This bold figure study was made by George Richmond whilst he was training in Paris in 1828 and contains the first compositional study for Comus, a work Richmond would eventually exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1864, as well as an early study for Christ and the Woman of Samaria a picture completed in 1828 and now in the Tate. The sinuous line drawing is entirely typical of Richmond’s draughtsmanship at this date, whilst he was under the influence of William Blake and exploring the works of Michelangelo.
George Richmond was the son of a miniaturist, Thomas Richmond, and began drawing antique sculpture in the British Museum when he was only 12 years old. He entered the Royal Academy Schools at Somerset House on 23 December 1824, and exhibited his first academy work, in tempera, in 1825: Abel the Shepherd. At the Academy Richmond made a number of life studies and studies after antiquities, including the remarkable sheet in the Ashmolean, Boswell’s Thigh and the right arm of Michelangelo’s David. The most profound early influence on Richmond was that of William Blake, to whom he was introduced by John Linnell when he was sixteen; Richmond said that a conversation with Blake was like talking with the prophet Isaiah. He was at Blake's home, 12 Fountain Court, the Strand, on 12 August 1827, when Blake died, and he closed his eyes. A moving account of Blake's death, which Richmond sent to his friend Samuel Palmer, described how: ‘His countenance became fair—his eyes brightened and he burst out singing of the things he saw in Heaven. In truth he Died like a Saint’ Blake had been the mentor to a group of young artists and friends which came to include Richmond. Samuel Palmer was the pivotal figure; the other members of the circle were Edward Calvert, Palmer's cousin John Giles, and two sons of the architect Charles Heathcote Tatham,. The Ancients, as they called themselves, met regularly, and frequently visited Shoreham in Kent, where Palmer's father lived and the painter himself owned a cottage.
In August 1828 Richmond went to France to broaden his study of art, he stayed some nine months, returning to England in May 1829. At Paris Richmond worked extensively in the Louvre noting in 1844: ‘I carefully studied the fine works in the Louvre both pictures and sculptures and earned what I could by drawing a few portraits.’ The preparatory sheet for Comus shows evidence of Richmond’s work in the Louvre. The figure of Comus Carrying his Cup is technically close to sheets by Michelangelo, particularly a study of a Male Nude of c. 1502, Richmond emulated Michelangelo’s hatching to model the legs using a similar matrix of brown pen lines. The pose of the figure itself is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Bacchus, casts of which were available in both London and Paris.
The sheet is a full compositional study for a treatment of Milton’s Comus. Richmond’s completed painting Comus – The Measure is now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. A work many years in gestation: it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864 and appeared in Richmond’s studio sale at Christie’s, 1 May 1897 (lot 90). It illustrates a passage from John Milton’s poem:
Break off, Break off, I feel the different pace
Of some chaste footing near about this ground.
Run to your shrouds, within the breaks and trees;
Our number may affright.
Comus was a masque presented at Ludlow Castle in 1634. The story is of a young lady separated from her two brothers, guided by an Attendant Spirit in the form of their father’s faithful shepherd Thrysis, rush in to rescue her. The moment Richmond has illustrated is when Comus senses the approach of the rescuers and calls his followers to run to hiding places in the wood. The present drawing is the first record of Richmond’s interest in the subject matter and shows that his first idea for the composition was far closer to the tempera works he was producing in the 1820s. Indeed Richmond noted himself that the fragmentary studies on the verso of the sheet are the initial ideas for his tempera picture of for Christ and the Woman of Samaria. The female figure on the left turning away from Comus recalls the seated female figure in The Blessed Valley of the same year whilst the single, monumental figure of Comus recalls Richmonds’s other work at this moment, such as Abel and the Shepherd of 1826 and Samson Carrying the Gates of Gaza, The Sower from 1830. The sheet also demonstrates the influence of Samuel Palmer and ultimately William Blake.