‘Study of Grasses, Wild Arum and a Tree Stump’ by Frederick Sandys


‘Study of Grasses, Wild Arum and a Tree Stump’ by Frederick Sandys

Accession Number: 1906P807

Date: 1858

This study from nature is one of several sketches preparatory to Sandys’s illustration for George Meredith’s poem ‘The Old Chartist’ which appeared in Once A Week (February 1862).[1] The natural world is significant in the poem and its illustration: the Chartist[2] of the title is on his way home; he comments that he has been transported (the punishment for the Chartist uprising, commuted from the death sentence for treason), but he is too loyal to his country to stay away. The countryside is important to him:

It’s Summer in her bath this morn, I think.
I’m fresh as dew, and chirpy as the birds:
And just for joy to see old England wink
Thro’ leaves again, I could harangue the herds:
Isn’t it something
To speak out like a man when you’ve got words,
And prove you’re not a stupid dumb thing?

The natural world provides an important context here: his familiarity with it indicates he is of working-class, rural stock, but its presence in the poem also draws on familiar pastoral scenes, indicating a typical Englishness. Moreover, the bluff speaker can compare himself with the animals in spirit (‘chirpy as the birds’) but also contrast the ability of humanity to speak and act for themselves, not like ‘a stupid dumb thing’. This approach continues throughout the poem as the Chartist outlines his radical views:

And my estate is suffering for the Cause. –
No,-what is yon brown water-rat about,
Who washes his old poll with busy paws?

This study eventually formed one of the plants in the foreground of the finished image; it is a tiny detail, but one which indicates the care with which Sandys created the background for the Chartist; the plants are specific ones (such as wild arum), rather than being carelessly added in and generic, as one might expect.

[1] You can see the final image here.
[2] There is more information about Chartism here.