Augustus Leopold Egg’s 1858 “Past & Present” triptych. A melodramatic, moralizing Victorian masterpiece made to illustrate the dire consequences of adultery.
Augustus Leopold Egg RA (1816 – 1863), was a Victorian artist best known for one thing. An incredible symbol-laden, epic triptych called Past and Present (1858), which chronicled the disintegration of a middle-class Victorian family.
Egg was born to Joseph and Ann Egg, in London. He had an elder brother, George Hine Egg.
His father Joseph Egg was a wealthy gunsmith from the gun making family that owned & ran Durs Egg (noted for it’s flintlock pistols and it’s signature product, the Ferguson rifle). The Eggs came to London from Huniigue, France. The young Egg started his art studies in 1836 at the Royal Academy where he soon became a member of The Clique, a group of artists founded by Richard Dadd and others in the late 1830s. Egg’s aim was to combine popular art with moral and social activism, in line with the literary work of his friend Charles Dickens. To this end, he set up the “Guild of Literature and Art” with Dickens, a philanthropic organisation intended to provide welfare payments to struggling artists and writers. Egg acted the lead role in “Not So Bad As We Seem”, a play written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton to fundraise for the organisation.
Like other members of The Clique, he saw himself as a follower of Hogarth and his early paintings mostly depicted literary subjects. His interest in Hogarthian moral themes is evidenced in his paired paintings The Life and Death of Buckingham, depicting the dissolute life and sordid death of the Restoration rake George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham.
Unlike most other members of The Clique, Egg also admired the Pre-Raphaelites; he bought work from the young William Holman Hunt and shared ideas on color theory with him. His own triptych, known as Past and Present, was massively influenced, if not directly prompted by Hunt’s work. The Past and Present triptych depicted three separate scenes, one portraying a prosperous middle-class family and the other two depicting poor and isolated figures – two young girls in a bedsit and a homeless woman with a baby. The viewer was expected to read a series of visual clues that linked together these three scenes, to reveal that the prosperous family in the central scene is in the process of disintegrating because of the mother’s adultery. The two outer scenes depict the separated mother and children a few years later, now living in poverty. The painting’s use of flashback – the central scene is occurring in the past – has been seen as a precursor of cinema.
Egg was also an active organiser of exhibitions, being admired by fellow-artists for his dedication and fair mindedness. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1860. Always in poor health, Egg spent his later years in the warmer climate of continental Europe, where he painted Travelling Companions, an ambiguous image of two near-identical young women that has sometimes been interpreted as an attempt to represent two sides of the same person. Egg’s social circle included Dickens and Wilkie Collins and Egg features in their surviving correspondence. He participated, as actor and costume designer, in their amateur theatricals, which were often conducted for charitable purposes. In January 1857 he took a part in Collins’s play The Frozen Deep, which starred Dickens and was performed at his home, Tavistock House ((Egg played John Want, the ship’s cook.) The production was also acted before Queen Victoria. Dickens described Egg as a “dear gentle little fellow,” “always sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved.”
In a 1953 radio interview, the writer Evelyn Waugh was asked “What painters do you admire most?”.
He answered “Augustus Egg I’d put among the highest.
Egg died in Algeria in 1863.
Past & Present.
N U M B E R 1 .
This is the first of a set of three modern-life pictures on the theme of the fallen woman. They are typical of the social moralist pictures that were popular in Victorian art. The theme of the triptych is a woman’s infidelity and its consequences. In this first scene the wife lies prostrate at her husband’s feet, while he sits grimly at the table and their children play cards in the background.
