On a spring afternoon in 1866, while browsing in the back parlour of a print shop in Bunhill Row, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was drawn to ‘a large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez’. This was the kind of establishment in which everything needed to be linked to a famous name in order to get sold, but Velázquez, even ‘school of’, the work decidedly wasn’t. Rossetti liked it enough, however, to take it home to his house in Cheyne Walk, to be displayed amid a clutter of majolica vases, Tudor andirons, Jacobean bed curtains and the occasional wombat on a visit from the exotic menagerie in the garden. Later, having cut the canvas in two, he installed it at Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire house he rented with William Morris, where the bisected artwork remains.
In a letter to his friend Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti referred jokingly to the ‘stupendous Velasquez’ he had discovered, but the picture, regardless of attribution, was genuinely significant in ways he failed to perceive. Painted during the late 16th century by an anonymous Flemish artist, it opens up a prospect of