The archaic text and its later re-interpretations initially provided inspiration for Dicksee’s The Passing of Arthur (1889, Private Collection), but it was over a decade before he painted another picture inspired by an episode from the epic tale Yseult. The present lot depicts the daughter of King Hoel of Brittany, Princess Yseult of the White Hands, the wife of Sir Tristram. She is not to be confused with her love-rival also named Yseult, wife of King Mark of Cornwall— who was the subject of pictures by Dicksee’s contemporaries John William Waterhouse, Herbert Draper and Edward Burne-Jones. Given the psychological complexity of her narrative, Princess Yseult was a more unusual subject to choose, and Dicksee devised a simple but dramatic composition. Sitting high in an opulent golden chair at her tapestry-loom, the princess gazes across the ocean where the dawning light breaks the gloom of a long, cold night. She has been waiting for the arrival of Queen Yseult, King Mark’s wife, whose ship may appear on the horizon. The Queen has been summoned to the deathbed of Sir Tristram, to whom she was bound by a powerful love potion since before she was married to King Mark. Sir Tristram has been told that if Queen Yseult is safely aboard a ship bearing white sails, she will be blissfully reunited with him in his last hours. Seeing white sails on the horizon and consumed by jealousy, Princess Yseult tells her husband that a vessel has been spotted with black sails. His life ebbs away in grief as the ship lands on the shores of his kingdom.
Perhaps understandably, there was confusion when Yseult was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901. The critic for The Art Journal felt that the picture depicted an earlier event from a variant of the tale, writing, “With clasped hands on the wide balustrade in front of her, she gazes across the waste of waters towards the setting sun, dreaming of that day when she and Tristram were spiritually wed, of her lover, now wandering over Spain, whose grave in Brittany, set with rose and vine bush intertwined, she later shared” (The Magazine of Art, 1901, p. 439, also see The Art Journal, 1901, p. 165). At that exhibition Dicksee’s painting was overshadowed by Herbert Draper’s melodramatic depiction of Tristram and Iseult (1901, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries), which depicted Sir Tristram with his previous love. The Magazine of Art described the present work as "a graceful composition (of unusual shape) in an opulent scheme of colour from pale yellow through coppery reds to purple. The beautiful princess looks out to sea, her fair face fine in expression, and the hands drawn with great elegance and delicacy" (The Magazine of Art, p. 439).
Princess Yseult is dressed in a ruby-hued gown lined with gold, over which she wears a cloak encrusted with gemstones, and her bright auburn hair is plaited with strings of pearls and crowned with emeralds. The costume is similar to ones designed for Victorian stage performances like those devised by Edward Burne-Jones for Comyns Carr’s play King Arthur at the Lyceum Theatre in 1895 (fig. 1). Dicksee was a regular theater-goer and although he is not known to have designed any productions, he would have been influenced by the costumes at the more prestigious performances. He favored actresses as models for his pictures, due to their ability to adopt dramatic gestures and their professional attitude to their work. While the model for Yseult is not known, she may have been Rachel Lee, a red-haired model who posed for Dawn (1897, Bradford Art Gallery) and An Offering (1898, Private Collection).
The majority of Dicksee’s paintings were partly inspired by his attendance of the Langham Sketching Club, a private drawing society he joined in 1870. Meeting at 7pm on weekdays, club members were given a subject to paint and two hours to paint it. The subject was usually a one or two word prompt, such as Music, Defeat, Grief and on one occasion, Evening—the resulting sketch leading to the compositional conception of Yseult. The pose of Yseult was based upon the anxious woman in The Confession (1896, Private Collection), Dicksee’s painting of betrayal and regret in which a dying daughter leans forward to listen to her father’s apology for an indiscretion of his youth. The subject of a woman at her loom was similar to a contemporary picture by Dicksee The Burning Heart (present whereabouts unknown, fig. 2) and also recalls famous depictions of tapestry-weavers such as Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot looking at Lancelot (1894, Leeds City Art Gallery, fig. 3) and anticipates Penelope and her Suitors (1912, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum).
