Sunday, 22 October 2017

Past and Present

This is the first scene in Augustus Egg's Past and Present, recently discussed on Britain's Lost Masterpieces. The man has just come in (that's his briefcase and umbrella in the foreground, and he's set down his top hat on the dining-room table). He's clutching in his hand an incriminating letter, revealing his wife's affair.

The picture is full of symbolism: on the back wall are portraits of the couple, and engravings of the temptation of Eve, and a shipwreck by Clarkson Stanfield. The wife has just cut an apple in half - a gleaming red apple from the Tree of Knowledge, but it has a rotten centre. Notice her beautiful brown silk skirt and filmy blouse, and the little girl's moire silk dress. The children are building a house of cards which is about to fall. The woman's snake bracelet may be a reference to the snake in the garden of Eden.

Here's my reading: the man came in and stood, showing her the incriminating letter. She fell to her knees in front of him, holding up her clasped hands and begging for forgiveness. He may have pushed her over - or else he refused to forgive her, and she fell, still holding out her arms. Now her clasped hands and bracelets make it look as if her arms are shackled. He then collapsed into a chair.

In the subsequent pictures, the little girls, grown older, are alone in their bedroom. The older girl is looking sadly out of the window at the moon. The wife looks up at the same moon from an arch on the foreshore. She is holding another child under her shawl.

The pictures are here.

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