Liverpool artwork of the day – Friday May 18 2007. ‘A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford’, 1857 by Sir John Everett Millais (1829 – 1898) in Lady Lever Gallery
This painting is a fine example of the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in subjects about medieval chivalry. It shows an ancient knight in golden armour carrying the children of a poor woodcutter across a river. Sir Isumbras is a character from a 14th century English romance, but this incident does not occur in the poem. It may have been invented by Millais’s friend the art critic Tom Taylor, who wrote a fake medieval verse explaining the story.
Many critics thought the horse was too big and it was repainted several times, but the landscape background was much admired. Its loose and fluid handling, which contrasts with the artist’s earlier more detailed landscape style, captures the fleeting effect of twilight. This perhaps suggests a deeper and more spiritual meaning about the end of the knight’s quest and the transience of worldly deeds.