Maxwell Armfield (1881-1972)

Maxwell Ashby Armfield was born in Ringwood, England. He was known chiefly for his landscape paintings and his illustrations for books, periodicals and magazines. He spent a period from 1915 to 1922 in the United States, where he was noted for his paintings of landscapes of the American West.

Oh! Willo! Willo! Willo! (1902)

Oil on canvas, approximately 17.5 x 11 inches. The Tate Gallery, London.

Desdemona sings "Willow" in Act IV, scene iii, of Othello.

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow;
The fresh streams ran by and and murmured her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soft'ned the stones,
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve.
I called my love false love; but what said he then?
Sing willow, willow, willow:
If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men.

"Willow" is a traditional song slightly changed by Shakespeare to fit a female character. Armfield's painting cannot help but allude to Othello, but the male in his painting suggests that he perhaps goes back to the old song--Shakespeare's source--for his inspiration. Sir Frederick Bridge has a facsimile of the earliest known setting of "Willow" from a manuscript in the British Museum (Shakespearean Music, 1923). Like many of the paintings in Shakespeare Illustrated, Armfield's canvas has only the slightest relationship to Shakespeare's play.

The song is especially poignant when Desdemona explains to Emilia why she cannot drive this particular tune from her head:

My mother had a maid call'd Barbary,
She was in love, and he she lov'd prov'd mad,
And did forsake her; she had a song of "willow,"
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it; that song tonight
Will not go from my mind . . . I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary. . . .

As she prepares for bed for the last time, sleeping on the bridal sheets that she has asked Emilia to use as her shroud should she die before her maid, her situation is not unlike Barbary's, whose lover had turned mad and deserted her.