Vox Populi – a painting, surprisingly, for Christmas

12th December 2011
Here is one of my favourite paintings for Christmas. It is called Vox Populi (voice of the people). The artist is the Victorian/Edwardian painter Edmund Blair Leighton (not to be confused with Lord Frederic Leighton, another painter of renown at that time). It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1904 but depicts a scene from a much earlier time in history - as can be seen from the costumes, which are of the medieval period.
Victorian painting of medieval town square, people, queen and prince
'Vox Pupuli' by Edmund Blair Leighton. Click to enlarge.

Why I like it

I like this painting because it takes the viewer on a stage-by-stage journey into the imagination. Along the way it reveals various layers of possibilities of what might actually be taking place. And our understanding of it alters dramatically several times in the process until it is actually turned completely upside down – and then back again. Let me explain.

When we first look at the painting, we see a fabulous scene of a crowded courtyard of citizens. Flags and banners are waving. And a young boy being placed upon a balustrade by a woman whom we assume would be the boy’s mother. We are astonished at the artist’s skill at rendering so many different surfaces and textures. Look at the wood and plaster of the houses; the stone of the castle and battlements. Look at the beautiful fabric of the woman’s dress; the armour of the soldier; the woollen carpet upon the balustrade - and the cool stonework and carving of the balustrade itself with its stone steps. Wonderful.

But what is it all about?

We turn to wondering what might be taking place. Is the noble lady showing something to the boy, holding him up to see? No, we quickly realise that the crowd of people gathered here are, in fact, looking up at the boy. He is being displayed or presented to them in celebratory fashion. Perhaps. It is a happy scene, full of rejoicing.

But then wait, because a moment later we notice that between the balustrade and the crowd there is a row of helmets, soldiers. They are not looking at the boy at all but are instead gazing out at the crowd. Perhaps keeping guard. Why? We assume because the boy must be very important, a Prince perhaps. Perhaps the woman is the Queen? But why is her son being shown to the crowd?
detail from painting shows line of soldiers, their helmets, from behind
We feel suddenly slightly uneasy. It is not entirely a dignified thing for a Queen to be doing. This uneasiness is further compounded when we notice the grave-faced soldier standing behind the Queen. He does not look like he is her husband, but rather is a knight very much engaged in some kind of ongoing campaign as illustrated by his armour and weapons. This is, we realise, a time of war (a common theme in Leighton’s work); a time of uncertainty and foreboding.
detail from painting shows senior soldier or nobleman, armed, looking stern-faced

A precarious position

Then we return to the boy and notice that he is not entirely happy with his place up on the balustrade, either, that his hand is extended somewhat and that he feels himself to be in a precarious position. We now realise that the kingdom itself is in a precarious position, and the hitherto perfectly balanced and harmonious feudal society that we thought the scene was showing us is, in fact one of disarray.
detail from painting shows mother and boy in medieval garb, opulent colours
All this comes into focus when we read the lengthy inscription given with the painting at the time. It would have been printed in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ...
“Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, showing her son, the Prince of Wales, to the people in order to gain adherents to the Lancastrian cause. The Prince was slain at the battle of Tewkesbury, and Margaret at the same time taken prisoner."

Wars of the Roses

We are therefore in the middle of the dreadful civil war of medieval England known as the Wars of the Roses. The king, the boy’s father, is by this time either taken prisoner or is dead. And the only hope lies in the young prince being able, by his presence, to somehow rally the people and thereby give them hope. A measure of desperation.

When we further place 'Vox Populi' in the context of Edwardian England, however, at the time the painting was made, we realise much more. We realise that the shadow of the first world war – only 10 years away at the time of painting - was already beginning to fall across much of Europe as the nations were beginning to line up and come under the influence of the warmongers and armaments manufacturers.

Already England had experienced terrible carnage and waste of human life in the Crimea and Transvaal. Germany was seen as the next foe. The precarious state of the prince sums up the precarious state of the nation. The comfortable, well ordered world of the enclosed courtyard with its crowds of onlookers, the world in which every man and woman knows his or her role in a well-structured society is about to be thrown to the winds.
old black and white photo of Edwardian gentleman, moustache, seated at desk, turning to look at viewer
The Edwardian artist Edmund Blair Leighton.

Vox Populi Conclusion

After a while, however, this magnificent painting does tend to bring us full-circle, revisiting our initial reaction to it. We are given hope by the enduring, timeless strength of the scene itself. There will be conflict, yes. Many of those present will be gone, their lives destroyed in battle. But the internal cohesion of the culture that is about to be disturbed will prove strong enough in the end. The castle and the courtyard will remain, as will the descendants of those present and the values of those who will survive. It is a moment of sacrifice, but also one in which the sacrifice itself will be rewarded.
Finally, it then seems that in Vox Populi we might really be looking at a religious painting of sorts. It is a product of Edwardian England, after all. And we are therefore back to the idea of celebration again. Only the celebration is a Christian one. The boy is quite possibly a metaphor for Christ; the woman for Mary. It would certainly get my vote for the ultimate Christmas Card. A wonderful and very special painting.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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