I hate it when people say ‘You really have to see the painting, a book can’t do it justice!’ partly because it’s true, but mainly because it might be years before you see a painting you love in real life, maybe never. Mind you, the thrill when you finally see it, up close and personal, is astonishing. I had such a moment at the last Pre-Raphaelite Tate exhibition and it wasn’t with a painting I would have expected.
Shuffling slowly along the walls of beautiful works there were many ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ but then I found myself in front of The Wounded Cavalier (1855) by William Shakespeare Burton…
Yes, I know, it doesn’t do it justice…
It’s no secret that I love this picture. In the flesh it is luminous, almost tangible in its detail and feeling. Even in books the minutiae of the world, the butterfly, the ferns, the dying oak leaves, is so real you can almost taste autumn on the air. In a very basic way, seeing the real thing gives you a chance to see it bigger, clearer and you see more. And in The Wounded Cavalier there is so much to see.
|Someone's not happy...|
Let’s start with the people: we have a cavalier, wounded, a woman holding him and a man looking on. It seems to me that someone is missing, but I’ll come to that in a moment. In reverse order of importance to the picture, the man who looks down at the woman and the cavalier does not look happy. In his big hat and black garb he is as Puritan as it gets. In order to emphasize the point he is carrying what can only be called a Gert Big Bible. He is contained, definite and upright, a neat little line of disapproval. Many critics think he is the woman’s husband or lover (lucky girl), some have suggested that he is her brother. It would seem that he is either husband or brother as they appear to be out unchaperoned. I have to admit his Bible interests me: at first it may appear to be only a clumsy character marker, but it has bookmarks poking out. What has been marked ? I read one analysis that suggested that the bookmarks were between the Old and New Testaments. Maybe it suggests the man is caught between the vengeance of the Old Testament God and the forgiveness of the New Testament. Maybe he is the Old and his sister is the New, coming to the aid of her fellow man, whatever their beliefs. That Bible is in an interesting position, poised as the end of the broken blade. The man in black is the victor, his Bible has vanquished the ways of the cavalier, the blade pointing directly at the point between the armour and his uniform, just where he is vulnerable.
|Gosh, you're rather lovely...|
So the woman is certainly more sympathetic than her fellow Puritan. Her clothes are grey rather than black and she cradles her dying enemy in a pose reminiscent of Mary and Jesus at the base of the cross. Their relationship was worthy of a repeat performance later in
|It's so good, he did it again...|
Isolated in their embrace, the couple become Romeo and Juliet, a couple who find a connection despite their politics. In the 1871 image I almost feel she could pull him through and they will ride off together in a happily ever after. In the original oil he’s looking a lot more ropey and I think he’s a goner. Her expression is so intense, as if that moment is more than just a choice to help a dying man. It is a choice between two men, two ways of life, but also a choice between a hopeless cause and a sure thing. The cavalier is not only badly wounded, but also his entire way of life is dying out. To side with him over her kinsman is to choose the past not the future, romance over religion. You could argue that she’s just chosen to be kind to a dying man, but the look on her face betrays that she has rather more on her mind than being a Good Samaritan.
Mind you, he is a pretty one, in a ginger-Jesus sort of way. He is very untidy in his wounded sprawl, his feet one side of the oak tree and his body the other. His sword is through a tree, his cards are on the ground, his hat is discarded and his is a death of disarray. I do think he is dying, not only because of the colour of him, but also because he is symbolic of his cause. Look at the handle of the broken sword – doesn’t it look like a skull with the blade through one of the eyes?
|Butterfly on the Blade|
On the sword is a beautiful butterfly, possibly denoting the fleeting glory of the cavaliers. It is settled on the sharp edge, something beautiful in added danger, unknowing. A comment on the young, beautiful cavaliers, dicing with death? Or maybe it is there as a comment on the Puritan man, pushing the sword home with his Bible (metaphorically) unaware of the beauty that it threatens.
|Cards by his Boots|
Well, the cards give us a fairly familiar image of a gambling cavalier. It is symbolic I suppose of the naughty vices of the Royalists but as all the cards we can see are hearts, it may hint that the vices aren’t that awful, they are only human. Maybe it is hinting that the fight that landed this cavalier in mortal peril was over a card game (or maybe love), which leads me to ask ‘who is missing from this scene?’
Well, obviously whoever it was that wounded the cavalier. Unless it was an elaborate accident, there must have been a fight and although we cannot see what is hung from the Puritan man’s leather strap, it seems unlikely that it was either of these two. Maybe the man has struggled away from a battle? But that doesn’t explain the broken sword. Most likely he fought someone in that spot, he broke his sword in the tree and his enemy stabbed him in the neck. I did wonder about the round ‘pebble’ in front of the broken sword handle – is it a button from the enemy or something from our cavalier’s clothes? There seems to be no money or valuables, so possibly the man was robbed or his valuables were taken in response to the card game, or cheating at cards. The wall is broken behind them so possibly the attacker fled through the whole. Or possibly it was our Puritan chap who ran him through, Bible in hand. No wonder he looks hacked off that his woman is hugging his floppy haired nemesis.
|The Proscribed Royalist 1651 (1853) J E Millais|
William Shakespeare Burton only strayed into Pre-Raphaelitism on this one occasion, but he did so with such faithfulness that this painting can easily rival Millais at the height of his powers. In fact I much prefer The Wounded Cavalier to Millais’ offering on the subject The Proscribed Royalist, 1651, showing a young Puritan woman (in a very flashy skirt) hiding a hot cavalier in a tree after the defeat of King Charles I at the Battle of Worcester. It is possible that
Burton saw the painting in 1853 and was
inspired. When The Wounded Cavalier was hung at the
it was hung next to The Scapegoat by
Holman Hunt, which could only improve its appearance more, frankly. It was in the same exhibition as Chatterton by Henry Wallis, which in
many ways it resembles. Burton's life was
punctuated by ill health and problems and so not many of his paintings appear
to have made it to public collections in this country. He abandoned the total immersion in
Pre-Raphaelite style after this one piece, although it is suggested that
certain figures recall the style in his later works but it’s so hard to find a
range of his pictures it’s hard to tell.
I suppose if you are to be known for only one picture it might as well
be a piece of brilliance. The beauty and
unanswered questions of The Wounded
Cavalier will keep it a favourite for many people for many more years to
come. Royal Academy
If you wish to see it in the flesh, the lucky owners are The Guildhall Art Gallery in
. Enjoy! London