The Prodigal Sets Out

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.

The Prodigal Sets Out

The Prodigal Sets Out (aka The Prodigal Departs), 1927–8
Oil on canvas

The entry for The Rhine Boat 1927–8 in the Tate Gallery 1965 catalogue describes it as 'One of three paintings inspired by a visit to Germany, the others being "The Prodigal Departs" (which has since been destroyed by the artist) and "The Skittle Alley"'. In August 1927 Roberts travelled to Germany with his brother Michael, the writers H. E. Bates and Rhys Davies, a lawyer and book-collector called Cayford, and the bookseller Charles Lahr, who had published Bates and Davies and commissioned illustrations from Roberts (see Esther Lahr 1925). They sailed from Gravesend to Rotterdam, and then travelled via Cologne, Mannheim, Mainz, Coblenz, Bingen and Kreuznach to Lahr's birthplace in Wendelsheim, where for days they were plied with food and drink (Dean R. Baldwin, H. E. Bates: A Literary Life (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1987), p. 72). According to Davies, throughout the trip Roberts 'seldom stopped reading a pocket New Testament' (Rhys Davies, Print of a Hare's Foot: An Autobiographical Beginning (London: Heinemann, 1969), p. 171), and Lahr's reception in his home village seems to have prompted a comparison with the biblical parable in Luke 15:11–32, in which a young man asks his father for his share of his inheritance in advance, then goes away and dissipates it in prodigal (i.e. wastefully extravagant) living. When he returns home penniless, he is nevertheless welcomed back with feasting and rejoicing.
EXHIBITION HISTORY: London Artists' Association (1) 1929 (as The Prodigal Departs, 300 gns; 'As a composition it might be called a perforated cylinder – rather like a very elaborately carved Japanese netsuke – with an intricate movement of form and colour among the nine figures. On the human side it is a harvest festival, all the possible emotions of the scene – pathetic, derisive, impatient, and anxious – being expressed in the different faces and attitudes, while the Prodigal himself, in his little green hat, stares out at far horizons' – The Times, 18 June 1929), London Artists' Association (3) 1931 (uncatalogued according The Times, 30 Oct. 1931)
REPRODUCED: Roberts, Paintings 1917–1958, p. 34
DESTROYED by William Roberts

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