Dicksee painted a contemporary watercolor replica of Yseult for which he chose the variant name Iseult (Leighton House, Kensington, London). Both pictures are contained in similar elaborate gilt frames in the shape of Celtic lyre, which were made to designs by the artist. The decoration in the spandrels was inspired by Viking strap-work and compliments the ornate patterns of the fabrics in the picture and Yseult’s throne.
Yseult was purchased from the Royal Academy exhibition by Wolf Harris, a wealthy merchant from New Zealand who had recently moved to London. An avid and ambitious collector of contemporary art, his acquisitions included Sir Edward John Poynter’s Cave of the Storm Nymphs and Lesbia and her Sparrow and Waterhouse’s Jason and Medea. After his death in 1926, several of Harris’ pictures, including Yseult, were bought by the famous Indian cricketer Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Maharajah Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, who also owned another of Dicksee’s illustrations to the Morte d’Arthur The Passing of Arthur. Ranjitsinhji was a passionate Anglophile who filled his home at Staines, in the Thames Valley, with a remarkably large and varied collection of Victorian art, with pictures by Leighton, John William Godward, Waterhouse, Poynter and Henry Scott Tuke, who also painted his portrait in full Maharajah splendour (fig. 4).
Dicksee was one of the greatest exponents of a style inspired by Pre-Raphaelitism in its final phase, during the last gasp of the golden age of romantic art in Britain in the 1890s and early 1900s. He was almost predestined to be a painter, part of a dynasty of talented artists—his father, uncle, sister and cousin were all professional artists and combined they exhibited approximately 380 pictures at the Royal Academy over nine decades. Like his father, Frank was able to draw before he could write his own name and it was this precocious talent that earned him a place at the Royal Academy Schools in 1871. He excelled under the tutelage of famous artists like John Everett Millais and Leighton and was regarded as one of his generation’s most promising students. Of all the Dicksees, Frank was the one who reached the highest level of accolade with his large-scale mythologies and chivalric romances being voted the most popular pictures in the Academy exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s. He had his first spectacular success in 1877 when he exhibited Harmony (Tate Gallery, London), which was purchased for the British nation and established him as the public’s most popular painter. The romantic composition of a woman playing an organ whilst being watched by her adoring lover was the first of Dicksee’s highly dramatic and narrative works which appealed to the public in those pre-cinema days: “during the whole time the Academy was open the public crowded round this picture” and the art critics wrote that with this picture Dicksee “took the world of London by storm” (Sidney Hodges, "Mr. Frank Dicksee A.R.A," The Magazine of Art, 1887, p. 218). It was purchased for the collection that was to become the Tate Gallery and remains one of Dicksee’s best-loved pictures. Through the 1880s, Dicksee carved out a career as a painter of romantic scenes from literature and legend with paintings like The Symbol (1881, Private Collection), Romeo and Juliet (1884, Southampton City Art Gallery) and Chivalry (1887, Private Collection). These pictures secured his popularity as a painter and in the next decade he continued to please the visitors to the Royal Academy annual exhibitions with his large and accomplished pictures, from the modern melodramas The Crisis (1891, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and Reverie (1895, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) to the epic drama of The Funeral of a Viking (1893, Manchester City Art Gallery). Female beauty would always be an important element of Dicksee’s paintings and his gorgeously decorative single-figure subjects are among his most celebrated pictures, including Leila (1891, Private Collection), The Mirror (1897, Private Collection) and The Magic Crystal (1894, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). By the turn of the twentieth century, Dicksee painted fewer narrative pictures and more portraits, but there were a few significant exceptions including The Two Crowns (Tate Gallery), La Belle dame sans Merci (1902, Bristol City Art Gallery) and Seult, the last of these narrative pictures and the final one that Dicksee sold.
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