Although not an elected member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Arthur Hughes is closely associated with that movement, and he participated in exhibitions with Pre-Raphaelite artists. He also worked on the Arthurian murals at the Union Hall of the Oxford University Debating Society, with key members of the group. After this experience, Hughes continued to paint medieval themes.
The tale of ‘Fair’ Rosamund, daughter of Walter de Clifford of the Fitz-Ponce family and mistress of Henry II of England, was a favourite story for artists and poets during the nineteenth century. According to the legend, Henry created a secret garden for Rosamund, a secluded place accessible only via a maze, at the royal residence at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. In 1176, the king’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine apparently discovered the secret garden then poisoned Rosamund. In Fair Rosamund, Hughes depicts the moment when Eleanor, seen lurking in the background, has found the entrance to the garden.
The rich symbolism in Fair Rosamund adds depth to the narrative. For instance, Hughes has placed blue foxgloves, source of a strong poison, along the queen’s path to her victim. The irises before Rosamund are similarly portentous – the Greek goddess Iris chaperoned the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields, and purple irises were often planted on the graves of women. The iris is also associated with the fleur-de-lys, symbol of the French crown: prior to marrying Henry, Eleanor had been queen of France.
Text by Laurie Benson from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 78.