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IN 1901 the Victorian artist Herbert Draper received the most important commission of his life, to adorn the ceiling of the Drapers Company in London. For this huge painting he chose the symbolic pageant from one of Shakespeare’s most fanciful plays, The Tempest, where Prospero summons deities symbolising the four elements.

Draper prepared drawings of formidable female figures for this major work; majestic nude figures of the goddess Juno, the formidable Queen of Olympus, and Ceres, the goddess of tillage, were all drawn from statuesque models. Awash as well with athletic nymphs, the ceiling drew criticism from some waspish critics who found the nudes more suggestive of the ‘Sisters Gelatine’ performing their famous trapeze act, while other important commentators were highly complimentary, although several were amused by the nudity displayed on the guildhall for the cloth industry. But Draper’s ceiling didn’t rate with him and it didn’t rate either by the monoliths in the art world as an important artistic goal towards that great prize, associateship of the Royal Academy, which was denied thrice in his lifetime to Herbert Draper.

Simon Toll is a specialist in the Victorian pictures department at Sotheby’s and he has toiled for more than a decade on Herbert Draper, described by Christopher Wood in his book Olympian Dreamer, as “one of the best and least recognised classical painters of the period”.

Draper produced some of the most spectacularly decorative paintings of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the most astonishing of all being the The Lament for Icarus (1898), now in the Tate Britain and now valued at £1m.

The painting that established Draper’s reputation, which was sold by Christie’s in 1905 for £262.10s and presented to the Royal Cornwall Museum and Art Gallery, is The Sea Maiden (1894), a study based on Swinburne’s poem about the nymphs and sirens of the sea, female creatures of awesome destructive power and dreadful allure. The painting shows sailors hauling in their nets and pointing lasciviously and longingly at the luscious undine caught therein – looking disconcertingly like a young Twiggy. The popularity of nymphs during the century of the sexual repression is commented on by Toll: “The daughters of the ocean symbolise the alternative image of Woman from that of the petticoated china doll, allowing themselves to become absorbed by their hunger for sexual gratification.”

Much more prosaically Draper describes spending time making studies in a fishing boat off the coast of Devon and the Scillies watching nets being hauled as “a roguish sort of experience”.

A late follower of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Classicists and whose paintings are similar to those of John William Waterhouse and whose work shows influences by Lord Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, this book is a thorough study of the work of a neglected Victorian artist in the academic romanticist mode.

The author writes in a rather attractive and apt high-blown Victorian style, as when talking about Draper’s death: “After Aurora threw open the Gates of Dawn on the morning of 22 September 1920, Draper looked upon the light of Apollo for the last time.” Of this tortured, desperate and disappointed man Simon Toll says: “He never made the apotheosis to Parnassus” and who saw so clearly that Modernism was closing in around him.

Mr Toll has the highest regard for Draper. He has researched every aspect and period of Draper’s work through 18 chapters with such titles as the Septimus Child 1863 to 1890, Apollo Parnassus of St John’s Wood 1898 and Dreams of Mischief and Innocence 1899. In his postscript chapter Life after Death, Toll comments on some prices for this artist. In November 2000, £800,000 was paid by a private collector for Draper’s Mountain Mists at Christie’s London, a record for the artist; ten months earlier it was a sleeper at a sale by Kemp’s Antiques and Auctioneering Service in Grafton, Virginia and sold for £145,000, having come to sale from the estate of Mary Matthews, a well-known Virginia restaurateur who had run the local landmark, Nick’s Seafood Pavilion.Subsequent auction figures including two this year are more disappointing.

Sponsored, interestingly by the Royal Guild of Drapers and the Draper Isaacson Foundation in New York, this is a scholarly work on the Victorian canon, with good chapter notes and too few fine colour plates, a complete catalogue raisonné maddening in its text cross-referencing. It remains to be seen whether Herbert Draper’s star will shine again in the currently “this year good, last year bad” Victorian pictures scene.