The Open Door
with inscription 'given to May Tennant by GF. Watts July 25th 92' (on a label attached to the stretcher) and with indistinct inscription '****o*w of high standard be/ tho' finest friends.' (on a label attached to the stretcher)
oil on canvas
18 x 10 in. (45.7 x 25 cm.)
Given by the artist to May Tennant, née Abraham, 25 July 1892.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Belgravia, 29 June 1976, lot 88.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 20 June 1989, lot 74, where purchased for the present collection.
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Lot Essay

The metamorphosis of a butterfly, from caterpillar to a beautiful creature that takes wing, has long been taken as a symbol of life after death. This was of particular resonance to May Tennant, to whom Watts gave this picture. She took a keen interest in spiritual matters as did many of her friends who were known as 'The Souls'. Burne-Jones and Watts were their favourite artists.

May Abraham married Harold 'Jack' Tennant in 1896. In doing so she became sister-in-law to Margot Tennant, and her husband, the future Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. Before her marriage May had been secretary to Emilia, Lady Dilke, author, feminist and trade unionist. Lady Dilke’s first marriage had been to the Reverend Mark Pattison, Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford and author of a life of Isaac Casaubon, classical scholar and philologist. Many took the characters of Edward and Dorothea Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch to be thinly veiled portraits. Her second marriage was to Sir Charles Dilke, Bt.. A prominent Liberal tipped to be Prime Minister, his career collapsed after he was named in a divorce case involving his sister-in-law’s family. His portrait by Watts is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Inspired by Lady Dilke’s campaigning zeal, May Tennant was a trade-unionist and factory inspector. She was one of the first recipients of the Companion of Honour. A larger oil on canvas of the same subject is in the Southwark Art Collection.

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