Henry William Pickersgill RA, The Oriental Love Letter, oil on canvas, 1824.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Object of the Month - July 2008


Henry William Pickersgill RA (1782-1875), The Oriental Love Letter, oil on canvas, 1824

Pickersgill was born in 1782 and early in his life was adopted by a silk merchant, for whom he started working aged 16. The war with France meant this business declined and Pickersgill decided that he wanted to become an artist. He attended the Royal Academy Schools in 1805 and from 1806 he exhibited the first of 384 works at the Royal Academy over the next 66 years. He died aged 93, having painted portraits of people from a wide variety of backgrounds: from thespians to religious figures and from William Wordsworth to Michael Faraday.

The subject matter of The Oriental Love Letter reflects a growing interest in the East in the first half of the 19th century and particularly in scenes from the harem which greatly intrigued the Victorian public. Pickersgill's wife Maria published Tales of the Harem in 1827.

Pickersgill's work depicts a woman dressed in richly embroidered clothing presumably set in a harem. The woman is wearing an abundant collection of pearls and this, along with the recently received flowers implies that this woman was favoured. Flowers were used as a method of communication by symbolically chosen bouquets. A verse by Lord Byron alluding to this was included in the catalogue when Pickersgill first exhibited this work in 1824:

'the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well
By love's alternate joy and woe'

The Oriental Love Letter is on exhibition at Tate Britain until the 31st of August 2008 in The Lure of the East. For further information please visit: