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William Cave Thomas
The Argument

$55,000

About

Signed and inscribed on a label on the verso: No. 1/ The Argument/ W. Cave Thomas/ 203 Camden Rd/ NW Provenance: Christie’s, London, 6 November 1995, lot 88. Private Collection, London. This powerful watercolor is a mature work by the little-known Victorian painter William Cave Thomas. Although he is generally considered a fringe member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, possibly as a result of the rarity of his works, Thomas was a close associate of several leading members of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and is credited with giving the movement’s famed periodical, The Germ, its name. Thomas here depicts a bearded man dressed in a lavish red velvet costume. The wonderfully coarse beard and fur hat suggest that the figure was inspired by a trip that the artist took to Russia. A label on the reverse of the frame written in the Thomas’s hand records the title of this work, The Argument. The close-cropping, spirited hand gestures, and penetrating stare of the figure suggests that the dispute in question is one between the protagonist of the painting and the viewer. The son of a frame maker and gilder, Thomas studied at the Royal Academy in the 1830s and in 1840 travelled to Munich, where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to England in 1843 and achieved modest success as an artist, art instructor, and writer in the nation’s capital. Thomas exhibited widely in London, most notably at the Royal Academy between 1843–1862 and at the Exhibition at Westminster Hall in 1845, where he won a £400 prize for a cartoon of an Allegory of Justice, which ultimately resulted in the fresco of the subject to adorn the House of Lords (in situ). In addition to working as the Master of the North London School for Drawing and Modelling in Camden, Thomas was a prolific writer and frequent contributor to the contemporary discourse on art and art education of his day. He penned numerous articles, pamphlets, and treatises on the arts, including: “The Influences Which Tend to Retard Progress of the Fine Arts” in the Builder (1848), Pre-Raphaelitism Tested by the Principles of Christianity: An Introduction to Christian Idealism (1860), and Mural or Monumental Decoration: Its Aims and Methods (1869). Thomas’s period of study in Germany, where he came into contact with Peter von Cornelius and Johann Friedrich Overbeck, played a crucial role in his stylistic development. His paintings have often been likened to those of the German painters known as the Nazarenes that he encountered in Munich. Despite the hints of “Germanism” detected in his works—including the hard lines and the prevalence of religious subjects—Thomas’s oeuvre should be viewed within the context of the main artistic movement of his day in England: Pre-Raphaelitism. Thomas was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti—one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—and of Ford Madox Brown, with whom he shared a studio in the 1840s. The dynamic between the subject and the viewer in the present work is paralleled in Thomas’s painting Eliezer Offering the Earring and Bracelets to Rebecca (Fig. 1). Here, the figure of Eliezer is similarly shown bust-length and peering out of the painting. The viewer implicitly takes on the role of Rebecca, who is being offered the jewelry that Eliezer holds in his right hand. Thomas frequently worked from literary and religious sources when designing his pictures, but no source text has yet been identified for The Argument. The figure’s beard and the fur hat—which resembles a Cossack hat—suggest that the figure may have been inspired by a trip that Thomas undertook to Saint Petersburg in the 1850s. Ford Madox Brown recorded in a diary entry dated 30 August 1854 his response to a work executed by Thomas shortly after his return from Russia: “He [Thomas] showed me a study of a Russian Merchant that quite astonished me, a most noble painting equal to anything modern or ancient.” The work seen by Ford Madox Brown was probably The Russian Dealer of the Gostvinordor, which Thomas exhibited at the National Institution exhibition the following year. That picture, which is now untraced, was judged among the best portraits in the exhibition and was described by one reviewer as an “elaborately-painted head…the fur in [which] is the very acme of imitation.” While it is tempting to associate this reference with our watercolor, it seems more likely that these were different works of closely related theme. Thomas’s handwritten label on the verso describes the painting as “No. 1,” which suggests that it was shown as the first work in an as yet unidentified exhibition. The North West London address inscribed was one that the artist moved to around 1871. While this may suggest that the watercolor is a relatively late work, Anne Thomas, who is writing a biography of the artist, believes The Argument likely dates from the 1850s, close to the time of Thomas’s travels to Russia, but was only exhibited later in his life.

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