This wonderful and rather playful Pre-Raphaelite picture has recently caught my eye. I had never seen it before this week, which is hardly surprising as for the last fifty years it has been in the private collection of Joe Setton and then his children, who are now selling his whole collection at Christie’s on the 10th December.
Every week at Christie’s there are different auctions. It is difficult to keep up but one of the joys of working here is wandering through the rooms and stumbling upon another wonderful object from around the world. I will occasionally highlight some of those that interest me and this picture has a particularly romantic subplot that I like.
Painted by John Byam Liston Shaw, The Queen of Hearts depicts his fiancé Evelyn Pike Nott as the heroine Queen of the eponymous children’s nursery rhyme. Evelyn is shown stepping out from a pack of playing cards which are strewn across the floor.
Of all the women in the world the artist could have met or married Evelyn is the one that has stepped forward. She is his Queen of Hearts. This picture is surely a personal celebration of his joy at having found her.
The artist was clearly deeply in love with her and they were to marry three years after this was painted in 1896. They went on to have five children together and strong, happy marriage.
In the background, Evelyn’s sister, the artist Isabel Codrington, holds a plate of jam tarts (see above). This delightful detail was a further reference to the nursery rhyme, which every schoolboy would have known in the Victorian era:
The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the knave full sore;
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.
John Byam Liston Shaw is not a household name, and was of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. He is less established in the public’s (and my) mind than the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Edward Burne-Jones. He never reached their heights but this is one of his most successful paintings.
He clearly references Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which had been purchased by the National Gallery in 1843 and had subsequently become a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The Queen’s head-dress and the way she clutches the folds of her dress are a direct reference to the Arnolfini bride, as are the relative positions of the artist (and consequently the viewer) and the sitter.
After the success of The Queen of Hearts, John Byam Liston Shaw painted a follow up, The Queen of Spades, which is also in the Christie’s sale (see above). At the end of the nineteenth century there was a marked increase in interest in freemasonry, and ideas of the occult and here the artist seems to have depicted the Queen of Spades as a cold and calculating widow, an idea that shows he was aware of the Queen of Spades personification in fortune telling.
The Queen is a secular Madonna, enthroned in the manner of a Giovanni Bellini, and other Venetian Masters. She sits in front of a symbolic canopy, a veil between occult knowledge and the more mundane world.
Despite the brilliance of these two paintings, rather surprisingly (and sadly) paintings of the Queens of Clubs and Diamonds were never attempted.
Joe Setton bought these paintings after he read Percy Bate’s seminal 1899 book The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters. At a time (the 1960s and 70s) when the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers were completely out of fashion, he became hooked and tracked down the dealer Julian Hartnoll in his gallery on Duke Street and announced that he would buy any picture illustrated in the publication.
This was a great time to buy such paintings and he was able to amass a wonderful collection of works, which are now being sold at Christie’s. It doesn’t seem like he was drawn to buying works by big name artists, or forming a comprehensive group, rather that he was a old-fashioned romantic, seeking out paintings of fantasy and unrequited love.
These are some of my favourites from the collection.
You can look in more detail at ‘The Joe Setton Collection: from Pre-Raphaelites to Last Romantics’ on christies.com
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