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Artist of the month: May 2016

Augustus Egg RA (1816–1863)

Published 1 May 2016

Augustus Leopold Egg was a talented painter and generous mentor, known for his atmospheric treatment of literary and historical subjects. To mark 200 years since his birth, we take a look at his life and work.

  • Egg began his training at Henry Sass’s academy in Bloomsbury, London around 1834 and entered the RA Schools in December 1836. As a student, he formed ‘The Clique’ with Richard Dadd, William Powell Frith, John Phillip and Henry Nelson O‘Neil. The group met weekly in Dadd’s lodgings to sketch a set subject (usually from Byron or Shakespeare) and discuss their work.

    John Phillip’s portrait of Egg was painted in 1859, when they had been friends for over twenty years (pictured). When exhibited at the RA, a critic in The Art Journal described it as “a small picture, painted with wonderful force. Perhaps it would not be too much to say it is the best portrait in the collection.”

    From about 1840, Egg began to paint literary and historical subjects, which received varying critical comment but overall were remarked upon for their strong dramatic characterisation. Egg’s reputation grew as he submitted a combination of light-hearted subject paintings with more serious, graver themes from literature and history. His Diploma work, The Night Before Naseby shows Cromwell in his tent on the eve of the battle in 1645 (pictured). Egg himself was noted as a good actor, who had a special talent for costume and stage design. The moment of anticipation and expectation Egg has chosen for his Diploma work and the contrast of light and dark to illuminate the figure of Cromwell can perhaps be seen to engage with Egg’s theatrical and dramatic vision.

    Egg was known for his friendship and generosity towards other artists, and in particular was a mentor-like figure and patron to artists of the younger generation such as William Holman Hunt and Henry Wallis.