A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford

LL 3625


This is an imaginary incident based on a 14th-century ballad. The aged and illustrious knight is not too proud to carry two poor children over the river. The solemn evening landscape raises the subject beyond medieval chivalry to ideas of death, transience and decay - reinforced by the ancient symbolism of crossing the River Styx to Hades. Contemporary critics disliked the size of the horse, which indeed caused the artist much anxiety. This painting marked Millais’s departure from the original principles explored by the Pre-Raphaelites; from a truthful representation of nature to experimenting with more painterly surfaces and theatrical compositions. At the Royal Academy the painting was exhibited with lines of poetry by the playwright and critic Tom Taylor (1817 - 1880). His poem described how the old knight ‘Sir Ysumbras’ was persuaded to let two children ride with him. 'A Dream of the Past' was satirised by the artist Frederick Sandys in an engraving entitled 'A Nightmare'. Millais, alongside fellow Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Hunt, is shown riding a long-eared donkey recognisable as John Ruskin.