An ideal image from a Victorian Christmas

A Christmas Dole by Joseph Clarke sold at Sotheby’s for  £25,000 (€30,000).

A Christmas Dole by Joseph Clarke sold at Sotheby’s for £25,000 (€30,000).


The Victorians virtually invented many of the secular customs now regarded as Christmas traditions: sending cards, decorating trees and dining on roast turkey. The subject was popular with artists and a classic example, A Christmas Dole, went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London last month.

The painting which depicts a mother bringing the plum pudding to a Christmas dinner table was made in 1889 by the Dorset-born artist Joseph Clarke (1834-1926) who, in classic Victorian Christian style, used his art to remind his middle-class public of their good fortune at a time of considerable social deprivation.

The title may refer to the tradition, in English churches, of “the dole of the Christmas box”, when clergy opened the church’s alms boxes to distribute their contents to the poor.

The painting sold for the surprisingly low figure of £25,000 (€30,000).

Not all Victorian art is quite so currently under-valued. Earlier this month, a more famous 19th-century painting, A Christmas Carol by Dante Gabriel Rossetti established a new auction record for the artist when it sold, also at Sotheby’s for £4.5 million (€5.4 million). Rossetti (1828–1882) was a founder of the English art movement known as the pre-Raphaelites.

The painting was part of the famous Leverhulme collection which was made up of more than 20,000 items of furniture, objets d’art and paintings. The collection was put together by the Victorian industrialists, the viscounts Leverhulme who made their fortune from Lever Brothers, the soap-making company which they established in Port Sunlight and which made such popular brands as Sunlight, Lux and Lifebuoy soaps.

Most of the vast collection was on show in Lady Lever Gallery at Port Sunlight, near Liverpool, a gallery established with typical Victorian philanthropy to improve the minds of the soap-factory workers. However the Rossetti painting was kept by William Hesketh Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme, in his own home.

The painting was bought at auction in 1917 by Lever and, after almost 100 years in the family’s ownership, was sold by his descendants. A Christmas Carol, 1867, depicts Rossetti’s favourite themes of female beauty, music and sumptuous colour. The model was a laundress named Ellen Smith who was “discovered” in a Chelsea street by Rossetti in 1863.

A catalogue note quoted Rossetti’s studio assistant and friend Henry Treffry Dunn’s description of the painting as: “a maiden in resplendent eastern dress of crimson with a gold thread pattern worked throughout, playing on a stringed instrument whilst she sings Hodie Jesu Christus natus est Hallelujah.

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