Sir Edward John Poynter  Lesbia and her sparrow, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 cm

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Lot 110
Sir Edward John Poynter, PRA RWS
Lesbia and her Sparrow

Sold for £ 180,000 (US$ 228,026) inc. premium
Sir Edward John Poynter, PRA RWS (1836-1919)
Lesbia and her Sparrow
signed with initials and dated '19 EJB 07' (lower left)
oil on canvas
49 x 37cm (19 5/16 x 14 9/16in).


  • Provenance:
    Wolf Harris Esq., by 1922;
    Oswald J. Finney Esq.;
    Christie’s Rome, “Belli Arazzi, Mobili, Francesi e Inglesi Dipinti Tapetti Oriental e Argenteria”, 25-26th May 1972, lot 349;
    M. Newman Ltd., London, by 1972;
    Christie’s, London, 30th Nov 1984, lot 82, where purchased by the current owner;
    Private collection, UK.

    London, Royal Academy 1907, no. 39;
    London, Royal Academy, “Exhibition of Works by Recently Deceased Members of the Royal Academy”, Winter Exhibition, 1922, no. 147, lent by Wolf Harris Esq.;
    M. Newman Ltd, Art in Europe, 1840-1950, 8-24th November 1972, no. 15.

    Pall Mall Magazine Extra, 1907, frontispiece, illustrated;
    Royal Academy Pictures, 1907, p. 45, illustrated;
    Art Journal, 1907, pp. 194 and 195, illustrated;
    Illustrated London News, 1907, vol. CXXX, p. 804, illustrated;
    The Times, 4th May 1907, p. 11: “Of the President’s two, most people will prefer the very dainty “Lesbia and her Sparrow” (39), charming in colour and finished like a miniature. Historically, we fear, Lesbia was by no means so innocent looking as this fair lady, who is evidently quite incapable of the enormities which Catullus, in later poems, laid to her charge. But Sir Edward may properly reply that nobody believes a lover in a fit of jealousy, especially when he happens to be a poet.”;
    The New York Times, 27th July 1919, noted in the artist’s obituary, p. 22.

    Considered among Poynter’s more important works, Lesbia and her Sparrow immediately met with critical approval when shown at the Royal Academy in 1907. Poynter, who is regarded second only to his friend and mentor Frederic Lord Leighton as a master of Victorian classicism, invariably portrayed scenes from Antiquity. While some were based on Greco-Roman mythology others, as here, were inspired by its literature and specific historical figures. The story of Lesbia and her Sparrow was told by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84-54 B.C.), who referred to Lesbia in 25 of his surviving 116 poems. Lesbia is generally considered by scholars to represent Clodia Metelli (b. c. 95 BC), wife of Metellus Celer, who of noble birth was known for her beauty, her talent as a poetess but also for her scandalous lifestyle, counting among her many lovers Catullus himself. Theirs however was no simple love story but was beset with bitter jealousy and remorse. To this end the poet immortalized her in the guise of Lesbia in impassioned verse and referred to her bird in such lines as “Sparrow! my pet’s delicious joy, Wherewith in bosom nurst to toy. She loves, and gives her finger-tip. For sharp-nib’d greeding neb to nip”. At the height of their affair the sparrow, who eventually died, is considered to symbolize the poet’s enduring love and may also convey erotic connotations. Although present day admirers of Poynter’s work might assume that Lesbia’s name was linked to her sexual inclinations, it was in fact a common Roman name and one chosen by the Latin poet because it had an identical metrical value to that of his great love Clodia. In addition, the name Lesbia carried literary associations with the Greek 7th century BC lyric poet Sappho who lived on the island of Lesbos and whose work Catullus much admired.

