Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 89-92
Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 156-160
Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, 51-53.
DGR's letter to Charles Eliot Norton of July 1858 describes his intention toward this
subject and picture in some detail, as well as the whole disastrous project of 1857 with the Oxford murals (see
Fredeman, Correspondence,58. 16
). Although the pictures began to deteriorate on the unprepared walls almost aimmediately, DGR's letter to Norton does not give a hint
that anything was amiss:
“I may now go on to tell you something about the Oxford pictures. I dare say you know that the building is one by Woodward the Debating Room of the Union Society. Its beauty & simple character seemed to make it a delightful receptacle for wall paintings, and accordingly a few of us thought we would decorate it, as an experiment in a style to which I, for one, should like to devote the whole of my time better than to any other branch of the art. With the exception of Arthur Hughes & myself, those engaged upon it have made there almost their début as painters they are Edward Jones, W. Morris (of whom you saw some stories in O[xford] & C[ambridge] Mag[azine] and who, I think, must have sent you his volume of poems),1 Spencer Stanhope, Pollen, & V. C. Prinsep. Jones's picture is a perfect masterpiece, as is all he does. His subject in the series (which you know is from the Morte d'Arthur), represents Merlin being imprisoned beneath a stone by the Damsel of the Lake.
My own subject (for each of us has as yet done only one) is Sir Lancelot prevented by his sin from entering the chapel of the Sancgrael. He has fallen asleep before the shrine full of angels, & between him & it, rises in his dream the image of Queen Guenevere, the cause of all. She stands gazing at him with her arms extended in the branches of an apple tree. As a companion to this I shall paint a design which I have made for the purpose, of the attainment of the Sancgreal by Lancelot's son Galahad, together with Bors & Percival.
The series commences with Pollen's picture, King Arthur Obtaining the Sword Excalibur from the Damsel of the Lake; & ends with Hughes's Arthur Carried away to Avalon & the Sword Thrown Back into the Lake. The other pictures painted are, 1st by Morris, Sir Palomides' Jealousy of Sir Tristram; 2nd, by Prinsep, Sir Pelleas Leaving the Lady Ettarde; & 3rd by Stanhope, Sir Gawaine Meeting 3 Ladies at a Well.2 Several spaces still remain to be filled, & will be so gradually as time allows. Something more, if not all, will be done this long vacation. I shall be going down there myself almost immediately. The works you know are all very large the figures considerably above life size, though at their height from the ground they hardly look so. I trust, when the work is finished, you will see it some day. There is no work like it for delightfulness in the doing, & none I believe in which one might hope to delight others more according to his powers.
I forgot to say that over the porch of the building we have, carved in stone, the Round Table, with Arthur & the Knights.”
Surtees commentary is brief and to the point: “In 1857 Rossetti, with six other painters, undertook to decorate the wall-bays above the gallery running round the hall of the Oxford Union Debating Society (now the Library) with paintings in distemper of scenes from Malory's Morte d'Arthur. The bays lay immediately below the ceiling; each was pierced by two circular six-foil windows. Rossetti chose two bays for which he made designs, but only painted on of the subjects on to the wall, leaving it uncompleted in 1858. his other designs were committed to paper only; the Attainment of the Sanc Grael (No. 94), however, served as a study for the 1864 water-colour of the subject, made for Ellen Heaton.
It is well known how the murals began almost immediately to deteriorate; none of the painters had ever before worked on new brick walls, and except for alayer of whitewash no further preparation had been made. Restored since then, Rossetti's bay dimly reveals his contribution” (Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 51 (no. 93)).