The Boyhood of Cyrus

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 CyrusPeter 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.

Ludus Pro Patria Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883 oil on canvas H: 44 11/16 x W: 77 9/16 in. The Walters Art Museum Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Ludus Pro Patria
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883
oil on canvas
H: 44 11/16 x W: 77 9/16 in.
The Walters Art Museum
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

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 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.

The Sacred Grove Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1884 The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection

The Sacred Grove
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1884 photo by Bruce M White
The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection
at the Princeton University Art Museum

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.


The Hit Sir Frederick Leighton, ~1893 oil on canvas, private collection, Roy Miles Gallery, photo public domain the Bridgeman Art Library via Wikimedia Commons

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…”


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2 Responses to The Boyhood of Cyrus

  1. Michael Henle says:

    I am enjoying this blog (if that is what it is) very much and look forward to future posts. As you will see from the date of this reply, I’m just starting to read it,
    Concerning this post, I don’t think that Boyhood of Cyrus can literally be the first Deacon that Nick sees because he has visited Mr. Deacon in his studio with his parents as a boy. You might check on this.

    • Nick says explicitly when he recalls first seeing the painting at the Walpole-Wilsons: “This was in fact, the first ‘Deacon’ I had ever set eyes upon.” (BM, page 20, Flamingo edition)

      Thanks for your interest. We call it a blog because it is log on the web of our thoughts as we slowly work our way through the art in the novel. However, we are open to calling it something else if you have a suggestion. Very soon we hope to add a page to the blog for each volume of the novel that we have completed. This should make it easier to read in order and will allow us to make improvements from our readers’ feedback.

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