Where did the Skull Go? by Loretta Proctor

Posted by on Apr 15, 2013 in 19th England, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

without skull-1On the cover of my new book The Crimson Bed is a beautiful picture by John William Waterhouse. (1849-1917)

He was not a part of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which had disbanded as a group by the time Waterhouse was a young man. However, like many other artists who came later, Waterhouse was much influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style and their interest in mysterious and beautiful women, mythical subjects and rich colourful clothing and scenes.

The picture is called The Crystal Ball and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902.   Later on it was bought and entered the Pyman collection, later to take its pride of place in the dining room at Glenborrodale Castle in the West Highlands. It was later sold with the castle in 1952-3 and as the new owner disliked the look of the skull, it was painted over and hidden behind the purple curtains!

crystall ball with skull-1The image reproduced on the cover of The Crimson Bed was supplied by Christie’s Art images.  It appears a good deal deeper in colour because they photographed the original oil picture when it came up for auction later on the 4th November 1994, the skull by then forgotten behind its concealing curtain.  However, Martin Beisly, then head of the Victorian picture department, discovered the original version in The Art Journal when they came to research the painting and its background.  An x-ray was taken which showed the skull still there and protected by the original layer of varnish.  This meant it could safely be cleaned and restored to its former intent … a magical damsel weaving a spell with aid of wand, book and skull and consulting the future in her crystal ball.

The painting was said to be worth round £300,000 but I have no idea how much it eventually went for…hate to think!  According to Christies the picture is now in an undesignated private collection in Mexico.

Loretta Proctor, April 14, 2013


  1. I might not have noticed, but now that you mention it, it adds a great deal to the image. Talk about unrestricted editorializing! Good work in uncovering the hidden guest in the room!

    • Thanks, Richard. It’s amazing how people can react. I think it’s far more interesting with the skull.

  2. That happens often, I’ve read, especially clothing “unsuitable” nudes. Makes me wonder what future works of art we’re destroying today!

  3. The Crimson Bed makes an amazing book cover as would a number of other historical works. How does one determine whether or not a historical painting falls into the copyright free category? I’ve wondered about this for some time.