The husband is holding a letter, evidence of his wife’s adultery, and simultaneously crushes a miniature of her lover under his foot. The setting is an ordinary middle-class drawing room, but closer observation reveals that the room is full of symbols. Egg was clearly influenced in his approach by Holman Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’ of 1853 (Manchester City Art Galleries). The house of cards is collapsing, signifying the breakdown of the couple’s marriage. The cards are supported by a novel by Balzac – a specialist in the theme of adultery. An apple has been cut in two, the one half (representing the wife) has fallen to the floor, the other (representing the husband) has been stabbed to the core. As a parallel, the two pictures on the wall depict the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; ‘The Fall’; and a shipwreck by Clarkson Stanfield; ‘Abandoned’. The couple’s individual portraits hang beneath the appropriate image. In the background of the picture the mirror reflects an open door, denoting the woman’s impending departure from the home. The position of her arms and the bracelets round her wrists give the impression that she is shackled. In Victorian England a man could safely take a mistress without fear of recrimination, but for a woman to be unfaithful was an unforgivable crime. As Caroline Norton, an early feminist, wrote, ‘the faults of women are visited as sins, the sins of men are not even visited as faults’. The set of pictures was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 with no title, but with the subtitle, ‘August the 4th – Have just heard that B – has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!’
Holman Hunt’s was prompted to paint The Awakening Consciience after by a verse from Proverbs: ‘As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart’.
With his typical thoroughness, Hunt hired a room at Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John’s Wood, a ‘maison de convenance’, to use as the setting. In the finished painting we see that a gentleman has installed his mistress (we know she’s his mistress as she has no wedding ring) in a house for their meetings. As they play and sing to Thomas Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night, she has a sudden spiritual revelation. Rising from her lover’s lap, she gazes into the sunlit garden beyond, which is reflected in the mirror behind her. The mirror image represents the woman’s lost innocence, but redemption, indicated by the ray of light in the foreground, is still possible. Intended to be ‘read’, the painting is full of such symbolic elements. The cat toying with the broken-winged bird under the table symbolises the woman’s plight. A man’s discarded glove warns that the likely fate of a cast-off mistress was prostitution. A tangled skein of yarn on the floor symbolises the web in which the girl is entrapped. The art critic Ruskin noticed this sybolism. He wrote to the Times on 25 May 1854, ‘the very hem of the poor girl’s dress, at which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet failing in the street’. The frame, designed by Hunt, also contains various symbolic emblems; the bells and marigolds stand for warning and sorrow, the star is a sign of spiritual revelation.
The underlying spiritual message was generally ignored by most critics, who concentrated instead on more sensational aspects of the composition. The model is Hunt’s girlfriend Annie Miller, an uneducated barmaid whom he met in 1850 when she was fifteen.
The second scene is a dimly-lit garret, five years later. The room is sparsely furnished and the few decorations include two portraits of the absent mother and father. The father has recently died and the mother has been driven out of her home, a fallen woman. The two orphaned girls comfort each other, the elder gazing sadly over the rooftops towards the moon. When the set of pictures was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1858, the drawing-room scene was hung between the other two. The writer and art critic John Ruskin described Egg’s triptych in his ‘Academy Notes‘; ‘In the central piece the husband discovers his wife’s infidelity; he dies five years afterwards. The two lateral pictures represent the same moment of night a fortnight after his death. The same little cloud is under the moon. The two children see it from the chamber in which they are praying for their lost mother, and their mother, from behind a boat under a vault on the river shore’.
Past & Present.
N U M B E R T H R E E .
In the first scene the family are still together, and the husband has just learned of his wife’s adultery.
The second scene takes place five years later. The father has recently died and the mother has been driven out of her home, a fallen woman. The two orphaned girls comfort each other, the elder gazing sadly over the rooftops towards the moon.
In this third picture the moon occupies the same position in the sky, indicating that the scene is taking place at the same time. The children’s mother, now destitute, has taken refuge under one of the Adelphi arches, described by the Art Journal as ‘the lowest of all the profound deeps of human abandonment in this metropolis’ (quoted in Wood, p.53). Under her shawl she shelters a young child, clearly the result of her adulterous affair, which is now over. Directly behind her a poster advertises two plays at the Haymarket Theatre, ‘Victims’ and ‘The Cure for Love’; another announces ‘Pleasure Excursions to Paris’.
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