The Night Before Naseby, 1859. Oil on canvas, 39 x 49 cm (15 3/8 x 19 3/8 inches). Provenance: bought as Lot 115 ("attributed to Augustus Egg"), Toovey's, Sussex, 26th March 2014.
Commentary by Paul Crowther
This is a smaller version of a much larger painting with the same title that was exhibited as no. 40 at the Royal Academy in 1859. The R.A. painting was one of the last works Egg exhibited, and was belatedly presented as his diploma work for full R.A. status in 1863 (three years after his election). Like many other Victorian artists, Egg would sometimes earn money by doing smaller copies of his major works. If the larger work was successful, then selling the copies would be an income-supplement; on the other hand, if the larger work did not find a buyer (as was the case with The Night Before Naseby) then the sale of a smaller copy would allow at least some of the costs of making the larger work, to be recovered. (The Crowther/Oblak Collection includes other examples of these smaller "spin-off" works by Goetze, Goodall, Stone, and Ward.)
Whether the present work has the historical accuracy that Egg was often praised for is difficult to determine. It represents Oliver Cromwell deep in prayer on the night before the Battle of Naseby—which took place on June 14th 1645. Naseby was the defeat that finally destroyed King Charles the 1st's armies in the English civil war. At this time, Cromwell was a high commander in the Parliamentarian army, but not yet its supreme leader. There are a number of houses in the Naseby area where Cromwell is alleged to have stayed the night before the battle. However, he may well have been in his tent, as Egg represents him.
It was commonly believed that before battle Cromwell would read scriptures for guidance, and this is, of course, what the present work focusses on. It is identical to the larger R.A. picture in all respects except for lighting and the appearance of the moon. In the larger picture, the lighting involves more emphatic chiaroscuro, and the moon is less obscured by tree branches.
Critical opinion concerning the R.A. painting was very divided. The Annual Register declared it to be "a picture that can scarcely be beheld without awe, so powerful is the representation of the great Puritan captain wrestling in prayer within his tent, his open bible resting on his naked sword" (May 1859, p. 57). Ruskin was more sceptical. He described the picture as "An interesting contribution to the store of hints for better understanding of English history which painters and poets are now continually throwing out for us. This scene is, however, hardly strange enough to have the look of reality: it is what we should, or could, all imagine about Cromwell; while most likely, if we had really been able to look into his tent the night before Naseby, the look of him would have been something different from what we should have imagined. A picture which is not at first a little wonderful to us, can hardly at last be true to us" (216). Ruskin's point is that Egg presents Cromwell very much as we might imagine him to have appeared, but, to be artistically "true" it would have to address the fascinating aspects that real situations have, over and above our stereotypical imaginings of them. Blackwood's Magazine was also sceptical as to the merits of Egg's painting, and noted, disparagingly, that "Our English art loves to dwell on the accidents and circumstances of religion, instead of reacting to its inward spirituality or essence" (August 1859, p.136).
Ruskin and the Blackwood's writer are, however, unfair in their judgments. Egg's treatment of his theme is actually adventurous. In imagining Cromwell in his tent the night before battle, we might well visualize him on his knees, praying by candlelight. However, we would scarcely think of him being presented in such deep shadow, with only the vague outlines of his facial expression discernible to the viewer. And it is equally unlikely that we would imagine his open bible kept upright through the physical support of his battle-sword. As is the case with most works of historical genre, Egg's painting presents a non-climactic moment, but it does not—as Ruskin insinuates—amount to anti-climax. There is a genuine element of wonder in how Cromwell is rendered.
This is why the Blackwood writer's comments are also misleading. Cromwell is rendered in shadow so as to declare the passionate intensity of his spiritual devotion in its essence—rather than through embedding it in a host of distracting details. Indeed, the active relation between Cromwell at prayer and the surrounding light, creates a distinctively protestant visual theology. This is because in Egg's picture, it is not through the authority of the church (and/or its saints) that the individual achieves Divine grace, but through personal supplication. In fact, if Egg's composition (in either version of the painting) is to be criticized, it would be fairer to base this on the awkward visual formalities of the tent drapery, rather than on the artist's imaginative conception, as such.1
You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
1. Criticism on these lines was, indeed, made by the Art Journal's critic who (amongst other points) suggests that the picture is "an original idea, that has suffered somewhat in a perhaps hasty execution" (Art Journal, June 1859, p. 161).
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 29.
Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin. Academy Notes: Notes on Prout and Hunt, 1855–1888. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, George Allen, eds. London and New York: Library Edition, vol. 14, 1904.
Last modified 8 December 2014