Edwin Long RA (1829-1891)

Edwin Long was born in Bath, had an early and precocious talent for drawing, studied at the RA Schools from 1849, and also was a student under John Phillip, who encouraged him to travel to Spain. This he did, visiting the country regularly between 1857-73. He was much affected by the work of Murillo, and painted scenes of Spanish life, as well as portraiture. However, in 1874 he visited Egypt and Syria, and this was the start of his career as an Orientalist painter. He developed a rich, exotic style, strong in detail and often on canvases of large size, allowing him to show long processions, enormous palaces or sweeps of mountains on an epic scale. His best years were in the 1870s-80s, when he was a popular, successful artist specialising in biblical stories and life in ancient Egypt. He became ARA in 1876 and RA in 1881. The following year, his rather overdone Babylonian Marriage Market sold for 6000 guineas - at that time the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist. The painting shows a wife auction, where the custom was for beautiful girls to be auctioned to the highest bidders, and the money so collected used as an enticement or dowry to marry off ugly girls. In the picture, the most beautiful girl is on the block, while the remaining twelve, in order of decreasing pulchritude, are arranged across the whole breadth of the canvas as if for appraisal by the viewer. This sort of slightly voyeuristic picture is most characteristic of Long. His larger pictures also tend to the narrative, while maintaining a careful grace of composition. As well, he painted single ideal girls under titles such as 'India', 'England: the Rose' etc., and painted portraits including that of Henry Irving.

A Priestess of Isis, print after Edwin Long

One of the keenest collectors of Long's paintings was Merton Russell-Cotes, and five large works and several small ones are on view in the Russell Cotes Museum, Bournemouth. The largest is Anno Domini, about 15ft x 8ft high, showing Joseph, Mary plus donkey travelling to the left, while a procession of Egyptians goes right. The picture makes a good story - Joseph stares fixedly ahead, ignoring the rather pretty semi-draped Egyptian girls. Behind are the pyramids, and huge buildings emblematic of Pharaoh's power. On the left of the picture are various worshippers of the false gods, and a mother with a sick child, being unsuccessfully treated with a succession of votive statues; other idols lie discarded on the ground and a man behind is selling more of them from a tray. Good stuff. One of the smaller pictures, most harmonious, is Alethe, Attendent of the Sacred Ibis, showing a single Egyptian girl surrounded by ibises in an elegant composition suggestive of Albert Moore. Other pictures in the collection include the rather voyeuristic The Chosen Five, showing a classical Greek artist with his five models; In the Wilderness with classically draped girls on a harsh mountaintop; Jephthah's Vow as another epic picture with procession, ancient city etc; The Martyr with the title figure in white, looking asleep, surrounded by unhappy figures, and menacing spear-armed soldiers in the background - a masterly composition and use of colour for effect; and several lesser pictures.

Elsewhere, A Question of Propriety and Esther were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and in Melbourne is Gipsies dancing before the Inquisition.

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