    Poynter’s masterpiece perfectly captures Catullus’s delight in his mistress yet cleverly suggests the apparent flaws in her character as expressed so vehemently by Cicero when he prosecuted her in Pro Caelio. Here we see a classical beauty whose attention is drawn to her sparrow which perches on her outstretched arm. In her hair, Lesbia wears a wreath of violets – flowers that were enjoyed by the ancients and ones that were associated with the chief Olympian god Zeus. Amongst other attributes, violets symbolized love and fertility and as such were used in love potions. Later in Medieval times they were made into crowns to be worn by winners of poetry contests. Thus here the violets relate to both Catullus and his mistress’s love of poetry and for one another. The element of love is extended to the abundant sprays of roses. Because of its fragrance and beauty the rose was sacred to Venus goddess of love, yet this ancient flower also grew thorns and as such Renaissance artists compared the pricking of its thorns to the wounds of love. While white roses came to symbolize innocence and red roses deep passion, Poynter only included musk and yellow blooms. In the language of flowers, musk roses symbolize capricious beauty while yellow roses a decrease in love as well as infidelity – characteristics that were all associated with Clodia and her literary pseudonym. The inclusion of grapes and the vine trellis behind also appears to carry symbolic meaning; although grapes are not directly associated with Lesbia it is no coincidence that the bunch suspended across her breast is heart-shaped. In secular art the fruit is often used to symbolize hedonism, carousing, joy and life, which can all be associated with Clodia and indeed Lesbia; furthermore the fruit, which has always been closely associated with Bacchus god of wine, may also refer to Clodia’s repute for drunken revelries. Great attention is given to the various textured finishes, from the gold threaded cushion and intricate ivory birdcage to the shimmering green marble tabletop and contrasting carved marble seat with its male herm support that also featured heading a pillar in Helena and Hermia (RA 1901; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide).

    In 1906, the year prior to the completion of the present work, the artist’s wife Agnes died. Agnes, known as Aggie was one of the four remarkable Macdonald sisters; her sister Georgiana married the celebrated painter Edward Burne-Jones while Alice became the mother of Rudyard Kipling and Louisa the mother of Stanley Baldwin P.M. It is possible that this poignant scene was in fact a tribute to Aggie, who like Clodia and indeed Lesbia was known for her beauty and intellect. We know for instance that the idea for the oil was conceived at least five years earlier; in 1902 the artist executed a chalk study of Lesbia showing her in a very similar pose though less contemplative as she had to turn to view the sparrow which at that stage was perched on her shoulder. In contrast to the final version she wore no crown of violets, instead her hair was coiled in a bun and in place of grapes she held cherries in her left hand. Although the decision to change such details may have been for aesthetic reasons it was probably related to Poynter’s own emotional state. Here in the later oil, Lesbia’s pose is more serene, she holds purple fruit and wears flowers and drapery to match. Purple was not only a colour associated with wealth and nobility, as worn by Roman Emperors, but also one linked to spirituality, while the violets not only symbolize love but also traditionally relate to mourning and affection for the dead.

    Three years after the artist’s own death, Lesbia and her Sparrow was shown at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition, being one of a number of works including Poynter’s The Cave of the Storm Nymphs (RA 1903) to be lent by the collector Wolf Harris Esq. (the latter was almost certainly the same Wolf Harris (1833–1926), who was philanthropist and director of the merchant firm of Bing Harris and Co, New Zealand). The work was subsequently acquired by Oswald J. Finney (1880-1942), a leading figure in Alexandria, who amassed great wealth and consequently a fine art collection resulting from a number of business ventures including the cotton trade and publishing.

    Poynter was not alone in his choice of subject since Lesbia and her Sparrow inspired a number of other British and Continental artists, counting among them two other champions of the classical milieu, namely Lawrence Alma-Tadema (a scene of Lesbia mourning her dead sparrow, shown in Munich 1869) and John William Godward (1916). Others whose work was taken from Catullus’s verse included Léonce J. V. de Joncières (shown at the Paris Salon, 1899) and Tony Robert-Fleury (Bowes Museum, Co. Durham).

    Known as one of the finest academic artists of his age, Poynter’s fame extended beyond his ability as a painter, counting among his many posts that of Slade Professor and Principal of the National Art Training School, South Kensington. He was also the last practicing artist to become the director of the National Gallery, combining the latter position with that of President of the Royal Academy for 23 years. In recognition of his remarkable service to the arts he was knighted in 1896, became a baronet in 1902 and despite his then outmoded style in art was awarded the KCVO in 1918 and finally was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Edward John Poynter (British, 1836-1919) Lesbia and her Sparrow
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