Susannah signed with initials 'TMR' (upper right) oil on board 19.5 x 19.5cm (7 11/16 x 7 11/16in).
Thomas Matthews Rooke, R.W.S. was born in London in 1842 and studied at the National School of Design in South Kensington before moving on to become a student at the Royal Academy Schools.
When Rooke was twenty-nine years old he applied to work as a designer at Morris & Co. and was made studio assistant to Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, taking over the vacancy left by Burne-Jones's previous assistant, Charles Fairfax Murray. The partnership of Rooke and Burne-Jones proved a happy one. The former had great respect for his master, considering Burne-Jones 'a Demi God or kind of Divine Creature,' and Rooke in turn was affectionately called 'little Rooke' by the 'Divine' artist himself. Rooke became more than simply a studio assistant for Burne-Jones, but also a close friend. He wrote down many of Burne-Jones's conversations during his last few years in the studio with him, creating a lasting record of his master's thoughts and character, and showing the extent of Rooke's involvement in the creation of many of Burne-Jones's works. Rooke was an accomplished painter himself, exhibiting works in oils at the Royal Academy, New Gallery, and Grosvenor Gallery, usually focusing on subjects from the Old Testament and showing influence from the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Some of his major works include the series of The Story of Ruth in the Tate Britain and King Ahab's Coveting in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth. Merton Russell-Cotes has written of Rooke in his autobiography stating that he was the most renowned of Burne-Jones's assistants, a man of great talent, and that 'Rooke produced his poetry not in verse, but portrayed it in his pictures.'
1878 marked the year that Rooke's duties would go beyond those of assistant and confidant to Burne-Jones. That year he took on a commission by John Ruskin to travel through the Continent in order to draw cathedrals and buildings in danger of falling victim to decay and ruin, thus preserving them as they stood for the future. Burne-Jones had recommended Rooke to Ruskin because of Rooke's strong attention to detail and exacting care; in the letter to Ruskin, Burne-Jones writes that 'there is a very high place in Heaven waiting for him, and HE DOESN'T KNOW IT.' Rooke spent his time between drawing on the Continent and assisting Burne-Jones, and the watercolours commissioned by Ruskin are now in the Ruskin Museum in Sheffield. His time working for Ruskin ended in 1893, but Rooke continued drawing and creating detailed watercolours of buildings and architectural views, being elected an Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1891, and made a full member in 1903.
In the 1885 Summer Exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, Rooke exhibited a painting called Susannah which hung in the West Gallery. The apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders, proven so popular with artists through the ages, tells of the righteous woman spied upon by the elders of the city while bathing, who after rejecting their advances was wrongly and unjustly accused of adultery. Although condemned to death for protecting her virtue, both her reputation and life were saved by Daniel's intervention. The subject matter fits well with Rooke's penchant for biblical stories, and Susannah herself displays the idealised features of an auburn-haired beauty included in many of his works, for instance in The Dancing Girls now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
This small work is likely the Susannah from the 1885 exhibition. It has a movement and musicality about it, a sense of his aforementioned ability to convey poetry in painting that pervades the composition as Susannah turns to flee from her predatory voyeurs. Even in a work of such small stature, Rooke shows great skill and emotion.