Decapitations /
The Legend of Cuchulain

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.


Decapitations (aka Religious Subject), c.1912?
Pen, ink and watercolour, ruled diagonally for transfer, the outlines pricked and incised, 61 cm x 61 cm

On the left, three bearded figures in ankle-length tunics each hold up a severed bearded head. In the centre, a boy with a short sword in one hand gestures towards them with his other hand. An elderly bearded man bends down to him and also gestures towards the other three, apparently in anger; behind him a woman holds a baby, and to the right a figure with a sword in his right hand has his left hand in front of his lowered face.
This may be the design that Roberts submitted under the title The Legend of Cuchulain (see below) for the competition held in connection with the 'Exhibition of Designs for Mural Painting and for the Decoration of Schools and Other Buildings' held at Crosby Hall, Chelsea, in 1912.
PROVENANCE: Sir Cyril Butler > ? > Redfern Gallery > Sir Ralph Richardson > Sotheby's 15 May 1985 (as Mythical Subject, £10,000) > ? > Lord and Lady Irvine of Lairg
EXHIBITION HISTORY: Crosby Hall 1912 (as The Legend of Cuchulain)?, New English Art Club (1) 1925 (as Decapitations), Australia and New Zealand 1954 (as Religious Subject), Barbican Art Gallery 1989 (as Unidentified Subject), The Fleming Collection 2009 (as Mythical Subject)


The Legend of Cuchulain – design for a wall painting, 1912

In 1912 an 'Exhibition of Designs for Mural Painting and for the Decoration of Schools and Other Buildings' was held at Crosby Hall, Chelsea, in connection with which a competition was held for mural designs for specific locations, one of which was the proposed Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. The warrior hero and demigod Cuchulain from Irish mythology may have been a suggested subject for this – other entries included 'The Meeting of Cuchulain and Emer' by Colin Rae and 'Cuchulain at Rosnaill' by Alfred Cooper – although the winning design for Dublin, by Frederick Cayley Robinson, showed 'The Coming of St Patrick to Ireland, A.D. 430'.
Roberts's entry, The Legend of Cuchulain, may have been the drawing later exhibited as Decapitations (see above), which has the same square format as the Rae, Cooper and Robinson designs and the same dimensions as the last of these. (The dimensions of the other two are not known.) But if this is the case it seems to have involved a very free mixture of elements of the Cuchulain legend.

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