Lot 8
  • 8

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
645,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
  • Penelope
  • oil on canvas


Mrs A.M. Stirling, the artist's sister;
The de Morgan Foundation, London, by whom sold Christie's London, 28 November 2001, lot 3, where purchased by the present owner


London, Royal Academy, 1864, no.476;
Tokyo, Burne-Jones and his Followers, 1987, no.31;
London, Barbican Art Gallery, The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art, Burne-Jones to Stanley Spencer, 1989, no.1


Athenaeum, no.1905, 30 April 1864, p.616;
Athenaeum, no.1907, 14 May 1864, p.682

Catalogue Note

'Then day by day she would weave at the great web, but by night would unravel it, when she had let place torches by her. So for three years she was secret in her design… "Young men, my wooers, since goodly Odysseus is dead, be patient, though eager for my marriage, until I finish this robe—I would not that my spinning should come to naught—a shroud for the lord Laertes, against the time when the fell fate of grievous death shall strike him down; lest any of the Achaean women in the land should be wroth with me, if he, who had won great possessions, were to lie without a shroud."'
Homer, Odyssey

Penelope depicts the Queen of Ithaca and faithful wife of King Odysseus (Ulysses) from Homer’s The Odyssey seated in an apple-orchard weaving at her loom. During her husband’s ten year absence fighting in the Trojan wars, Penelope was beset by suitors vying for her affection and insisting that Odysseus must be dead. Refusing to believe that she was widowed or abandoned, Penelope rebuffed their advances and kept them at bay with various ruses, one of which was to say that she would marry one of the men after completing a woven funeral pall she was making for her father-in-law. Everyday she would work industriously at the tapestry as the impatient suitors watched her progress but at night she would secretly unpick the day’s work. In Stanhope’s painting she rests her head wearily on her hand and dreams of her beloved husband, exhausted by her nocturnal work. She is sheltered from the Mediterranean sun and the lustful eyes of her suitors by a red canopy and black screen hanging from the boughs of the trees.  In her left hand is the thread that leads to the word Ulysses that she is weaving. The inscription on the tapestry is a quotation from Homer’s Iliad describing the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, which includes one of the few mentions of Ulysses whose story would dominate the sequel. Behind her is one of her hand-maidens picking apples from a tree laden with fruit.

The golden-haired girl is probably intended to be Melantho, the closest of Penelope’s twelve servants, who consorted with the suitors and eventually revealed her mistress’ treachery to them. The half-eaten apples in the foreground probably symbolise her wantonness, cast aside as she reaches up to pluck more fruit while Penelope abstains. The symbol of the apple also relates to the Golden Apple of Discord awarded as the prize in the Judgement of Paris which was the catalyst for the Trojan War. The Pre-Raphaelites often used the apple as an emblem of sexual appetite, such as in Rossetti's seminal Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Venus Verticordia of 1864 (a version sold in these rooms, 10 December 2014, lot 8).

Stanhope’s Penelope was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864, the same year as Rispah, Daughter of Aiah (sold in these rooms, 15 November 2011, lot 68) which depicts the loyalty of the Persian concubine of Saul towards her murdered sons. This interest in female virtue and particularly bridal fidelity may have been partly due to Stanhope marrying only four years before Penelope was painted. It is in contrast to the moralising narrative of Thoughts of the Past (Tate) painted in 1859 which depicts the regrets of a ‘fallen woman’. The original model for Thoughts of the Past was Fanny Cornforth (later repainted with another model’s head), a beautiful golden-haired girl whose sexual morals were the subject of much speculation at this time. She was probably already the mistress of both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and of his friend George Price Boyce and was a model associated with depictions of sensuality by the Pre-Raphaelite circle that also included Edward Burne-Jones. In the 1860s it was Fanny’s face that dominated the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, from Burne-Jones' Merlin and Nimue (Victoria & Albert Museum, London) to Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (a version sold in these rooms 13 July 2017, lot 7). It is likely that Fanny was the model for the immodest servant-girl in the present work, plucking an apple which recalls her role in Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata. For several artists in the circle, Fanny's beauty was seen as appropriate for depictions of buxom, unreserved sexuality.

The legends of the Trojan war were the subjects of many pictures by the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1860s, particularly associated with Rossetti, Sandys and Burne-Jones. However, these artists tended to concentrate upon the infidelity of Helen and the madness of Cassandra. Rossetti’s Helen of Troy (Hamburger Kunsthalle) was painted a year before Stanhope’s Penelope but only bears a superficial resemblance to Stanhope’s work. Rossetti made a chalk drawing of Penelope (collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber) which is much closer to Stanhope’s work but was made five years later. Stanhope was more influenced by the work of Burne-Jones and the pose of both figures in Penelope may have been suggested by two watercolours Burne-Jones exhibited at the Old Watercolour society in 1864, Cinderella (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Green Summer (private collection). Burne-Jones was a close friend of Stanhope and it is very likely that they would have seen each other’s work in their respective studios.

When Penelope was exhibited at The Royal Academy with Rispah they were both praised by F.G. Stephens in the Athenaeum, with Penelope said to; ‘… have much excellent colour in its flesh; the treatment of the draperies, although rather thin, is original and careful. The face of the woman in blue does Mr Stanhope great credit both in painting and conception… the artist has been eminently successful with the backgrounds, not only the vigorous colour they exhibit but in the pathetic and apt expressiveness which fits them to the subjects.’