The Rending of the Veil

WILLIAM BELL SCOTT (1811-1890) Biography
PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

The Rending of the Veil (United Kingdom, 1869)

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Watercolour heightened with bodycolour on paper
Signed, inscribed with title on a label on the stretcher


61.00cm high
76.00cm wide
(24.02 inches high)
(29.92 inches wide)
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Purchased from the artist by James Leathart, 1879, in exchange for several of Scott's other paintings plus £50
Edward Backhouse


William E Fredeman, A Pre-Raphaelite Gazette; The Penkill Letters of Arthur Hughes to William Bell Scott and Alice Boyd, 1886-97, (The John Rylands Library Bulletin 1967), page 43, note 3.

Exhibition History

Royal Academy, 1869, Summer Exhibition, number 525
Royal Scottish Academy, 1870, number 100
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Laing Art Gallery, October 1989-January 1990 Pre-Raphaelite Painters and Patrons in the North-East, number 131

Description / Expertise

The subject of this painting is taken from St Matthew's Gospel chapter 27 verse 51

And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.

Interestingly Bell Scott does not follow the direction of the tear in the veil indicated in the biblical text, which reveals a supernatural agency. In the rest of the painting his antiquarian and archaeological interests are clear. The high priest's garments and the accessories of the Temple follow the descriptions in Leviticus. The religious meaning of the painting should be understood in terms of typological symbolism, which George P Landow has analysed in the context of Holman Hunt's painting.(1) Typological symbolism does not involve personification or allegory but rather real persons or events in the Pre-Christian era, which anticipate or foreshadow the coming of Christ.

Bell Scott sent a pen and ink drawing of this subject to James Leathart, the Newcastle Pre-Raphaelite patron, in the autumn of 1861. Scott advised Leathart that the colour of the painting would be “as intense as possible” with “golden columns and the whole interior with the vails or curtains crimson, blue, the floor marble.” Scott did not complete this watercolour until the winter of 1861 and Leathart agreed to buy it in 1870, the year after its exhibition in the Royal Academy. However he never paid for it and Scott demanded its return and found another purchaser, Edward Backhouse, a Sunderland banker and philanthropist.

In a letter to Leathart, Bell Scott had described the work as his “best watercolour”, an opinion shared by Algernon Swinburne. In a letter to Alice Boyd of March 1891, he wrote: “I am very glad to hear that he made an etching from the Rending of the Veil, and I look forward eagerly to the chance of receiving a copy. As my verses may show, I always thought it the most sublime and nobly imaginative of all his designs known to me.” The “verses” which Swinburne refers to were published in the Athenaeum shortly after Scott's death on 22 November 1890: the relevant passage is:

Elate with sense of a sterner time
His hand's flight climbed as a bird's might climb
Calvary: dark in the darkling air
That shrank for fear of a crowning crime
Three crosses rose on the hillside bare
Shewn scarce by grace of the lighting's glare
That clove the veil of the temple through
And smote the priest on the threshold there

William Bell Scott, painter and poet, was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement from its beginning through his friendship with Rossetti. He produced oils and watercolours of Biblical and historical scenes, and also landscape paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite style.

Bell Scott was born in Edinburgh where he received his art education. His father was an engineer and his brother was the historical painter David Scott. He exhibited in Edinburgh and published poetry in the 1830's. In 1837 he moved to London where he associated with the genre painters of the Clique, who included Augustus Egg, Richard Dadd, John Phillip, Henry Nelson O'Neil and William Powell Frith. In London, Bell Scott exhibited in the British Institution from 1841 and the Royal Academy from 1842. On his failure to achieve success in the Westminster Hall cartoon competition in 1843 he took up the mastership of the School of Design in Newcastle, where he remained for the next twenty years, later providing an important link between the Pre-Raphaelites and their patrons in the north east of England.

In 1846 Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to Scott to express admiration for Scott's new poem The Year of the World, initiating a friendship between the two poet-painters. Scott contributed to the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, and adopted a Pre-Raphaelite style in his painting. Scott's most impressive works are a series of eight scenes from Northumbrian history painted between 1856 and 1861 as mural decorations for the Trevelyan's home, Wallington, Northumberland (now National Trust). The last, `Iron and Coal', has become famous as one of the few Victorian paintings of modern industry. Scott returned to London in 1864 and began to exhibit at the Dudley Gallery the following year. In 1870 he became a near neighbour of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Chelsea. His posthumous Autobiographical Notes (1892) are a valuable source of information for Rossetti's life as well as his own, despite their rather embittered tone.

1. G P Landow, William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 1979