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Oil painting - Ariel


  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Rome, Italy (painted)

  • Date:

    1826 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Severn, Joseph, born 1793 - died 1879 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    oil on millboard backed with canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, room 82, case WEST WALL

Severn took the image from Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, where the mischievous sprite Ariel sings:

There I couch when owls do cry.
On a bat's back I do fly…

He was a close friend of the poet John Keats in Rome, where this work was painted. He exhibited several paintings of Ariel at the Royal Academy. There is another in the V&A collection (see 1416-1869).

Physical description

Oil painting

Place of Origin

Rome, Italy (painted)


1826 (painted)


Severn, Joseph, born 1793 - died 1879 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

oil on millboard backed with canvas

Marks and inscriptions

'Severn/Rome 1826'


Height: 24.7 cm estimate, Width: 38.1 cm estimate, Height: 41 cm frame, Width: 56 cm frame, Weight: 3.5 kg with frame, Height: 40 cm Frame, Width: 52.1 cm Frame, Depth: 5.8 cm Frame

Object history note

Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend, 1868

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'Ariel', Joseph Severn, 1826

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, Ronald Parkinson, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1990, pp. 261-62
The following is the full text of the catalogue entry:

"SEVERN, Joseph (1793-1879)
Born Hoxton, London, 7 December 1793, son of a musician. Apprenticed to engraver William Bond; at early age 'began to find some solace in the study of literature' (Sharp, p7). Studied at RA Schools, won gold medal for historical painting (first awarded for 12 years) 1818. Exhibited 53 works at the RA between 1819 and 1857, and nine at the Br 1825-43: portraits, Italian genre, literary and biblical subjects. Most famous for his friendship with the poet John Keats, whom he accompanied to Italy 1820 and nursed until his death 1821. Lived mostly in Rome, appointed British Consul 1860-72. Died Rome 3 August 1879, eventually buried next to Keats. His children Arthur and Waiter Severn, and Ann Mary Newton, were also artists.

LIT: W Sharp The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn 1892; S Birkenhead Against Oblivion: The Life of Joseph Severn 1943; S Birkenhead Illustrious Friends: the story of Joseph Severn and his son Arthur 1965

1410-1869 Neg69181
Millboard, backed with canvas, 24.7 X 38.1 cm (9¾ X 15 ins)
Signed and dated 'Severn/Rome 1826' bl
Townshend Bequest 1869

Severn exhibited two paintings of 'Ariel' at the RA in 1836 and 1838, but it is not possible to identify either of them with the present work or with the Ashmolean version discussed below.
The image is taken from Ariel's famous song in act 5 scene 1 of
Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In the cowslip's bell I lie:
There 1 couch when owls do cry.
On a bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

George Keats, brother of the poet, had written to Severn in about 1817 that The Tempest was a masterpiece of 'fanciful poetry' (quoted by Sharp, pp17-8).
If the date on the present work is indeed 1826, the painting is the first of four with the same composition. The second was commissioned by Robert Finch, the antiquarian collector (1783-1830) who lived in Rome in the 1820s; Severn finished the painting in Rome by 26 February 1830, and payment was raised from £30 to £50; Finch also authorised a duplicate Ariel in 1830 (ed J Stillinger The Letters of Charles Armitage Brown 1966, pp315, 319-20), which Gladstone saw in Severn's Rome studio on 4 June 1832 (ed MRD Foot The Gladstone Diaries 1968. Finch died on 16 September 1830 and bequeathed his collections to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where the 'Ariel' remains (panel, very damaged, 39 X 53 cm (15 X 20½ ins), lent to the RA 1880 (26)).
The duplicate may well have been the version exhibited at the RA in 1836 (228); its present whereabouts are unknown. However, it may be identical with the fourth version of the 'Ariel' composition, sold to Severn's friend in Boston, USA, James T Fields. Fields wrote to Severn on 15 May 1871 :

Don't I mention your name at least twenty times a week, when I show those two charming pictures which I bore away from your studio in London so many years ago? The 'Ariel' hangs in my library, and the Gainsborough in the reception-room below, and they are both the delight of my eyes and those of my friends. The 'Ariel', being on panel, has warped somewhat, and I am afraid to entrust it to anyone in order to bring it back. How I wish you were here to-day, and were going to dine with me, and afterwards give me your advice touching the panel, and how to restore it! (Sharp, pp273-4).

But the Fields picture is signed and dated 1859; it was sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet 12 June 1980 (19) and is now in a New York private collection.
Sharp illustrates two drawings of Ariel: one, described as the 'earliest study', shows the figure in reverse and with both arms in the air (facing p210); the other described as 'first study for the picture of "Ariel", now in the South Kensington Museum' and given in the list of illustrations as 'study for the picture of "Ariel Aflight" , (facing p272), is very close to the final painting.
The latter drawing reproduced by Sharp indicates an oval format; in the V &A Department of Metalwork is an early-19th-century oval cameo brooch (M274-1921) which is almost identical with Severn's composition.
See 'Ariel- "Where the Bee Sucks" , (1416-1869, below) for Severn's treatment of the same subject in a different composition. The Examiner of 3 October 1824 reported 'many studies from the "Tempest", he may paint them all, for they are in the true feeling for Shakespeare'.

Ronald Parkinson"


Canvas; Oil paint; Millboard


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Bat; Fairy; Ariel



Collection code


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