(2 May 1816 - 26 March 1863)
He also contributed for many years to the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street. He suffered from a weak constitution, and during a journey in Africa, undertaken for the benefit of his health, he died at Algiers on 26 March 1863, and was buried there.
Egg was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1848, and an academician in 1860, in which year he painted a scene from the 'Taming of the Shrew.' His portrait by Frith, engraved by J. Smyth, appeared in the 'Art Union Monthly Journal of 1847. Works of his best quality are: 'Queen Elizabeth discovers she is no longer young' (1848); 'Peter the Great sees Katherine for the first time' (1850); 'The Life and Death of Buckingham' (1855); scenes from 'Esmond' (1857-8); a triptych of the 'Fate of a Faithless Wife' (1858); and 'The Night before Naseby' (1859). In the National Gallery there is a canvas, 'Scene from Le Diable Boiteux' (1844).[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Ottley's Dict. of Recent and Living Painters and Engravers; Art Union (1847).]
Egg, Augustus Leopold (1816–1863), genre and history painter, was born on 2 May 1816 at 1 Piccadilly, London, the youngest of the four children of (Jean) Joseph Egg (1775–1837), gun maker and truss maker, and his wife, Ann Stephens (c.1773–1834). Egg's father, who was born in Huningue, Alsace, and immigrated to London, was from a distinguished gun making family which included the London armourer Durs Egg (1748–1831). Egg initially attended Hall Place, Bexley, Kent (c.1828–c.1833); then, with the encouragement of the sculptor Francis Chantrey, one of his father's clients, he entered Henry Sass's academy in Bloomsbury, London, about 1834, where he learned the fundamentals of drawing. With Sass's sponsorship, Egg was formally admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in December 1836. In 1837 Egg, Richard Dadd, William Powell Frith, Henry Nelson O'Neil, and John Phillip founded the sketching club known as the Clique, a society of young artists which met weekly to draw subjects from Shakespeare and Byron and to socialize. Egg made his London début at the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street in 1837 and at the British Institution and the RA in 1838, at the annual exhibitions in Birmingham and Liverpool in 1839, and at Manchester in 1840. His earliest works included competent but undistinguished portraits and costume pieces such as A Spanish Girl, which was his first work exhibited at the RA.
Beginning about 1840, after he had moved to 30 Gerrard Street, Soho, Egg began to paint literary and historical subjects. Although he was chided for a derivative style that was reminiscent of Charles Robert Leslie and other genre painters, contemporary critics also noted improved handling and strong dramatic characterization in works such as Scene in the Boar's Head, Eastcheap (exh. RA, 1840; exh. Sothebys, 16 July 1975) from Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV, and The Introduction of Sir Piercie Shafton to Halbert Glendinning (exh. RA, 1843; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) from Sir Walter Scott's The Monastery. Several of Egg's early history paintings deal with the relationships between the sexes, such as Cromwell Discovering his Chaplain, Jeremiah White, Making Love to his Daughter Frances (exh. RA, 1842) and Buckingham Rebuffed (exh. RA, 1846; priv. coll.). Amorous dalliances and human vanity are the subjects of his costume piece L'amante (exh. Liverpool Academy 1840; Royal Collection) from Donizetti's opera L'elisir d'amore, which was purchased by Prince Albert, as well as his painting from the novel by Alain René Le Sage, Scene from ‘The Devil on Two Sticks’, which he repeated in several versions, the most important of which (exh. RA, 1844; Tate collection) was acquired by the prominent Victorian art collector Robert Vernon. Egg submitted paintings of two different episodes from The Taming of the Shrew to the RA in 1847, and a third in 1860; the play was his most frequent source for the more than two dozen works which he showed at the RA during his career.
About 1847 Egg moved to Ivy Cottage, Queen's Lane, Bayswater, London, the former home of the engraver Samuel William Reynolds, and unsuccessfully stood for associateship in the RA. Goaded perhaps by this rejection, he painted a larger and graver historical composition for the RA exhibition the following year, Queen Elizabeth Discovers she is No Longer Young (exh. RA, 1848; priv. coll.). The work was favourably reviewed by critics for its antiquarian knowledge, dramatic invention, and execution, and he was elected an associate member of the RA in November. Egg thereafter contributed regularly to the RA annual exhibitions, alternating light-hearted subjects from literature and history with those of a more austere, sombre nature. Pictures such as Launce's Substitute for Proteus's Dog (exh. RA, 1849; Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester) from Two Gentlemen of Verona, a painting commissioned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for his Shakespeare room, Queen Henrietta Maria in Distress, Relieved by the Cardinal de Retz (exh. RA, 1849), Peter the Great Sees Catherine, his Future Empress, for the First Time (exh. RA, 1850), and Pepys's Introduction to Nell Gwynne (exh. RA, 1851; Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe) evince Egg's continuing preoccupation with dramatic and comic themes and the relationships between men and women.
