William Bell Scott (Scottish, 1811-1890) The Norns watering the Tree of Life (Presented in the original gilt frame decorated by Henry Treffry Dunn )

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Lot 60
William Bell Scott
(Scottish, 1811-1890)
The Norns watering the Tree of Life
Sold for £ 75,000 (US$ 97,577) inc. premium

Lot Details
William Bell Scott (Scottish, 1811-1890) The Norns watering the Tree of Life (Presented in the original gilt frame decorated by Henry Treffry Dunn )
William Bell Scott (Scottish, 1811-1890)
The Norns watering the Tree of Life
signed and dated 'W. B. Scott 1876' (lower right); signed with monogram (centre left); titled in stylised script (around the neck of the central urn)
oil on canvas
175 x 114.5cm (68 7/8 x 45 1/16in).
Presented in the original gilt frame decorated by Henry Treffry Dunn


  • Provenance
    Dr. Elton Augustus Eckstrand (1928-2008) Collection, Penkill Castle, Scotland (castle and contents acquired in 1978).
    The Property of Elton A. Eckstrand; Sale, Christie's, Penkill Castle, Scotland, 15 December 1992, lot 181.
    Private collection, UK (acquired from the above sale).

    While Medieval literature was a predominant inspiration, William Bell Scott like William Morris, was fascinated by the ancient legends and particularly drawn to the Nordic myths – a theme that Scott so admirably visualises in the present work. Dated 1876, this large oil depicts the Norns – the three Nordic goddesses who, as dispensers of fate, represented the past, present and future. They were charged with tending the Yggdrasill (or Iggdrasil), a mighty ash tree that supported the whole universe. This tree of life had three main roots, one of which extended into the dwelling of the gods, known as Asgard. Beside this root was a spring, from which the Norns constantly watered the tree. Scott, who was a skilled artist and writer, composed a poem to accompany this painting. In 1876 he sent his verse The Norns Watering Yggdrasill to The Athenaeum and later featured it in A Poet's Harvest Home, being one hundred Short Poems by William Bell Scott. The anthology, published in 1882, was dedicated to William Michael Rossetti, brother of his other great friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The painting was also reproduced as an engraving, appearing in The Etcher, 1879, vol. I, pl. 3, of which an example can be found in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

    Of Scott's many obituaries, The Academy, (6th December 1890, p. 529) described this oil as "his last easel painting of significance." The painting comes with a fascinating history since it once hung at Penkill Castle, the home of Alice Boyd, Scott's pupil, muse, and lover. He and Alice first met in 1859, when Scott was head of the Newcastle School of Design and while he was still working on his famous historical murals for the Trevelyan family at Wallington, Northumberland. At the time Alice, who never married, was living at Penkill with her much adored brother Spencer, who had inherited the fairy-like castle near Girvan. As 14th laird, Spencer lovingly restored the somewhat dilapidated castle with its round tower and crenelated battlements overlooking the Firth of Clyde toward the Isle of Arran. When Spencer Boyd died prematurely in 1865 and Alice became the 15th laird, Scott was keen to continue his visits to Penkill. Thus, he embarked on decorating the walls of the spiral staircase in the new tower with murals illustrating scenes from The King's Quair, a poem believed to have been written by James I of Scotland while imprisoned at Windsor Castle. During his many visits to Penkill, Scott, sometimes brought his wife Letitia, who accepted his and Alice's close relationship. In fact, the ménage à trois seemed to work well with the Scotts spending part of the summer at Penkill and then Alice staying with them during the winter months at their London homes, firstly at Elgin Road, Notting Hill and then at 92 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (close to Rossetti who lived at no. 16). In addition to Scott, other visitors to Penkill from the Pre-Raphaelite fraternity included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina, William Morris and Arthur Hughes. During his stays, Hughes painted views of the garden and interior including one of the main hall, where the present painting eventually hung above the fireplace. Scott's last five years were spent at Penkill, with Alice as his constant companion. He died there on 22nd November 1890 and was buried nearby in Old Daily churchyard in the Boyd family burial plot. When Alice died in 1897, she too was buried there.

    In a letter dated 18th April 1876 to William Michael Rossetti, Scott invited him and his wife to see his picture at his home in Cheyne Walk. This is assumed to be the present work for in a subsequent letter to W. M. Rossetti, dated July 2nd 1876, he urged both him and his brother Dante Gabriel to "make another inspection of The Norns Watering Iggdrasil, on which he has done further work, and has also sent a poem on the subject to The Athenaeum" (online annotations to William Bell Scott's letters at Durham University Library, respectively MSS. 838/115 and 838/120/1-2). When apart from Alice, Scott regularly wrote to her. In his discussion of these letters, W. E. Fredeman notes that in June 1876 "Scott's spare time was devoted to etching a number of his 'Backhome' sketches, visiting the R. A. Exhibition, painting on his picture, The Norns....", to which he added a footnote "This picture, for which H. T. Dunn [Henry Treffry Dunn] was decorating the frame, is discussed in several letters quoted here; its present location is unknown. WBS' poem on the picture appears in A Poet's Harvest Home." (William Evan Fredeman, The Letters of Pictor Ignotus: William Bell Scott's Correspondence with Alice Boyd, 1859-1884, 1976, p. 319).

    The fact that the decoration of the frame was given to Henry Treffry Dunn, Rossetti's studio assistant, adds weight to the importance to which Scott placed on his painting. Dunn was working on the frame during 1877. On June 19th that year, Scott noted in a letter to Alice "I first went along to Rossetti's not to see him but Dunn to understand whether he had got the verses on the label done." Four months later, on 17th October, he referred once more to Dunn and Rossetti (who was in poor health) "Yesterday Dunn came in by way of seeing the Norns' frame now the label is on it, but I fancy to tell me about DG [Rossetti]" (ibid, pp. 324-5).

    Following Alice Boyd's death in 1897, Penkill and all its works of art were inherited by her spinster half-niece Eleanor Margaret Courtney Boyd (1864-1946; whose father was the son of Alice and Spencer Boyd's mother by her second marriage). When Eleanor Margaret died in 1946, the building and contents were passed to her half-sister Evelyn May Courtney, who then added Boyd to her name when inheriting the castle and becoming laird of Penkill. A former dancing teacher and gentle by nature, she grew frail, in debt and prone to unscrupulous visitors who 'borrowed' or took items from Penkill. In particular, she fell prey to Willie Hume, who delivered her milk and other requirements. He moved into the gate lodge as her caretaker, then persuaded her to sell the lodge for a nominal sum and gradually began selling items from Penkill. On one occasion Hume and a local antiques dealer tried to remove a portrait by Scott of Alice and her brother Spencer which was firmly fixed to the wall. On the frame was a sign written by Scott warning "Move not this picture, Let it be, For love of those in effigy." Taking no notice of the words, Hume duly removed the portrait but immediately he began choking and died from angina that night. The incident prompted Evelyn May to sell the castle and its remaining art in 1978. The purchaser was Dr Elton Augustus Eckstrand, an American lawyer with a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites. He enjoyed this painting hanging in prime position in the main hall over the fireplace, one of the three fates most notably casting her sombre otherworldly gaze on all who passed beneath her. Eckstrand cared for Penkill but when reaching sixty, he decided that it was time to move on. The castle was sold separately while the contents were auctioned on site by Christie's in December 1996. The sale comprised 325 lots to include original pieces of furniture and furnishings that Alice and Scott would have used. Among the many works of art, were ancestral portraits, paintings by Arthur Hughes and a number by Alice which more than demonstrated her skill as an artist. There were also over thirty drawings, watercolours and oils by Scott (some being grouped into one lot). Among them were historical and literary scenes, portraits of Alice, her brother Spencer and their grandfather as well as a full-scale drawing for 'The Norns Watering the Tree of Life' and of the course the painting itself, which was acquired by the present owner. Since then it has appeared on national television and was the inspiration for a scene in a large format 70mm film, 'Sacred Journey', about the life of St Cuthbert and the foundation of Durham Cathedral and City, which also included other imagery inspired by Scott's Northumbrian murals.

    We know that the work was owned by Eckstrand and was included in his sale in 1996. However, knowledge of its ownership prior to Eckstrand is more speculative, especially since when writing in 1976, W. A. Fredeman noted that "its present location is unknown" (Fredeman, op. cit, p. 319). Fredeman visited Penkill in the 1960s so either he missed the work, which may have been in storage or it was not at Penkill at that stage but was acquired by Eckstrand, who then later took it to the castle. Sadly, Fredeman is no longer alive so cannot be consulted. Despite this discrepancy, it is logical to assume that the painting was at Penkill when Scott died in 1890 and that it was still there when Alice died six and a half years later. If that was the case, it would then have been inherited by Eleanor Margaret Courtney Boyd and in turn by Evelyn May Courtney Boyd.

    Six preparatory drawings for the finished oil are in the National Galleries of Scotland Collection. These provide an interesting insight into how Scott developed his composition. Two are intricately detailed watercolour studies of the ash tree's foliage and bark, together with some lines from his poem. Three others are pencil drawings of the Norns themselves and clearly indicate that at one stage Scott had intended for one of the goddesses to be leaning forward while holding onto the handle of a large urn. A sixth study or cartoon worked in pen and ink with subtle brown and grey washes on tracing paper shows the final composition as here with the three Norns, the birds above and swans below in the same poses (fig 1). The finished oil, which is a synthesis of these and other unrecorded studies, stands as testimony to Scott's skill as an artist and storyteller.
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