Art of Edmund Blair Leighton', special Christmas edition of Art Annual, 1913, p.14) The same is still relevant and Leighton's work retains the power to charm with the yearning romance of its beauty.
Edmund Blair Leighton was born in London on 21 September 1852, the only son of Charles Blair Leighton and Catherine Boosey and no relation to Frederick Leighton, the painter. Charles Blair Leighton was an artist destined for greatness as a portrait painter, tutored by the famous Benjamin Haydon, along with Landseer and Eastlake. At the time of Edmund's birth, the Leightons lived at Red Lion Square, the former residence of Rossetti and Deverell, and four years later William Morris moved into the square. Edmund was born into a cultured environment surrounded by artists and men of position and undoubtedly would have trained in his own father's studio. Unfortunately, the early death of his father, aged thirty-two, prevented this. Edmund was placed in a private boarding school in St. John's Wood and later went to the University College School. He was encouraged to put all hope of becoming an artist firmly behind him and look towards a mercantile career. Although he worked during the day in the City, in the evenings he attended classes at the South Kensington School of Art and at Heatherley's School of Painting where many artists founded their reputations. At the age of twenty-one Edmund Blair Leighton left his office job and launched himself into the art world with great resolve and self-belief and in 1874 he was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools where he excelled. His first exhibits at the Royal Academy were Witness my Act and Seal (private collection) and A Flaw in the Title of 1878 (Royal Holloway College) and he continued to exhibit paintings with literary titles, usually with a highly romantic charge. His work can be divided into two types, those pictures depicting Eighteenth Century trysts and those with a more dramatic subject of medieval heroines and heroes, from tales by Tennyson and Shakespeare. Most memorable among the medieval subjects are The Accolade, Vox Populi, Stitching the Standard, Elaine, Lady Godiva, God Speed, Dedication and Tristram and Isolde. The two qualities which can always be found in his work are beautifully meticulous studied detail and a sensitive capturing of humanity. As Yockney wrote in 1913, 'Romance, poetry, and the drama of humanity appealed to him strongly from the beginning. He saw a world composed of vital situations awaiting interpretation, and it became his desire to give expression to those emotions which are among the privileges of life at its ripest moments.' (ibid Yockney, p. 13)
We are grateful to Kara Lysandra Ross for her assistance with the cataloguing of this picture which will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonnee.
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