Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene IV
Recently ExhibitedLondon, National Portrait Gallery, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, 17 October 2019 to 26 January 2020
Additional Exhibition HistoryLondon, National Institution of the Fine Arts, Portland Gallery, Regent Street, 1850, no. 143
Birmingham, City of Birmingham Art Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1848-1862, 1947, no. 22
London, Tate Gallery, on loan 1966-1972
Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Preraffaelliten, 1974, no. 87 32 Victorian Paintings from the Forbes Magazine Collection, 1981
London, Tate Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelites, 1984, no. 23
The Pre-Raphaelites and their Times, 1985, no. 8
A Brush with Shakespeare, 1985-6, no. 17
Shakespeare in Western Art, 1992-3, no. 62
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain, London; National Gallery, Washington, Pushkin, Moscow 2012-2013
Deverell’s Twelfth Night, painted when he was twenty-one, is undoubtedly his masterpiece. It is by far the largest of his few surviving paintings and was clearly intended to be a major statement and a bid for recognition. Everything about it betrays Deverell’s allegiance to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which he remained one of their closest associates during the period. Deverell’s Twelfth Night is one of the last major early Pre-Raphaelite paintings to remain in private hands.
In 1844, the young Deverell entered Sass’s Drawing Academy, recognised as a training ground for the Royal Academy Schools, and there he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who went on to the RA Schools and Deverell followed in 1846. Here he also met William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. In 1848 he joined this trio in a short-lived revival of the Cyclographic Society, a group of students and amateurs who circulated drawings among themselves, inviting criticism from fellow members. He was not, however, among the seven men, led by the same trio, who launched the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at a meeting in Millais’s Gower Street studio in September that year. It has been suggested that Deverell deliberately hesitated to become a member of the PRB because he had recently been appointed assistant master at the Government School of Design, but he remained close to the Brothers. He was particularly intimate with Rossetti, with whom he shared a studio at 17 Red Lion Square for a few months in 1850-51.
Shakespeare accounts for a very high proportion of the small number of paintings that Deverell achieved before his early death. Twelfth Night illustrates Act II, scene 4, in which Orsino, Duke of Illyria, tormented by unrequited love for a rich countess, Olivia, orders his clown, Feste, to sing the song ‘Come away, come away, death’. On the left, gazing at Orsino intently, sits Viola, who, disguised as a boy, is acting as his page, Cesario, and, unknown to him, loves him ardently. Later in the scene, stung by Orsino’s claim that no woman can love as passionately as a man, Viola makes the famous speech in which she alludes obliquely to her own emotions. The visual interpretation of Shakespeare was one of the most persistent themes in British art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is estimated that between 1769, when the RA held its first exhibition, and 1830, an average of five to ten Shakespearian subjects were shown each year, and the figure rose to twenty in the 1840s and 1850s.
The Pre-Raphaelites, who in so many ways inherited the mantle of the Romantics, played a full part in this process. When the Brotherhood met in 1848 to draw up a list of Immortals, Shakespeare was one of only two who received three stars, the highest number that anyone achieved with the exception of Christ (who was allotted four). Shakespearian scenes appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites because they helped them to realise their ideal of painting meaningful subjects: themes that treated real emotions or made some profound social comment. As Hunt was to write later, many modern paintings were ‘trite and affected; their most frequent offence in my eyes was the substitution of inane prettiness for beauty … Pictured waxworks playing the part of human beings provoked me, and hackneyed conventionality often turned me from masters whose powers I valued otherwise’. One of the ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites brought out the moral implications of their subjects was by making lavish use of symbolism. The most obvious symbols in Deverell’s Twelfth Night are the honeysuckle, which climbs the back of Orsino’s throne, and the passion flowers which entwine the carved masonry between him and Viola, as she gazes at him with devotion. Both are time-honoured images of devotion and love.
But reaction to ‘hackneyed conventionality’ did not end with finding meaningful subjects. It was equally important to shun the tired formal language in which so much contemporary art seemed to be cast. Hence, of course, the name Pre-Raphaelite, implying a return to the freshness of vision that, they believed, prevailed before the time of Raphael, the artist on whom the exhausted academic conventions were ultimately based. Deverell’s Twelfth Night embodies this formal revolution. The dim, murky colours and lush impasto paint associated with the grand manner are replaced by clear tones worked thinly, like watercolour, over a white ground. Theatrical chiaroscuro gives way to bright daylight. There is still something of the stage about the setting, no doubt reflecting the fact that Deverell was a keen amateur actor, but the picture space has a plane system of startling simplicity, while poses and gestures aim at a naturalism diametrically opposed to the old repertoire, based on academic rules for the correct expression of the passions. For good measure, Deverell seems to throw in a touch of wilful eccentricity, particularly in the figures of the dancers in the background and the two pages at lower right. Such passages remind us of Rossetti’s comment to Burne-Jones that he deliberately included strange details in his pictures to ‘puzzle fools’.
It was an axiom of early Pre-Raphaelite theory that everything had to be painted from nature in order to achieve the necessary degree of freshness and spontaneity. The artists often sat to each other or used their friends and relations as models, partly because this was cheaper but also because professional models themselves were products of the academic system. In Twelfth Night Deverell painted Orsino from himself, Feste from Rossetti, and Viola from Elizabeth Siddal, the first time that the famous Pre-Raphaelite beauty had sat to any artist in the circle. Deverell encountered her towards the end of 1849 when she was working as a milliner’s assistant in Leicester Square, and was bowled over by her beauty. In his reminiscences, Holman Hunt recalled Deverell visiting him and Rossetti as they were working together and enthusing about his discovery: ‘You fellows can’t tell what a stupendously beautiful creature I have found. By Jove! she’s like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling; … she has grey eyes, and her hair is like dazzling copper … And now, where do you think I lighted on this paragon of beauty? Why, in a milliner’s back workroom when I went out with my mother shopping. Having nothing to amuse me while the woman was tempting my mother with something, I peered over the blind of a glass door at the back of the shop, and there was this unexpected jewel. I got my mother to persuade the miraculous creature to sit for my Viola in Twelfth Night; and today I have been trying to paint her; but I have made a mess of my beginning. Tomorrow she’s coming again …’. According to Hunt, Rossetti went to Deverell’s studio next day to see the ‘paragon of beauty’, and there is evidence to suggest that in December 1849 he was helping Deverell to paint Viola’s head, presumably from Lizzie Siddal. Siddal was soon sitting not only to him but to Hunt and Millais as well, most famously lying in a bath of rapidly cooling water for the latter’s Ophelia.
Twelfth Night attracted considerable attention when it appeared at the National Institution, although reviews were inevitably mixed. The Illustrated London News was complimentary: ‘Among the painters who have sought for subjects in the vast body of English poetry, no one is more successful than Mr Deverell … Amidst a certain oddity of treatment and hardness of manner, there is a right interpretation of the poet’s meaning, and a minstrel and medieval feeling not commonly seen in the work of English artists’.
Deverell never had the satisfaction of seeing his picture sold. When Rossetti quitted the Red Lion Square studio in May 1851, Deverell was forced to return to the family home. His mother had died the previous year, and he and his father were ill, with Deverell suffering from Bright’s disease. Following his father’s death in 1853, Deverell died the following year aged only twenty-six. His remaining pictures, including Twelfth Night, which he had retouched in the last months of his life, following its exhibition in Dublin, were taken care of by Richard Burchett, a former colleague, and they remained with him until 1866, when Rossetti gave them shelter at his house in Cheyne Walk. Twelfth Night later belonged to Rossetti’s neighbour in Chelsea, and fellow artist, William Bell Scott.