‘The Annunciation’- a painting by William Gladstone Solomon

The ‘Annunciation’ painted by William Ewart Gladstone Solomon (1880–1965),  beautifully illustrates the Gospel  of Luke, chapter 1: 26-38. It illuminates the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel and the ‘yes’ by the Virgin Mary.

The significant feature of this painting is the explicit use of a game of contrast and oppositions. In the foreground, occupying two thirds of the pictorial space, the painter represents the protagonist, the seated Blessed Virgin. To her right, in profile, is the winged Archangel Gabriel. The raised fingers of the Archangel signify the divine source of his message.

The Virgin is seated on a rug, in a meditative posture of obedience to divine will. At the feet of the Virgin lies a piece of fabric, constituting a representation of the late medieval tradition according to which the Virgin was weaving for the curtain of the Temple when the Archangel Gabriel visited.

The column or wall with lattice windows in the background signifies the strength of the Virgin.  To the Virgin’s left, stands a clay vase with white lilies- lilium candidum or the Madonna lily, a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary that stands for chastity, devotion and divinity. The Virgin’s rich blue mantle regards her as the Queen of Heaven, a long-standing artistic tradition which serves as an identifiable cue to the laity.

The hortus concluses (literally, the enclosed garden), an emblematic setting filled with symbolic objects and plants is employed here. It signifies the Immaculate Conception which enhances its liturgical beauty. This iconographical framework is derived from the verses of the Song of Solomon, Chapter 4 and Verse 12—”You are a garden enclosed, my sister, my bride; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed.”

 The author emphasizes the luminous values and transparency using a palate of warm tones. The elegance of the facial lines and the gestures as well as the serene contemplative expression of the Virgin accentuates the sensation of calm that the scene inspires.

The stamp on the verso reads ‘Aug. Walker, 118, New Bond Street’ thus indicating that Solomon displayed ‘The Annunciation’ at the Walker’s Galleries, London. An excerpt from the online archive of ‘The Tablet’ corroborates: ‘An outstanding figure among Catholic artists is having an exhibition at Walker’s Galleries, 118 New Bond Street, next week. This is Mr. W. E. Gladstone Solomon, K.I.H., R.B.C., who has recently retired from the post of Director of the School of Arts in Bombay, after over seventeen years’ service.’

The son of a businessman-politician and a social activist, William Ewart Gladstone Solomon was born in South Africa and studied at the Royal Academy School, London. He fought in the First World War at Gallipoli and served in Mesopotamia, then came to India as the Director of the Government School of Art, Bombay, later named the Sir J.J. School of Art. He is celebrated for his service to the city in terms of his books, articles, paintings and his curatorial practice at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, also serving as a member of its Board of Trustees.

The painting, currently on display in the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, was found behind a cupboard in their office at the Church of St. Joseph’s in Colaba, Mumbai in a damaged condition. Father Warner D’Souza, the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum initiated the collaboration with the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre with a view to conserve the painting. The painting was handed over for treatment on February 21, 2014 and was returned in April, 2015. A book recording the procedure of the treatment was released on August 24, 2016 at the Archbishop’s House, Colaba by H.E Oswald Cardinal Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay and Mr Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the Director General and Secretary of the Board of Trustees, CSMVS, Mumbai.

Joynel Fernandes

Assistant Director – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai

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