‘The Sailor’s Bride’ by Frederick Sandys
Accession Number: 1906P874
This is one of several works by Frederick Sandys in the Birmingham collection which relates to ‘The Sailor’s Bride’. This one is an uncut woodblock, an interesting artefact in itself; the notes on the BMAGIC website give more details:
The reverse shows that it is made of two boxwood blocks which have been screwed together. The opposing grains of the two blocks can be seen showing through the drawing. Sandys drew his design using pencil, brush and ink over a thin layer of ‘Chinese’ white. Usually the design would then have been engraved by cutting away the areas not drawn on using a metal burin. Unusually, this block has been left uncut. This may well have been an extra block required due to difficulties with finding a suitable engraver. Sandys was not pleased with the initial proofs of the illustration engraved by W. H. Hooper and demanded that his design be re-engraved by Joseph Swain. The Birmingham collection holds two proofs of the engraving by Hooper and two of the final wood-engravings by Swain. These show the two engraver’s different approaches to translating Sandys’s design in wood: Hooper keeps the thin, subtle lines drawn by Sandys but Swain is bolder, including thicker lines and creating more flat blocks of white.
The design was an illustration for the poem ‘The Sailor’s Bride’, by the now-forgotten writer Marian E. James, which appeared in the periodical Once a Week in 1861 (13th April, vol. 4, p. 434). James was the author of several sentimental, romantic novels, and a fairly regular contributor to periodicals at the time. The poem takes the popular, sentimental topic of arriving at a death-bed too late, one which other Pre-Raphaelite writers and artists explored. It is also a popular topic with other Victorian artists, such as those of the Newlyn School (such as Walter Langley) who depict the tribulations of seafaring life, including the strain on their families. Here, the sailor has returned home from the sea too late to see his wife alive; while she lies peacefully on a rumpled bed, he is comforted by an older woman in a bonnet, presumably his bride-to-be’s mother. Through the window, the sea can be seen, a reminder of the difficulties this way of life brought, though it also brings light it, a reminder of ultimate salvation, perhaps. The young woman’s desire to see the sea, as a reminder of her absent lover but also as a very Victorian view of the sea as relating to the tides of life and death, is indicated in the poem.
It has been noted that ‘The treatment by Sandys displays the usual psychological intensity, enhancing a type of scene that features throughout book illustration of the 1860s.’ The intensity of the deathbed depicted in the poem matches this. The poem has never been reprinted, so it is included in full below.
“Methinks the tide is high
And I would look upon the sea
Once more before I die.
Some ships are making for the bay:
It may be his is one.
Oh! Mother! how will Leonard grieve
To come and find me gone.
I well remember when he left
It was at summer tide.
He said that he would soon return
To claim his rosy bride.
But ah! the flush upon my cheek
That showed like health’s fresh bloom
Was Death’s warm clot – he had picked
His victim for the tomb.
I had a vague misgiving then
I could not put away;
And looked through parting tears into
A happy meeting day.
Alas he’ll be a widowed man
Before I am his wife;
Oh mother! for his sake and yours
I sometimes pray for life.
I know that he will come by here,
It may be come this day!
I once thought it was very hard
To die, and be away.
But now I feel His ordered will
That Leonard is not here;
I might have found it was more hard
To die when he was near.
Tell him I had my little bed
Before the window drawn,
That I might look upon the sea,
And think of him each morn.
And say that with my latest breath
I prayed God soothe his pain;
And, mother, bid him give that so
We two may meet again.
I know that you will grieve for me,
But he will be your son;
Tell him I bid him watch o’er you,
When your own child was gone.”
Gazing upon the far off sea,
Awhile she quiet lay,
Then murmured, “Father, lead my thoughts
From earthly things away.”
And with that prayer God gave her peace,
And she was very calm;
And like the swan that sings its dirge,
Chanted some favourite psalm.
Then stole a cloud across her face;
“All things are growing dim,
Mother! Can this be death?
Kiss me, And give my love to him.”
A hand is on the cottage door;
A face bends over the bed.
Too late it is hath Leonard come;
Love cannot raise the dead.