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The Eve of St Agnes (or ‘The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry’)

This painting illustrates an episode from John Keats's poem The Eve of St Agnes (1819-20), a Romantic narrative poem of 42 Spenserian stanzas set in the Middle Ages. The scene illustrates the moment Madeline and her lover Porphyro escape from her father's house during the festivities on St Agnes' Eve. The poem was considered by many of Keats's contemporaries and the succeeding Victorians to be one of his finest and was influential in 19th century literature.

Keats based his poem on the folk belief that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the St. Agnes's Eve (20 January). She would go to bed without any supper, and transfer pins one by one from a pincushion to a sleeve while reciting the Lord's Prayer. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream. In the original version of his poem, Keats emphasised the young lovers' sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism. Hunt read the poem in 1847 and felt it expressed "the sacredness of honest responsible love and the weakness of proud intemperance."

When the picture appeared at that year's Royal Academy exhibition, it attracted the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who came up and introduced himself to Hunt. Hunt, Rossetti and Millais became the three principal member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in opposition to the Academy's stuffy ideals and outworn teaching. Hunt remained true to their ideals and his paintings are notable for their great attention to detail, vivid colour, and elaborate symbolism. The group had a list of their own 'heroes' who they thought epitomised greatness, and Keats was on this list. The artwork inspired by his poetry is often credited with reviving Keats's reputation and allowing a bigger audience for his work in the Victorian age to the present day.

No. 1033

Presented by Sir Charles Wakefield, Sir George Touche and Sir Francis Agar, 1924

Oil on canvas
108.0 x 143.0 x 10.0 cm
Image and text © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London, 2022

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