Egg's best-known works were his moralizing paintings of the 1850s. From 1853 to 1855 he painted a diptych, The Life and Death of Buckingham, which won the Liverpool prize of £50 in 1855 and was originally exhibited in a single outer frame (exh. RA, 1855; Yale U. CBA). In this pair of pendant paintings, which recall William Hogarth's Rake's Progress series, Egg depicted the rise of George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, and his legendary sordid demise. In another dramatic series, his famous tragic trilogy of an adulterous wife exhibited untitled at the RA in 1858 and now known as Past and Present (Tate collection), Egg further demonstrated his admiration for Hogarth as well as his interest in the portrayal of contemporary social issues and moral subject matter. Past and Present was accompanied in the RA catalogue by an imaginary diary entry which began ‘August the 4th’ and which served as a gloss on the events that unfolded in the visual melodrama. The three paintings in the trilogy were hung together on one line. In the central scene (Past) the middle-class husband has returned home from a trip and has received a letter which reveals his wife's infidelity; the wife lies prostrate on the floor, while card-castles built by their two young daughters crumble and other narrative details in the painting portend the family's impending destruction. The two wings (Present) take place simultaneously five years later on a moonlit night, a fortnight after the husband's death: in the second scene the two daughters—now orphans because of their father's demise and the desertion of their adulterous mother—are alone in a sparsely furnished room; in the third scene the faithless wife, with her illegitimate child wrapped in a blanket in her arms, seeks refuge under the arches of the Thames. Critics found the paintings painful and realistic, and, as the reviewer in The Times commented, the works were ‘as tragic as any that ever held an Athenian theatre mute’ (‘The exhibition of the Royal Academy’, 1 May 1858, 5). Past and Present, representative of the Victorian genre of ‘problem pictures’ which depicted difficult social issues, remained unsold during Egg's lifetime.
Egg continued to paint historical, literary, and modern themes in the later 1850s, including, in 1857 and 1858, two pictures from Thackeray's novel The History of Henry Esmond (Tate collection and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and The Night before Naseby (exh. RA, 1858; RA) which showed Cromwell in his tent on the eve of the battle in 1645. One of Egg's most popular paintings, The Travelling Companions (1862, City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), depicts two sisters riding in a railway carriage near Menton, on the French riviera, and suggests his evolution towards non-narrative art. He moved to The Elms, Campden Hill, Kensington, London, about 1853. On 11 April 1860 he married a solicitor's daughter, Esther Mary Browne (1823–1908), and in May of that year was elected a member of the RA.
According to many of his contemporaries, Egg was a sociable, hard-working, self-effacing, and generous man, who ‘was never happy unless he was doing something for somebody’ (R. Renton, John Forster and his Friendships, 1912, 215). His numerous literary friends included Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with whom he travelled on the continent in the autumn of 1853. From 1847 to 1857 he appeared in dozens of Dickens's amateur theatricals staged throughout England and Scotland to benefit a variety of charitable causes. Egg's only painting of Dickens in character, Charles Dickens as Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used Up’ (Dickens House Museum, London), was based on a scene from the play by Dion Boucicault which was acted by Dickens's company between 1848 and 1852. Another painting, Egg's Self-Portrait as a Poor Author (1858, Trustees of the Patrick Allan Fraser of Hospitalfield Trust, Hospitalfield House, Arbroath), records Egg's role in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's comedy Not so Bad as we Seem, which was performed by Dickens's theatrical troupe to benefit the Guild for Literature and Art, a society founded to assist artists and writers. According to numerous sources, Egg was a creditable actor with a special sensitivity to costume and stage design. He and Dickens enjoyed a warm friendship, and Egg may have been a suitor of Dickens's sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. He was elected a member of the Garrick Club in 1849, where he was nominated by Charles Kean and seconded by Dickens and Thackeray. His serious interest in the theatre is evident in the subjects of many of his paintings and in the stagelike presentation of his compositions.
Egg was friendly with older artists as well as many of his own generation, and he especially extended his support to his younger colleagues. He assisted the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt at the beginning of his career by selling his pictures to important collectors such as John Gibbons and Thomas Fairbairn. He also personally patronized younger struggling artists, and his collection included Holman Hunt's Claudio and Isabella (exh. RA, 1853; Tate collection) from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and Chatterton (exh. RA, 1856; Tate collection), Henry Wallis's painting of the distressed poet. Because of the respect accorded him by diverse modern artists and collectors, Egg supervised the installation of modern British paintings at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857.
In his notes of Egg's life, Holman Hunt described Egg as a handsome man about 5 feet 7 inches tall, broad-chested and large-shouldered, with a sallow complexion, dark brown hair, brown eyes, aquiline nose, thin lips, and a large chin. He did not exhibit at the RA after 1860 due to his increasingly poor health. Throughout his mature life he sought respite from his pulmonary illnesses in the temperate climate of southern England and the Mediterranean, but he died from asthma on 26 March 1863 during a stay in Algiers. According to reports, he was buried on a hill in the new cemetery in Algiers. He was survived by his wife. His premature death was mourned by friends, including Dickens and Holman Hunt, and he was praised by writers in numerous obituaries for the inventiveness and dramatic character of his paintings and for his upright and genial personality. The contents of Egg's studio were sold at Christies on 18 and 19 May 1863.[Sources: W. H. Hunt, ‘Notes of the life of Augustus L. Egg’, The Reader (1863); Art Journal, 25 (1863); The Athenaeum (1863); The Examiner (1863); Portraits of British artists, no. 8: Augustus Leopold Egg.]