This painting illustrates lines from a traditional folk ballad variously called ‘Child Waters’ or ‘Burd Helen’ from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). The ballad describes the loyalty of Ellen who is bearing the child of her heartless lover Child Waters. He insists Ellen serve him as a page. She is shown dressed in male clothing and just about to cut her long beautiful hair so she can pass as a boy. Her dress and wimple are discarded in the foreground.
Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn note in their catalogue for Manchester City Art Galleries 'Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists' exhibition, that it seems fitting that only a few years after this painting was exhibited, female art students began to cut their hair in the 'page boy' style. This iconic work, with its glamorous depiction of Helen's androgynous appearance, may therefore have played a small part in the development of woman's fashion.
Described as a ‘Pre-Raphaelite revivalist’, Fortescue-Brickdale adhered to the early Pre-Raphelite style despite beginning her career in the late 1890s. She painted with immaculate attention to detail and naturalistic colour. The foliage in this painting shows her unwavering dedication to their principle of ‘Truth to Nature’, in which everything, including each blade of grass, was copied in minute detail. Her painting skills were acknowledged in 1902 when she became the first female member of the Institute of Painters in Oils.