William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) The Rape of the Sabines 152.3 x 109.3 cm. (60 x 42 in.) (Painted in 1955-56)

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Lot 79* AR W
William Roberts R.A.
(British, 1895-1980)
The Rape of the Sabines 152.3 x 109.3 cm. (60 x 42 in.)

Sold for £ 122,500 (US$ 166,865) inc. premium
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980)
The Rape of the Sabines
signed 'William/Roberts' (lower left)
oil on canvas
152.3 x 109.3 cm. (60 x 42 in.)
Painted in 1955-56


  • Provenance
    Ernest Cooper, Esq.
    His sale; Sotheby's, London, 22 November 1972, lot 90, where acquired by
    C.H. Administration, Ltd
    Sale; Sotheby's, London, 23 May 1984, lot 203
    With Belgrave Gallery, London, where acquired by the present owner
    Private Collection, U.S.A

    London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1956, cat.no.422
    London, Tate Gallery, William Roberts; A Retrospective Exhibition, arranged by the Arts Council of Great Britain, 20 November-19 December 1965, cat.no.91; this exhibition travelled to Newcastle; Laing Art Gallery, 1-22 January 1966 and Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 29 January-19 February
    Worthing Art Gallery, Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts, 1972, cat.no.56
    Southampton, Southampton Art Gallery (on loan)
    London, Belgrave Gallery, 1985, cat.no.25

    William Roberts, Paintings, 1917-1958, Canale, London, 1960, p.54 (ill.b&w)

    The Rape of the Sabines was originally owned by Ernest Cooper, among Roberts' most important and loyal patrons. The men were introduced to one another by Sarah, the artist's wife, who was a good friend of Ernest's first wife. In the immediate post-war years Ernest Cooper was one of the country's most enthusiastic advocates of health foods and owned a successful business producing what might now be termed 'organic produce'. Roberts and Cooper became close friends and he would go on to acquire many significant paintings by the artist, including Bank Holiday in the Park (1921), The Playground (1934-35), The Errand Boys (1936-37), Self Portrait (1948-49) and The Temptation of St. Antony (1950-51) among others. As Andrew Gibbon Williams comments:

    'Roberts accorded Cooper the singular honour of being allowed to accompany him on his daily research hikes through London, and during the immediate post-war period the anti-social artist and the health food entrepreneur could often be found taking tea together in the Lyons Corner House at Marble Arch. Roberts and Cooper also took to playing chess, even though Roberts was apparently not proficient at the game'. (Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts, an English Cubist, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2004, p.108).

    The present painting depicts one of the most pictorially documented legends in the early history of Rome, when Romulus founded the city and began the process of finding wives for its new male Roman inhabitants, thus securing its future generations. At the Festival of Neptune Equester organised by the city's leader, neighbouring communities, among them the Sabines, were invited to meet the Romans and only on the signal of Romulus did the aggression commence. However, in this context the rape does not describe the sexual violation of the women, but rather refers to their abduction. Only unmarried females were taken, with a view to future marriage, and according to some they were promised civic and property rights.

    Roberts introduces his own unique interpretation to the episode, by depicting the figures in quasi-modern dress, a favoured technique in religious paintings by his contemporary, Sir Stanley Spencer R.A. (1891-1959). The composition is saturated with colours and patterns which accentuate the rhythmic flow of the various figure groups. Whilst clearly depicting a serious and sober subject, Roberts is still able to incorporate his personalised sense of humour, which became more pronounced through the 1950s and in to the latter part of his career; a small, friendly looking dog paws helplessly at one of the assailants, whilst an infant hides behind an elderly matriarch dressed in black from head to foot, wielding a wooden beating implement. Her fully clothed body contrasts sharply with the young, bare breasted Sabine woman beneath. Both their struggles are seemingly in vain as the muscular and stylised men overpower their targets.

    First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1956, two years before William Roberts was granted his title of Associate of the Royal Academy, the present painting forms part of a series of large-scale canvases begun in the early part of the decade. Andrew Gibbon Williams remarks on these:

    'They are distinguished by their sheer virtuosity of compositional invention, brilliant colouration, exaggerated stylisation and dramatic chiaroscuro effects, and they obtruded magnificently from the mass of pedestrian work on display at the Royal Academy's summer show where most of them first appeared. For many of these pictures, Roberts turned again to the Bible and Classical mythology for subject-matter that might lend itself to modern narrative interpretation, and the results amounts to a baroque extravaganza, as if the artist were trying to emulate the theatricality of the sixteenth-century Italian master Caravaggio'. (Op.Cit. p.116)
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