Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) Gentle Spring
Gallery 56, English Nineteenth Century Art, Second Floor


Focus on the Object

The painting Gentle Spring was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865. It was accompanied by a sonnet it inspired, by Algernon C. Swinburne (Posthumous Poems p.112). The figure, called by Swinburne the ‘virgin mother’ of ‘gentle days and nights’, also represents Prosperpine, whose return from the Underworld accompanies the return of spring. References to the transience of the seasons pervade the painting: dandelion clocks and butterflies represent fragility; apple blossom indicate the cycle of bearing fruit and subsequent decay into winter; the rainbow in the background is one of nature’s most transitory effects; and the figure herself almost crushes the flowers of spring underfoot. The flowers are all carefully depicted and readily identifiable: snowdrops and crocuses adorn her hair; anemones, narcissus, cornflowers, wallflowers, nasturtiums and pansies are strewn at her feet. The background was painted in May-June 1864, in the garden of Sandys’s friend, the poet George Meredith, at Copsham Cottage, Esher. The female figure, although inspired by classical statuary such as the ‘Oxford Bust’ in the Randolph Gallery, was perhaps Millie Jones, whose sister Mary became Sandys’s common-law wife. She is one of a number of full or half-length female figures in classical draperies and symbolising classical characters which appear in Sandys’s art at this period.