‘Lethe’ – Head Study by Frederick Sandys


‘Lethe’ – Head Study by Frederick Sandys

Accession number: 1906P856

Date: c.1870-74

This chalk sketch uses the artist’s sister, Emma Sandys, as a model. In classical mythology, Lethe is one of the five rivers of the underworld, Hades, and is the river of forgetting. Lethe is sometimes personified as a spirit or goddess of oblivion, closely associated with the river. Betty Elzea suggests in her work on Sandys that the subject may be taken from Dante’s Purgatory.[1] In Canto XXXI, Dante has met Matilda, who is able to explain some of the mysteries of the world to him; he then sees Beatrice. After she has chastised him for not living as he should once she had died, Matilda immerses Dante in the river Lethe, to cleanse him of his sins and enable him to forget them entirely:

Up to my throat she in the stream had drawn me,
And, dragging me behind her, she was moving
Upon the water lightly as a shuttle.

When I was near unto the blessed shore,
“Asperges me,” I heard so sweetly sung,
Remember it I cannot, much less write it

The beautiful lady opened wide her arms,
Embraced my head, and plunged me underneath,
Where I was forced to swallow of the water.

The figure in Sandys’ painting seems oblivious herself; if she is inspired by Dante then she may be a representation of Matilda, as a kind of spirit of the river Lethe. The lips are full, the eyelids almost closed, and a look of peace as in death is on the figure’s face, perhaps indicating the complete oblivion of forgetfulness caused by the river. The painting would be all the more obscure were it not for the title it was given; as it is, it recalls Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix in the abstraction of the figure. Sandys produced a full-length Lethe too, in chalk (William Morris Gallery); here, ‘Sandys introduces poppies, associated with sleep and death’,[2] and the figure – for which this study provides the head – appears to be in a narcotic trance. The figure is draped, with the outline headdress which appears above more fully realised.

The late-nineteenth-century poet Gordon Bottomley was inspired by this other Lethe to write a sonnet:

Lethe, A Picture by Frederick Sandys
Your immemorial stream is as your eyes,
Languid to stillness, deep and dark as death:
Its inner waters nothing wakeneth—
No thrill of sorrow shatters in any wise
Their heavy-lidded quiet; memories
Swoon and are lost therein; all perisheth,
Save the delight of death, without a breath
To trouble those pools wherein oblivion lies.
Rich is your ceaseless poppy-harvesting,
As on your unremembered path you stray,
Meet flowers for the sorry garlanding
Of Proserpine reft from the world away
(Ease and forgetting do such coronals bring,
In their imperious odour’s dreamy sway).

Sandys was clearly drawn to mythic, dangerous women, who feature throughout his work, and Lethe is one of these. The pleasures and dangers of seduction by such a woman are emphasised in Bottomley’s poem.

[1] Betty Elzea, Frederick Sandys: A Catalogue Raisonné (Woodbridge, Suffolk : Antique Collectors’ Club, 2001), p.237.
[2] Ibid., p.238.