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Art and Literature
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Painting 1:
William Hamilton (1793)
Robert Vermaat

Vortigern and Rowena

WILLIAM HAMILTON, RA
(1750/51 – 1801)

Oil on Canvas
79 x 59 inches (200 x 150cm)

Signed and dated 1793

Collections: Commissioned by Robert Bowyer, c. 1793; Bowyer’s Historic Gallery sale, Peter Coxe, 30 May 1807 (40); John Green, Dell Lodge, Blackheath; his sale, 23-26 April 1830, (59), bt. Henry Bone for Joseph Neeld; thence by descent through Captain L.W. Neeld, Grittleton House, Gloucestershire to Miss C.K Neeld, sold Christie’s 16 November 1962 (85), bt. Brain Leary, from whose collection sold Sotheby’s 12 July 1989 (98)

Exhibited: By Robert Bower in the ‘Historic Gallery’ of his house, Pall Mall, 1793 (9) and 1795 (17)

Literature: Catalogue of Pictures painted for Mr. Bowyer’s magnificent edition of Hume’s History of England (Historic Gallery, Pall Mall) n.d; Boase op cit 1963, pp.174, 177; R.W. Hutton, Robert Bowyer and the Historic Gallery, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Chicago, Illinois, 6 vols, typescript, repr in facsimile, 1992, vol. 2 part 3 pp.421-5 cat.no.3

Engraved: By Jean Marie Delattre

Vortigern and Rowena, by William Hamilton (1793)
This painting was commissioned from Hamilton by Robert Bower to be engraved for his illustrated edition of David Hume’s History of England (see introduction).

The story of Rowena and Vortigern, taken from ancient legends, was recounted with some romantic license by Geoffrey of Monmouth (d.1155), acquiring added ‘authenticity’ by being included first in John Speed’s History of Great Britain…(1611), then in Paul de Rapin-Thoyras’s more solid 13 volume History of England…, first published in French, 1724-36, then in English, 1725-31, and subsequently republished in an elaborate illustrated folio edition, 1742-47, which included a small engraved head piece illustrating the story of Rowena and Vortigern. Hume’s narration of the story seemed to convert legend into established historical fact.

The story from Hume may be summed up as follows: Vortigern, a Saxon [sic!] King of Britain in the fifth century, strives to transfer all Britain to Saxon rule. He arranges to confer with Hengist, leader (with Horsa) of the Jutes. Before attending their conference, Hengist secretly armed his men with long knives: the result was the massacre known as ‘the night of the long knives’, in which some 460 Saxon noblemen were killed (where in fact the martyrs originally were British lords!). In a scene, perhaps adapted from the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry V – political reconciliation through an arranged marriage – Vortigern marries Rowena, Hengist’s daughter.

Hamilton depicts Vortigern, wearing a simple Saxon crown, ready to pledge his love for Rowena with a goblet of wine. The elderly man who stands behind the banqueting table, robed in vaguely Druidical white, is presumably her father, Hengist. Some allusion to ‘the night of the long knives’ is imparted by the fact that some of Hengist’s court carry such weapons.

One of the first illustrations of the subject was an engraving by Scotin after a design by Nicolas Blakey, published in 1752, one of only six of a projected series of 50 prints of English History Delineated actually to be published (by Knapton and Dodsley). The illustration of 1752 was soberly entitled Settlement of the Saxons in England; but it was soon perceived that even if the marriage of Vortigern and Rowena was politically contrived, there was a romantic element in the story which artists might treat with some license. In the following decades, the subject inspired a pen and ink drawing by Henry Fuseli, and paintings by Angelica Kauffman, John Hoppner, John Hamilton Mortimer and J.F. Rigaud among others.

The story gained a certain notoriety in the mid 1790’s, after inspiring the disreputable William Henry Ireland to concoct Vortigern, a play which he claimed to be from a lost manuscript by Shakespeare; quickly exposed as a forgery, it had one performance only, at Drury Lane on 2 April 1796.

Acknowledgements:

This text was mostly taken from the Agnews Gallery website: http://www.agnewsgallery.co.uk/pages/1819_hamilton_rowena.html


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