The first time that Jenkins actually sees a Deacon canvas is when he visits the Walpole-Wilson house in Eaton Square about 1928. “The canvas, comparatively small for a ‘Deacon,’ evidently not much considered by its owners, had been placed beyond the staircase above a Victorian barometer in a polished mahogany case. ” [BM 19/15]
It is amazingly easy to find a a photo to illustrate that barometer, but impossible, of course, ever to see the Deacon canvas of The Boyhood of Cyrus. Peter Campbell (London Review of Books 28:33 1/28/2006) writing on an exhibit at the Wallace Collection devoted to Powell, put it well:
“When both painter and paintings are fictional it is harder to imagine the pictures. The look of Edgar Deacon’s Boyhood of Cyrus must be worked out from the comparisons on offer: the Pre-Raphaelites, Simeon Solomon (whose soft-faced youths are perhaps the most suggestive parallel) and Puvis de Chavannes. It’s a mistake to match real and fictional art too quickly, just as it’s a mistake to look for the real-life originals of a novelist’s characters, but there’s no harm in identifying real elements that – like the cut-outs and bits of print Powell pasted onto screens and into scrapbooks – can be used to round an invention out.”
To start imagining the Boyhood of Cyrus, we looked at Puvis de Chavannes’ Ludus Pro Patria. The bucolic locale for these patriotic games, the setting in antiquity, and the partially clad figures all fit what we know of Mr. Deacon’s style.
We then guessed that Mr. Deacon’s vision of the youth of Cyrus the Great, sixth century B.C. king of the Persian Empire, would have come from Herodotus, who related that at age ten Cyrus was “was playing on the road with other [children] of his age; and playing, the children chose him to be king over them, although he was nominally the son of a herdsman. And he appointed some of them to build a house, others to be spearmen, and of course, one of them to be ‘the Eye of the King,’ assigning tasks to each of them separately. One of these children … did not do the task assigned by Cyrus. He therefore ordered the other children to seize him. The children obeyed and Cyrus handled the child very roughly, and whipped him. ” (Tales from Herodotus: VIII. Story of Cyrus the Great, translated at metaphrastes.wordpress.com) That this founder’s myth is of dubious truth is irrelevant to our imagination. We looked back at Ludis Pro Patria, replacing the figures with young boys, obeying the future king.
We are not the first to alter a Puvis de Chavannes painting for a little fun. His The Sacred Grove (Le Bois sacré cher aux arts et aux muses), visible at the Art Institute of Chicago, won a prize at the Salon of 1884. Toulouse-Lautrec, age 20, saw the exhibition and rushed with his friends to ape the style in a large painting, thirteen feet long and six feet high, replacing the nymphs with pictures of himself and acquaintances and adding a number of anachronisms and sight gags. This parody of Puvis de Chavannes was long little known, held in private collections; Henry Pearlman brought it to the US in 1953, but it was first loaned by the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation to the Princeton Art Museum in the 1970s. Powell probably did not know the parody when he wrote BM, but it is in the spirit of his humorous depiction of Mr. Deacon.
As for Mr. Deacon himself, the widening chasm that separated his sensibilities from those of Toulouse-Lautrec and myriad other pioneers of Modernism can be glimpsed by comparing Ludus Pro Patria with Degas’ Young Spartans Exercising, reproduced in our post called “Sketch of Antinous.” Degas’ painting is the earlier, but forward-looking in its lack of sentimentality; Puvis de Chavannes’ later treatment of a similar scene is filled with nostalgia.
In Album, Lady Violet Powell shows The Hit by Sir Frederick Leighton (British, 1830-18960 when she mentions The Boyhood of Cyrus. This picture does meet the requirement of being a rather small canvas that would fit above the stairway. John Bayley (Album, p.11) says of this painting, “Wonderfully absurd it is, even though the real Leighton was a much better painter than the imaginary Deacon…”