Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Problem Picture

"Defendant and Counsel", By WF Yeames, 1895
[A print from my own collection]

I have owned this old late Victorian era framed coloured print since 1978 but only in recent years have I discovered the story behind it - but not as one would imagine!

Entitled "Defendant and Counsel", I often wondered what misdemeanor brought such a woman of obvious means and culture before her counsel, obviously preparing for a court case. What crime had she committed or been accused of? Was it a well known case? Was she declared innocent or guilty and what became of her? And exactly who in fact was this smart but troubled looking woman? The possibilities were indeed quite endless. Thus this painting has always intrigued me as I felt there should be an interesting story behind it.

A copy of the original painting giving a rather more 
accurate representation of "Defendant and Counsel
by William Frederick Yeames R.A., 1895
[Source : Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery]

Having come as a supplement to "The Graphic", Summer number of 1896, a publication to which my family in New Zealand subscribed, they duly had it professionally framed. The picture obviously intrigued them as much as myself. But I wonder, did they know the story behind it?

William Frederick Yeames R.A., taken 1883
[Source : The Print Collector]

Painted by the British artist William Frederick Yeames R.A. (18 December 1835 – 3 May 1918) in 1895, it was then exhibited at the Royal Academy. But what I have discovered is that Yeames specialised in a particular genre of art popular in the late Victorian era which was "...characterised by a deliberately ambiguous narrative that can be interpreted in several different ways, or which portrays an unresolved dilemma... The viewer of the picture is invited to speculate about several different possible explanations of the scene."

"Defendant and Counsel", By WF Yeames, 1895
[A print from my own collection]

Being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895, the painting "enjoyed immediate notoriety" and "visitors were desperate to know exactly what the lady had done."  A newspaper even ran a competition asking readers to guess what crime she may have committed. Please feel free to leave a comment below as to your own thoughts on her 'misdemenour'.

Unfortunately we have no record of who may have sat for Yeames in "Defendant and Counsel" but one thing we do now know for sure is that this scene is entirely contrived and fictitious.

This particular genre of painting continued to be hugely popular into the Edwardian age but increasingly came to be viewed as old fashioned so is thus little known today. For a rather interesting Wikipedia resumé of the life and work of William Frederick Yeames please click Here.

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