Faithful unto Death Recent discussions of Faithful unto Death point to the various convergences of contemporary literature, painting, and politics that inform Poynter's most famous painting. Christopher Wood, who tells us that "The figure of the faithful soldier, remaining at his post during the destruction of Pompeii, made an immediate hit with the Victorian public." (136). According to Wood, " Not only was it based on an episode in Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, an enormously popular and influential book, but the idea of stoic devotion to duty was one very dear to Victorian hearts. Poynter's approach to the subject was an original one, combining the antiquarian methods of Alma-Tadema and Gerome, with the more heoric and monumental style of Leighton. . . . This formula of combing historical acuracy with heroic action was Poynter's main contribution to the classical movement, and it was to be much copied by other artists."

Norman Vance adds tha in contrast to The catapult, Faithful unto Death "rather more directly epitomizes the conjunctions of archaeology, imperialism and Victorian England. Sir William Gell had reported in Pompeiana (1817-19) that excavations had revealed a human skeleton still grasping a lance, probably a sentinel 'who preferred dying at his post to quitting it for the more ignominious death which, in conformity with the severe discipline of his country, would have awaited him'. In The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) Bulwer Lytton picked up on this, observing that: The skeletons of more than one sentry were found at their posts.'

"Gell's account establishes some critical distance from the 'severe discipline of his country' and there is a distinctly ironic edge to Bulwer Lytton's account of sentries too well drilled to be independently sensible, but this did not survive into Poynter's sombrely heroic painting, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which had intervened demonstrated the need for duty and self-sacrifice in extreme conditions at the limits of empire, so the sentinel at Pompeii became a celebrity in the 1860s, an honorary Briton, represented by Poynter as standing unflinching at his post with lava cascading round him. He also appeared at the beginning of Charlotte Mary Yonge's remorselessly improving Book of Golden Deeds (1864) as one whose bones 'have remained even till our own times to show how a Roman soldier did his duty' (242).


Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. 1834. Full text (in Victorian Web).

Vance, Norman. The Victorians and Ancient Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983. 131-53.

Victorian Web Visual Arts Painting

Last modified 15 January 2007