Although Dayes began his career as a landscape painter, he was determined to be recognised as a ‘history painter.’ From 1798, until his death in 1804, eleven out of the twenty-two works he submitted to the academy depicted historical, religious or mythological subjects. In the present two works, Dayes portrays scenes from John Dryden’s Fables Ancient and Modern: Palamon and Arcite: or the Knight’s Tale, which itself was translated from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In Lycurgus Entering Athens, he shows the ‘King of Thrace,’ as Dryden describes him: ‘Big-bon’d, and large of limbs, with sinews strong, Broad shoulder’d, and his arms were round and long / Four milk-white bulls (the Thracian use of old) / Were yok’d to draw his car burnish’d gold. / Upright he stood, and bore aloft his shield.’ The King’s impressive cavalcade includes five of the one hundred heavily armed knights that Dryden mentions and a pair of elegant ‘snowy fair’ greyhounds.
For his Theseus’s Approach to Athens, Dayes again looks to Dryden. Theseus, Duke of Athens and a ‘valiant Prince’, is seen full of ‘pomp and… pride’, triumphantly returning to the city after battle. He is surrounded by his army of soldiers, who celebrate victory by singing and hoisting their armour aloft in the air. Meanwhile, Theseus’s path has been blocked by ‘a quire of mourning dames,’ who plead for his help, their husbands having been killed by Creon, King of Thebes. Theseus is moved and agrees not to rest until Creon has fallen.
Two preparatory drawings of both compositions survive in Dayes’s sketchbook, which is preserved in the British Museum.
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