Robert Bateman, Three Women Plucking Mandrakes

Wellcome Institute Library, London

Date: 1870
Technique: Bodycolour on paper laid on to canvas 31.2 x 45.8 cm

Botanist, landscape gardener and Italian scholar, Robert Bateman was the leader of a group of British Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic painters who appeared in the 1860s under the auspices of the Dudley Gallery in London. His taste for exotic flora was inherited from his father James Bateman (1812–1897), the orchid-maniac who founded the gardens of Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, now open to the public in the care of the National Trust. It contains gardens in ancient Egyptian, Himalayan and Chinese styles.

The strange atmosphere of Biddulph Grange finds an echo in Robert Bateman's depiction of the mandrakes. The mandrake is associated with many legends. Mandrake was said to grow beneath gallows, in a spot where the urine or sperm of a hanged man has fallen to the ground. When uprooted, it utters a shriek so powerful that it can kill people standing too near. There are male and female mandrakes, and infertile women can become fertile by consuming a male-shaped mandrake. A chapter of Sir Thomas's Browne's Pseudodoxia epidemica, 1646, was devoted to these folk-stories (book II, chapter VI).

Bateman's painting shows witches standing at a distance to pull up a mandrake growing near the foot of the gallows. It illustrates Walter Cranes's characterization of the Dudley Gallery school as "a magic world of romance and pictured poetry ... a twilight world of dark mysterious woodlands ... veiled in a dim and mystic light". Crane described Bateman's work as "weird and powerful" (weird meaning supernatural).

Source 1
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