- Museum number
'Theseus's approach to Athens'; based on a passage from Dryden's 'Fables', Theseus, in bright armour on a white horse in the centre, extends his arm to three women dressed in mourning and appealing to him from their knees in the left foreground, walls and towers of the city in the shape of a medieval fortress is in the background. 1797
Pencil, pen and grey ink and watercolour heightened with touches of white bodycolour and gum arabic, in original frame
- Production date
Height: 800 millimetres (Frame)
Height: 568 millimetres
Width: 1030 millimetres (frame)
Width: 792 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Edward Dayes, known as a painter of topographical views, produced two ambitious watercolours depicting scenes from John Dryden’s 'Fables Ancient and Modern, a 1700 collection of translations of classical and medieval poetry. They represent Dayes’s attempt to move away from landscape in order to specialise in the more prestigious genre of history painting.
This scene illustrates a passage that describes Theseus’s triumphant return to Athens after a battle, followed by his army, when they are stopped by a group of mourning women. They are pleading for help, for their husbands had been killed by Creon, King of Thebes. Theseus is moved and promises not to rest until Creon has fallen:
‘That by the faith which knights to knighthood bore,
And whae'er else to chivalry belongs,
He would not cease, till he revenged their wrongs;
That Greece should see performed what he declared,
And cruel Creon find his just reward.’
Both this watercolour and the pair with which it was exhibited are based on passages in Dryden's fables which are based in turn on the story of Palamon and Arcite, from Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale' from 'The Canterbury Tales'. The sketch for this drawing in the Dayes sketchbook in the BM's collection is 1993,0508.1.66r. The watercolour Dayes exhibited alongside this picture was Lycurgus entering Athens, 2017,7052.2.
The two watercolours were reviewed with two other large history watercolours exhibited in 1798 in The Monthly Review (Review of RA exhibition, July 1798, pp. 28-9, 2nd ed. 1804):
"501. Lycurgus entering Athens, vide Dryden's Palamon and Arcite. 517. Theseus's approach to Athens, ditto.
- Mr. Dayes, who has long distinguished himself by his drawings, here exhibits himself in a new walk of the art, in which he seems to take much delight, since he has favoured us with four historical representations of considerable labour [the other two were: 331. Sketch from Beckford's History of France: Lewis the Gross receiving the Oriflamme. and 490. The fall of the angels, vide Milton.]; and when we recollect that his principal occupation has been landscape, we must allow them to be very respectable. The subjects are well selected, and the composition of them is good; but if he had managed the clair-obscure with as much judgment as he had done in his former works, they would appear to double advantage. The mode in which the subordinate divisions, and such as are thrown into shade, are determined, diminishes the consequence of the more important parts of each picture. The figures and tout ensemble are correctly drawn, but somewhat too much studied. Accuracy, however, accompanied with ease, are only the result of very long practice. A certain hatching, that looks like the work of the graver, tends to enfeeble the expression; and, though this is a custom which has the authority of Westall to recommend it, we think it might easily be dispensed with. The fallen angels require an artist like Michael Angelo, and a common pencil is misemployed upon the subject."
Jonathan Yarker, 'Ambition in "the Grand Manner": Edward Dayes as History Painter', Lowell Libson Ltd., London, 2013, pp. 12-13, although the images have been switched.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1798, London, Royal Academy annual exhibition, no. 517
2018-2019, Oct 4 – 27 Jan, London, BM G90, New Acquisitions: Gozzoli to Kara Walker
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Fables Ancient and Modern
Associated Title: Canterbury Tales
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number