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drawing

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1982,0619.23

  • Description

    Arthur's Tomb, the last meeting of Lancelot and Guenevere; Lancelot is bending over the marble effigy of the dead King Arthur and gazes intently into the face of Guenevere beseeching a kiss, to left a serpent. 1855 Watercolour, with bodycolour and graphite

  • Producer name

  • School/style

  • Date

    • 1855
  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 240 millimetres
    • Width: 382 millimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Content

        Signed with monogram: "DGR" and dated: "1854" and inscribed: "Arthur's Tomb"
  • Curator's comments

    Surtees: date (1854) inscribed on drawing probably added later, 1855 more likely the date on basis of letter from Rossetti to Madox Brown, and an entry in the latter's Diary. For complete literature, see Surtees and the entry in the Pre-Raphaelite exh. Tate, 1984, no. 213. The Tate have a later watercolour replica of the work made in 1860. Labels from original frame in dossier.

    Gere 1994
    Virginia Surtees points out that Rossetti must have inscribed the date 1854 from memory, and that his memory deceived him: in a letter dated 17 September 1855 he tells Madox Brown "That drawing of 'Launcelot' is all but finished".
    In the same month, in a bookshop in Birmingham, William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, then still undergraduates at Oxford, came across Southey's 1827 edition of Sir Thomas Malory's late-fifteenth-century narrative of the legendary history of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 'The Morte d'Arthur' was exactly in tune with their particular taste for romantic mediaevalism, and when they met Rossetti for the first time a few months later they were encouraged to find that he shared their enthusiasm to the point of declaring that 'The Morte d'Arthur' and the Bible were "the two greatest books in the world". 'Arthur's Tomb', the first and arguably the finest of Rossetti's 'Arthurian' subjects, dates from before that first meeting (his interest in the theme was no doubt inspired by Dante's reference to Lancelot in the Paolo and Francesca passage of which he was making drawings as early as 1849: see no. II); but it was the combination of his enthusiasm and that of his two younger disciples that resulted in the decoration of the hall of the Oxford Union in the summer of 1857 (see 1885,0613.81).
    In the admirable analysis of the composition in his life of Rossetti (1928) Evelyn Waugh showed that he departed dramatically from Malory's account, in which the widowed Queen Guenevere, attended by the ladies and gentlemen of her court, takes an "affecting and decorous" farewell of her lover Sir Launcelot in the cloister of the convent to which she had retired after King Arthur's death. In the watercolour "The lovers meet alone and at Arthur's tomb, and the dead king's effigy dominates the composition. Austere and ungainly, it draws a line of obtrusive mortality across the picture. On one side is Launcelot, all the sentimental despondence of Malory aflame with masculinity, crouching and peering under the beetle-back of his shield like some obscene and predatory insect; the head of Arthur butts him away with almost comic vigour. Beside the tomb, and practically a part of it, kneels Guinever, stripped of the sententious dignity of the abbess-queen, her stiff gesture of repugnance allying her with the archaic sculpture at her back, the last defence of threatened chastity, Galatea repetrified. It is in many ways a painful picture. Three horizontals constrict the composition until it aches with suppressed resilience. Remove the apple-tree and the whole composition would fly up uncontrollably through the frame; the thick, stiff little trunk straps it down and tortures it unendurably . . . A lesser artist, certainly any other Pre-Raphaelite, would have twisted that apple-tree or gnarled it and made a beautiful decoration of it; all Rossetti wanted was a clamp".
    'Arthur's Tomb' was not to Ruskin's taste, and before long he gave it away to one of his pupils at the Working Men's College, George Butterworth. Soon after receiving it from Rossetti, he wrote to his friend Ellen Heaton: "The Guinevere and Launcelot is not my pet drawing, though Mr Browning could not say too much of it - it is one of my imperfect ones - the Launcelot is so funnily bent under his shield, and Arthur points his toes so over the tomb, that I dare not show it to Anti-Pre-Raphaelites, but I value it intensely myself. The reference to Robert Browning's admiration is significant, for this drawing is the pictorial equivalent of one of his 'Dramatic Lyrics' describing intensely charged moments of emotional crisis. Morris's own poem King Arthur's Tomb' in his early volume, 'The Defence of Guenevere' (1858) is inspired by the drawing; and when asked in whose style another poem in the volume was written, he is said to have answered "More like Browning than any one else, I suppose".

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  • Bibliography

    • Gere 1994 10 bibliographic details
    • Surtees 1971 73 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G90

  • Exhibition history

    For pre-1971 exh. hist. see Surtees 1973 London, Royal Academy, 'Rossetti - Painter and Poet', no.132, repro.pl.XIVb 1984 Mar-May, London, Tate Gallery, 'Pre-Raphaelite exh', no.213 1994/5 Sep-Jan, BM, Pre-Raphaelite Drawings, no.10 2003/4 Oct-Jan, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti' 2004 Feb-June, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti'
    2010/2011 Oct-Jan, Washington, NGA, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens
    2011 Mar-May, Paris, Musée d'Orsay, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens
    2017 23 Feb-27 Aug, London, BM, G90, Places of the Mind: British Landscape watercolours 1850-1950
    RESTRICTIONS ON LOANS TO 2026

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1982

  • Acquisition notes

    Graham sale, Christie's, 3.iv.1886/102 bt by Cockerell for 84 pounds, from Cockerell by descent to his grandson, Huddart

  • Department

    Prints & Drawings

  • Registration number

    1982,0619.23

Arthur's Tomb, the last meeting of Lancelot and Guenevere; Lancelot is bending over the marble effigy of the dead King Arthur and gazes intently into the face of Guenevere beseeching a kiss, to l a serpent. 1855 Watercolour, with bodycolour and graphite

Arthur's Tomb, the last meeting of Lancelot and Guenevere; Lancelot is bending over the marble effigy of the dead King Arthur and gazes intently into the face of Guenevere beseeching a kiss, to l a serpent. 1855 Watercolour, with bodycolour and graphite

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