Going, going, gone.....
25 Mar 2020 - 22:09 BY JF
Going, going, gone.....
by Jeni Fraser
Image: Edwin Long, The Babylonian Marriage Market, 1875, oil on canvas, 72.6 x 304.6cm., Royal Holloway College)
Those crowded around the painting jostled each other for a better look; the critics were unanimously enthusiastic and laudatory: there was no doubt that Edwin Longsden Long’s large historical painting, The Babylonian Marriage Market, was the ‘sensation picture’ at the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1875.
Long took his subject from the first book of Herodotus’ Histories, in which the 5th century BC historian described how every year Mesopotamian girls of marriageable age lacking a dowry were put up for auction. The RA’s catalogue informed viewers that:
The greatest beauty was put up first, and knocked down to the highest bidder; then the next in order of comeliness – and so on to the damsel who was equidistant between beauty and plainness, who was given away gratis. Then the least plain was put up, and knocked down to the gallant who would marry her for the smallest consideration, - and so on until even the plainest was got rid of to some cynical worthy who decidedly preferred lucre to looks…The Babylonian marriage market might perhaps be advantageously adopted in some modern countries where marriage is still made a commercial matter. It at least possesses the merit of honesty and openness, and tends to a fair distribution of the gifts of fortune.
The passage gives ample evidence of the jocular tone which characterised the contemporary response to the depiction of the marriage market in Long’s painting.
Most Victorian viewers would have admitted, however ruefully or jocosely, that the exhibition opening heralded in the season of the British ‘marriage market’: the London ’season’ was a period of social gathering in which many matches were brokered.
Yet, with a couple of exceptions, critics kept silent over the possibility of a comparison between practices in Babylon and London.
Jeni Fraser, March 2020, jenifraser.co.uk
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