|St George and the Princess Sabra 1862|
Apparently, there is nothing we like more than a Royal Wedding. Billions of us tuned in on Friday to see William and Kate get married, which brought to mind one of my favourite of Rossetti’s works. St George and the Princess Sabra is a beautiful jewel-coloured picture, late in Rossetti’s watercolour period, having been painted in 1862. It shows brave St George washing his hands while viewing the dead dragon out of the window. What makes the picture endearing to me is Princess Sabra, holding up the bowl in what first of all seems a quite submissive manner, but I think she’s only holding up the bowl so she can have a sneaky nuzzle of her brave knight. That and she doesn’t appear to own any furniture.
If you compare it with the 1857 watercolour The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, the stylistic changes are obvious, despite the two pictures being in the same medium. I must confess I am not a big fan of Rossetti’s watercolours (shhh, don't tell him) as I feel they don't compare well to the quality of his oil and chalk work. However, they are not helped by the fact that they do not reproduce well at all, so when I do see the watercolours in exhibitions I am always blown away by the colours, which are so much fresher in the flesh, as it were. Back to George and Sabra.
|The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857|
In the 1857 watercolour, George and Sabra embrace and she is attaching a hearty hank of her hair to George’s armour. It is quite hard to work out if they are inside or outside as there are vines strewn over the floor and roses are growing up the walls, and I really don’t think you’d want to bring the smell of decapitated dragon head into your nice home, but there are a pair of chairs and the Princess’ hairbrush visible too. It is a riot of line: the diagonal row of bells, the wings of the angels, St George’s sword, the boards of the wall, the oblong window and the hard, monochrome square by St George’s shoulder. The lines are echoed in the figure of George, failing to relax in his armour and attempting to hold the woman he just rescued. It could be argued that Sabra would have been better served getting the poor man out of all of that metal, rather than looping her hair through it.
By 1862, Sabra seems to have had a bit of a declutter and there is nothing in the room other than the figures. The wall paper is a repeating motif of a tree, the same green and gold as Sabra’s dress, tying her to the space. She wears a crown and there is a tiny crown on her sleeve, emphasising her royalty and status, yet she is the one on her knees in front of the saint, while he washes his hands and looks at the dragon out of the window.
The reason I love this picture is that he seems completely oblivious to her adoration of him, and he looks slightly amazed that he managed to kill the dragon, or is so preoccupied that he is as yet unaware that she is swaying in for a crafty cuddle. Without much in the way of props of symbols, which is unusual for Rossetti, he has managed to show their relationship instantly. In the 1857 watercolour, St George pulls Sabra to him as the angels play bells in the bedchamber which is visible through the window. There are roses for love, a heavenly choir and a rather odd crown hung up. One of the golden points seems to indicate towards the bed, so it isn’t a matter of guess work where the pair will end up. In the 1862 picture, there is nothing but the figures in the room, so poor Saint George hasn’t realised that he’s got the girl yet, too busy worrying about the dead dragon and the subsequent party, which makes her besotted leanings sweetly funny.
In both pictures, Princess Sabra seems to be based on Jane Morris, especially the 1862 watercolour, and the 1862 St George is very much like William Morris, so the pictures could serve as portraits of the couple, but that then leads to some interesting interpretations of Rossetti’s attitude. In the earlier work, George is very much aware of his princess, and in reality the Morris’ were getting married and William was very much in love with his bride and the medievalism which the artists followed. By 1862, possibly Rossetti was looking towards marriage in a somewhat different way. His own wife died in 1862, and he possibly felt that he had not noticed Elizabeth enough to know how she felt about her life and her husband. Possibly St George’s look through the window is Rossetti’s own look to his accomplishments and celebration by the public rather than paying attention to the affection of his wife. Also, if the picture is a portrait of the Morris’, maybe Rossetti was already excusing his interest in Jane by seeing her in a neglectful and ultimately loveless marriage, which would be repeated in pictures such as La Pia de’Tolomei (1868-80).
In conclusion I offer these two things I have learnt from these two paintings, which they seem to agree on. Firstly, killing a dragon makes you fairly irresistible to women, whether you like it or not. Secondly, it involves getting your hands dirty. Maybe someone could buy him some gloves for a wedding present?