Already in the collection of the Earl of Ellesmere at Bridgewater House by 1855 (when it was shown at the Paris Exposition Universelle), this large watercolour was showered with favourable reviews and remains an outstanding example of Corbould’s work for its chimerical, dreamlike quality and dramatic immediacy. 'The Art Journal' called 'The magic mirror' a work of ‘extraordinary depth and power’, while 'Bell’s Weekly Messenger' declared the picture ‘the very best specimen which the artist has ever delineated’.
The curious subject was inspired by an apocryphal episode in the life of the gallant and unfortunate Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – courtier, soldier and poet at the court of Henry VIII, who was captivated by the childish beauty of Lady Elizabeth FitzGerald, known as ‘the fair Geraldine’, and to whose service he had devoted his pen. During his travels the lovesick Surrey pined for his beloved and turned for a cure to Cornelius Agrippa, the celebrated astrologer and student of the occult. Agrippa, who possessed the ability to summon up apparitions, obliged Surrey’s wish to see Geraldine and conjured in a magic mirror the object of his affections.
The story of the Earl of Surrey’s vision of ‘the fair Geraldine’ was described in Thomas Nashe’s romance 'The unfortunate traveller' (1594). Sir Walter Scott, in canto six of his long narrative poem 'The lay of the last minstrel' (1805) recounted the fabulous tale:
Dark was the vaulted room of gramarye,
To which the wizard led the gallant Knight,
Save that before a mirror, huge and high,
A hallow’d taper shed a glimmering light
On mystic implements of magic might;
On cross, and character, and talisman,
And almagest, and altar, nothing bright:
For fitful was the lustre, pale and wan
As watchlight by the bed
Of some departing man.
But soon, within that mirror huge and high,
Was seen a self-emitted light to gleam;
And forms upon its breast the Earl ‘gan spy
Cloudy and indistinct, as feverish dream;
Till, slow arranging, and defin’d, they seem
To form a lordly and a lofty room,
Part lighted by a lamp with silver beam,
Plac’d by a couch of Agra’s silken loom,
And part by moonshine pale,
And part was hid in gloom.
Fair all the pageant: but how passing fair
The slender form which lay on couch of Ind!
O’er her white bosom stray’d her hazel hair;
Pale her dear cheek, as if for love she pin’d;
All in her night-robe loose she lay reclin’d,
And pensive read from tablet eburnine
Some strain that seem’d her inmost soul to find:
That favor’d strain was Surrey’s raptur’d line,
That fair and lovely form,
The Lady Geraldine.
In Corbould’s watercolour, the Earl of Surrey is shown dressed in armour, kneeling in a magic circle delineated in chalk, rapt before the apparition of Geraldine reclining upon a couch reading her lover’s verses. When 'The magic mirror' was first exhibited in 1853, writers emphasized Corbould’s compelling rendition of the subject, which combined history, poetry, folklore and fantasy. 'The Era' described it as ‘a finished performance of the highest order’, with ‘the air-suspended couch … and the mystic implements of the cabalistic art scattered around’, while for the art critic of 'Bell’s Weekly Messenger', the detail of ‘the waning moon through the window curtain is a piece of still effect which harmonises with, and tones down, the darkness of the working of the spell with immense power…’
The reviewer in 'Reynolds’s Newspaper' recognised ‘that the force and brilliancy of this popular water-colourist and his thorough command over his material have never been more advantageously displayed than here. His work has the force of oil, and displays effect which in oil never could be attained. The phantom Lady revealed in the midst of floating mists, is exquisitely portrayed; while the attitude of the chivalrous Earl, whose back is turned towards the spectator, implies all the mingled awe and ecstasy which the vision was so well calculated to excite.’
Corbould exhibited with the New Watercolour Society from 1837 until 1898, and was principally known for his highly finished, technically ambitious watercolours inspired by history that challenged the perceived superiority of oil painting. He enjoyed the patronage of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and in 1852 he became instructor in drawing and painting to the royal children. Among his duties arranging tableaux vivants for the royal children to perform on special occasions for their parents.
The Earl of Surrey ‘beholding the Fayre Geraldine in the magic mirror’
watercolour and bodycolour with gum
96.0 x 123.0 cm sight; 118.0 x 151.0 x 5.5 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.l., black "EDWARD. H.Y. CORBOULD. / AD 1853.
Parramore Purchase Fund 2016
Not on display
Shown in 5 exhibitions
Exhibition of the New Society of Painters in Water-Colours 1853, New Society of Painters in Water-Colours, London, Summer 1853–Summer 1853
Exhibition of the Royal Manchester Institution 1853, Royal Manchester Institution, Oct 1853–Nov 1853
Exposition Universelle de Paris de 1855, Exposition universelle de Paris, 15 May 1855–15 Nov 1855
The Victorian imagination:
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 02 Jun 2017–03 Dec 2017
1st Earl of Ellesmere, KG, circa 1853-circa 1855, London/England, thence by descent to Lady Rochdale (1871–1966), born Lady Beatrice Mary Egerton, 3rd daughter of Francis Egerton, 3rd Earl of Ellesmere (1847–1814), Limpsfield, Surrey, until Oct 1948
23 Mar 1981, London/England, Sold at Sotheby's Belgravia, London, 23 Mar 1981, lot 15 (GBP3,600)
Private Collection, 23 Mar 1981-06 Nov 1996, England, Offered at Christie's, London, 25 Nov 1988, lot 122, bought in. Sold at Sotheby's, London, 6 Nov 1996, lot 297. Purchased at this sale for GBP8,625 by The Maas Gallery, London
The Maas Gallery, London, 06 Nov 1996, London/England, Offered at Christie's, London, 28 Nov 2000, lot 69, bought in. Purchased by the AGNSW from them, June 2016
Referenced in 30 publications
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Bell's Weekly Messenger, 25 Apr 1853, p 6.
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The Era, no 762, 'The Society of Painters in Water Colours', 01 May 1853, p 9.
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Daily News, no 2155, 'New Society of Painters in Water-Colour', 18 Apr 1853, p 6.
Exhibition of the New Society of Painters in Water Colours, the nineteenth, London, 1853, p 15, no 279.
The Ladies' Cabinet, 'Amusements of the month – New Society of Painters in Water-Colours', May 1853, pp 277–78: p 278.
The Times, no 21405, 'New Water-Colour Society', 18 Apr 1853, p 6.
The Literary Gazette, 'The New Water-Colour Society', 23 Apr 1853, pp 408–09: p 408.
The Athenaeum, no 1330, 'New Society of Painters in Water Colours', 23 Apr 1853, pp 504–05: p 504.