1810 - 1890
David with the Head of Goliath

Oil on canvas, dated ‘1850’ lower right on sling and on the sword hilt ’53’
Image size: 33 ½ x 23 ½ inches
Gilt Watts frame

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This striking painting, depicts David as a young boy holding behind his back the head of the champion of the Philistines, the giant Goliath, by the hair. The light catches on David’s chest, arm and face, on the massive sword hilt of Goliath and the young tree behind, but everything else is quite dark.  The two trees obviously represent David and Goliath, with the old larger tree dead and the green younger tree full of light and vigorous youth.

We see a flamboyant youth of dazzling beauty and with a touch of arrogant defiance on his face. David is shown with his shepherds bag and stick, but also he holds a magnificently decorated but very heavy sword, given to him by King David. This sword evokes in the viewer the impression that the boy might have a great calling. David would indeed become the great warrior and king, the founder of the royal glory of Israel.

For a work painted in 1850 it has quite a surreal and modern feel to it and with it’s attention to detail you can see why he influenced the Pre Raphaelites.

The date of 1850 fits well with his style at that time. He was a forerunner of the Pre-Raphaelites, and you can see his commitment to realism and detail in this piece, and it also fits stylistically with his other work of that time. It is not gory at all, given the subject, which is another classic Herbert trait: no sex or violence when there is serious spiritual thought to be had!

Another clue that it is Herbert is his commitment to symbolism and detail. The tree struck by lightning and the new tree growing in front of it representing God giving the Kingdom of Israel from Saul to David. That is right opposite the castle on the hill- a reference to the shining “city on a hill” in the Book of Revelations. The whole thing shows how David is the ancestor of Jesus, and the Christian theology of Christ begins back in the Old Testament. More Christ-like symbols can be seen in the front, his shepherd’s staff also looks like a snake- which recalls the story of Moses lifting up a snake on a cross-shaped staff to heal the people, which is then noted as a forerunner of Christ’s crucifixion in the New Testament. (And here the sword plays the role of the cross.) The leather strap is his slingshot.

The sword is interesting, the 5 and 3 on the hilt could be Hebrew letters. Or, given that this was Goliath’s sword, perhaps Philistine letters? Herbert put Hebrew letters in his other work, The Judgement of Daniel, for the House of Lords- and though it was only completed in 1880, he would have been working on the initial sketches around this time.

As for the figure, the clothing is well researched (for the time) and that also fits Herbert’s commitment to biblical accuracy. We can’t be sure who the model is, but it could be one of Herbert’s sons, who would be the right age to model for the adolescent David.

Credit to Dr Nancy Langham-Hooper an expert on Herbert.

The Artist
John Rogers Herbert was born 23 January 1810 at Maldon in Essex.  The family had enough money to send young Herbert to London when he was sixteen years old; and he was enrolled in the Royal Academy schools in December 1826. After the death of his father in 1828, Herbert was forced to give up the Academy school and began painting professionally – mostly book illustrations and portraiture. However, sketches from as early as 1829, such as Captives predict his later interest in larger historical subjects with challenging moral themes and complex compositions.

His first exhibit at the Royal Academy was in 1830, Portrait of a Country Boy.

Later in the decade, Herbert, like many of his contemporaries, displayed a growing interest in medievalism. One reason for this may be his friendship with A.W.N.Pugin who would become the co-architect of the Palace of Westminster and a proponent of medieval revival. Herbert and Pugin had known each other from childhood, and were very close, intimately involved in each other’s affairs.

At the age of 28 Herbert was already a success even painting a portrait of Princess Victoria in 1834. In 1841 Herbert was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and became a full member in 1846.

Herbert was a prolific teacher of art. In 1841 he became ‘master of the figure’ in the newly formed Government School of Design, a position probably owed to his artist friend William Dyce who was superintendent there, and with whom he collaborated in the illustration of Nursery Rhymes, Tales and Jingles.

Herbert was earnest and methodical in both his subjects and his technique. Evidence of this earnest practice can be found in the extensive research Herbert undertook for many of his paintings. He travelled to the East many times to paint the landscape, clothing and architecture of the area, in order to add authenticity to his biblical scenes.

Herbert’s innovative techniques, borrowing from mediaeval, German and Nazarene art influenced the young Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He instructed all the young members of the Brotherhood during their sojourn at the Royal Academy Schools, he gave personal support to James Collinson, and perhaps other members, during the formation of the Brotherhood, and was even a potential proprietor of The Germ. Yet, when W.M. Rossetti declared they wished to ‘out-Herbert Herbert’ he had more aesthetic and theoretical considerations in mind. The Pre-Raphelites drew on Herbert’s historical subjects of the 1840s for inspiration, and his influence can be especially seen in their early pictures.