“The Death of King Arthur” by James Archer
“The Death of King Arthur” by James Archer depicts the death of the legendary King Arthur. Arthur is shown laid out; his wounded body and clothes reveal his battle scars. He wears a suit of chainmail under a tunic, bearing the emblem of a dragon on the chest, and there is a fur blanket covering his legs. Arthur’s head rests on the lap of Queen Guinevere, who is seated on a cushion on the ground as she strokes his brow. Seated at his side is another female figure, also wearing a crown, with an open book upon her lap, as she offers the King a drink from a tiny cup. Kneeling at his feet is the third female figure who is weeping into her hands. The fourth female figure with a mournful expression is kneeling closeby and resting her head against the trunk of a tree.
Apart and to the upper right of the group is the transparent and weightless figure of a winged female figure in profile, holding a golden grail that is visible. It is the Holy Grail, which serves as an essential motif in Arthurian literature. On the shoreline, to the left, is a lady and an older man whose face is hidden by a monk’s habit and hood. Based on the legends of King Arthur, we can assume that the elderly man on the shoreline is Merlin, the wizard and Arthur’s advisor featured in Arthurian legend. Similarly, the young woman is the “The Lady of the Lake” who plays a pivotal role in many stories, including giving Arthur his sword Excalibur.
To the right is a boat with its sails drawn up. Does the ship carry the cure for Arthur’s injuries from the Isle of Avalon? Avalon is a legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend. It is the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged and later where Arthur was taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann.
The Holy Grail is a treasure that serves as an essential motif in Arthurian literature. Different traditions describe it as a cup, dish, or stone with miraculous powers that provide happiness or eternal youth. The term “holy grail” is often used to denote an elusive object or goal.
In the late 12th century, Robert de Boron wrote that the Grail was Jesus’s vessel from the Last Supper, which was used to catch Christ’s blood at the crucifixion. After that, the Holy Grail became interwoven with the legend of the Holy Chalice, the Last Supper cup, a theme continued in works such as King Arthur.
James Archer (1822 – 1904), was a Scottish painter of portraits, genre works, landscapes, and historical scenes. He was the first Victorian painter to do children’s portraits in period costume. His work from the 1850s mostly consisted of scenes taken from literature or legends that were popular at the time, such as Shakespeare and King Arthur. In about 1859, he began to paint a series of Arthurian subjects, including La Mort d’Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848. The group intended to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.” The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.
The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life, and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy. They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible, and with intense attention to detail.
The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas. A later, medieval influence extended the movement’s power into the twentieth century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.
The Death of King Arthur
- Title: The Death of King Arthur
- Français: La Mort d’Arthur
- Artist: James Archer
- Medium: Oil on board
- Date: 1860
- Style: Pre-Raphaelite
- Dimensions: Height: 43.2 cm (17.01 in.), Width: 50.9 cm (20.04 in.)
- Museum: Manchester Art Gallery
- Artist: James Archer
- Born: 1823, Edinburgh
- Died: 1904 (aged 81), Haslemere, Surrey, England
- Nationality: Scottish
- Movement: Pre-Raphaelite
- Notable works:
Explore the Manchester Art Gallery
- “The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty
- “Hylas and the Nymphs” by John William Waterhouse
- “The Death of King Arthur” by James Archer
- Have the legends of King Arthur lost their appeal for the modern audience?
Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Art
- By John Everett Millais
- By John William Waterhouse
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti
- Marie Spartali Stillman
- Love’s Messenger
“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.”
– Camelot, musical by Alan Jay Lerner
Photo Credit: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons