"Alfred Elmore, 1815 - 1881
On the Brink, 1865
Oil on canvas
E's [for] Mr. Elmore. She's tempted to sin;
She's fair. Will the lily or the passion flower win?
Academy Alphabet, Punch, 13th May 1865.
This painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1865,
vividly dramatizes Victorian anxieties about gambling, especially amongst young
women. The word Homburg inscribed on the back of the canvas suggests that the
action takes place at one of the gaming rooms in that German spa town, which had
since the 1840s attracted a wealthy and cosmopolitan clientele.
A young woman sits disconsolately outside in the evening gloom. Flanked by
darkness, she is herself starkly illuminated by the white light of the moon.
Half of her face is unnaturally pallid: the other half is cast into darkness.
Her clothes are rich and fashionable but an empty purse dangles from her right
hand and a torn gaming card lies at her feet. These details reveal the cause of
her distress: she has lost all her money on the tables seen through the window
Elmore has created an impressive sense of depth within the painting, and the
stillness and pallor of the moonlit foreground contrasts with the garish bustle
behind the young woman. The red wallpaper of the gaming room is lit by a
chandelier and candles which are reflected in gilt mirrors around the walls. A
crowd of people lean over a table, as absorbed in their sport as the woman in
the foreground is in her sorrow. At the upper left of the canvas we glimpse
another room through an archway, where more lights shine, more holidaymakers
place their bets.
Connecting this busy interior to the young woman is the second major player in
the drama. A shadowy young man, illuminated neither by the lights of the room in
which he stands nor the moonlit night into which he leans, addresses her from
behind. Light falls only upon his right hand which fiddles with a bandage
wrapped around his left. He is not, we are to imagine, the kind of company a
woman in this position ought to be keeping.
The imperfections of the relationship between these two are emphasised by the
seemingly happy couple who face one another in the middle distance.
Next to the woman, as the anonymous poet in Punch pointed out, there are two
flowers: a white lily - the symbol of purity for generations of artists - and a
purple passion flower. These embody the choice faced by the unfortunate gambler:
does she retain her virtue and face the consequences of her new found poverty,
or does she earn the money she needs to repay her debts in the arms of the young
Elmore leaves the question brilliantly unresolved. His protagonist is truly 'on
the brink': her future, even her life, hangs in the balance - for the path from
seduction to prostitution to suicide was a matter of deep concern to Victorian