Hospitality: The Admission of Sir Tristram to the Fellowship of the Royal Table, by William Dyce. [Click on all the images to enlarge them.]

Excerpt from "Frescoes in the Queen's Robing Room of the Palace of Westminster" in the Illustrated London News

This great fresco is, we will at once say, one of the noblest works of art an English artist has ever given to the world, and only to be compared to the great water-glass pictures by Messrs. Herbert and Maclise, in other parts of the same palace, already reviewed in our pages. The fresco occupies a compartment on the north wall of the robing-room, measuring some 80 ft. in breadth by 14 ft. or 15 ft. in height. It contains about thirty-five figures, the foremost of which are at least lifesize; and it occupied the artist three years to paint, irrespective of the time spent on the cartoon and coloured sketches, which, for fresco, it is absolutely necessary to prepare before commencing on the wall.

We must remind the reader that the hero of the fresco, Sir Tristram, had acquired a fame as a knight-errant only second to that of Sir Lancelot du Lac himself, before his installation as Knight of the Round Table, and that his long-delayed admission into the order is one of the most memorable events of the Arthurian romances. It was only after fighting a drawn battle with Sir Lancelot, and both knights had mutually discovered themselves, that he was persuaded by his noble adversary to allow himself to be conducted to King Arthur's Court. The scene of the "Admission" is the great hall of King Arthur's palace at Camelot. The hall consists of a series of arcades with apertures composed of coupled Norman arches. The exact moment chosen for the picture is when the King, amidst general exclamations of "Welcome!" holds aloft his famous sword Excalibur to strike Sir Tristram with the flat of the blade on the right shoulder, and thus dub him Knight of the Round Table. The great King stands on a dais in his royal robes, his handsome, with the golden crown of state glittering with gems. With one hand holding the great magic sword high in the air, and pointing with the other to the mystic round table, he glances enthusiastically towards the assembled Court, knights, ladies, and spectators of all degrees. Sir Tristram, standing on the steps of the dais, inclines before the King, looks reverently towards the round table, and spreads forth his hands as if deprecating his unworthiness. He is clad in chain-mail hood or coif and hauberk, the latter covered with a surcoat; and accoutred with belts, from which hang sword and dagger; while round his hood is a bandlet of gold set with precious stones, distinguishing him as the son of a "king." The round table, which, according to Merlin, was in the shape, as well as a mystic symbol, of the great rounded plane of the earth, which was instituted by Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, to assemble the best knights of the world, and to number those who should "achieve the St. Greal" (of which more in another place), is placed to the extreme right, behind the King. It is represented as a somewhat small but massive object of Purbeck marble, with carvings of very early character. On it is a plate of apples, probably an allusion to the "Fortunate Island," or Island of Apples, the medieval garden of the Hesperides. Around the memorable emblem of the knightly brotherhood to which it gave its name are the principal officers of King Arthur's Court and household — Sir Kay, the King's foster-brother, and Steward or Seneschal, on the near side; and on the further side old Sir Ulfius, the Chamberlain; Sir Lucas, the Butler; and Sir Bawdewine, of Britain, Constable. This group is completed by a young knight with a coronet over his salade. This is probably Modred, who passed for the son of King Lot, and who was afterwards the traitor that caused the destruction of the King and his great order of knights. In front of Sir Kay is a wild, wizard-like figure, which might well be taken for that of Merlin. If, however, we accept the very confused chronology of the story, the great magician would at the period represented have been dead some time, a victim to the wiles of the fairy Viviana. The wreath of oak-leaves and harp proclaim this, however, to be at all events a bard, and therefore still a most important personage in connection with the earlier legends. The old greybeard is covered with loose drapery, and sways himself to the music of his harp with a kind of grim joy. The introduction of a bard among knights, some of whose costumes are of as late date as the fourteenth and even the fifteenth century, is one of those thousand anachronisms of the romances with which the painter is not, of course, chargeable. By the side of the bard stand two boy acolytes, in white vestments, chanting.

Close-up of Sir Tristram and King Arthur, with the "ladies of the Court" close to them.

The ladies of the Court, knights, and civilian spectators are grouped in the body of the hall, before the dais. Nearest Sir Tristram, with one hand uplifted in token of "welcome," is the fair and frail Queen Guinevere, in flowing robes and glittering diadem. Behind her are three or four of her attendant damsels. All of these are pretty; but one fair girl in a blue surcol has a beauty so radiant as almost to throw that of the Queen into the shade. Beyind this group stand a few other spectators, who take more or less interest in what is going on.

To the left, a space, nearly half that of the entire fresco, is occupied with knights, mounted and on foot, and attendant pages. The large size of this group is, by-the-way, somewhat detrimental to the balance of the composition. Most a conspicuous of the mounted knights, by dignity of presence as well as by prominence of composition, is Sir Lancelot, in brass corslet and golden-coroneted salade, and mounted on one of his favourite white chargers, richly caparisoned with embroidered bridle-reins and poldrail. With one hand held aloft, he loyally leads the almost universal acclamations. Beyond him, reiing in their horses, are Sir Gawaine and his borther Sir Gaheris, who, having left the Court vowing to bring back Sir Tristram, had met that "worshipful knight" with Sir Lancelot. Near and also mounted, are Sir Bleoberis and, probably, Sir Bors, Lancelot's kinsman. We need hardly say that Mr. Dyce had plenty of authority for representing these knights as having ridden into the hall. The custom was preserved down to our own day in the ceremony of the "Champion of England" (hereditary in the Dymoke family)- riding into Westminster Hall at the coronation of George IV.

Close-up of Sir Lancelot on his white charger.

To the extreme left of the foreground are four standing figures conversing. Here the vice of envy and other bad passions assigned to various knights in the old romances, and which the painter has perhaps hinted at in a few other figures, seem distinctly expressed. The figure which first catches the eye is Sir Dagonet, King Arthur's fool, in motley hose, hooded mantle, cap and bells, carrying his bauble. He is evidently bantering his listeners; and one of these, a knight in a long mantle, leaning on his battle-axe, resents the gibes by covertly pointing with a gesture of disparagement in the direction of Sir Tristram; while another knight, unarmed, turns upon him with surprise and anger at his malice. The knight with battle-axe might have been intended for Sir Palamedes, had not Sir Tristram's old enemy and rival been at the time in prison. We must therefore conclude this to be the always evil-disposed Sir Agravaine. A fourth figure, of very swarthy complexion, is plainly intended for one of the converted "Saracens" (as, for instance, Sir Persaunt of Inde, or Sir Sagramore). who are pretended to have sought the famous fellowship of King Arthur's knights from the remotest parts of the world. [413-14]

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Image downloaded, and text transcribed, by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned them and the Internet Archive, and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one.]


"Frescoes in the Queen's Robing Room of the Palace of Westminster." Illustrated London News. Vol. 45 (22 October 1864): 412-14 Web. 19 January 2024.

Created 19 January 2024