The story tells of a king and queen who have 12 sons. The king is determined that the crown must pass to a daughter and if the queen gives birth to a girl he will have his sons executed. To protect them, the queen sends them to live deep in the forest where they find an old enchanted cottage. A daughter is born and is raised as a solitary child in the court. One day she finds 12 shirts in the palace laundry and asks her mother who they belong to. The queen confesses and tells her about her brothers and the threat to their lives. The princess, now aged 10, sets off to find them in the forest. She eventually discovers their cottage and goes in. Although the brothers had sworn to kill her if they ever met her, they are so touched by her kindness that they relent and ask her to join them in hiding. They all live happliy together until one day the princess unwittingly picks twelve magic lilies growing in the cottage garden. Her 12 brothers are immediately turned into swans and fly away. A witch appears and tells her that they cannot be changed back to human form unless she (the princess) remains silent for 7 years and knits 12 magic shirts for them made of nettles. She vows to do so and lives up a tree in a distant forest to avoid any temptation to speak. However, a young king out hunting with his courtiers sees her in the tree and is captivated by her beauty. They marry though she remains dumb and he does not know she is of noble birth. Her mother in law, who thinks her son has married beneath him conspires to accuse her of all kinds of crimes. Unable to speak up in her own defence she is soon condemned to burn at the stake. It is 7 years to the day when she is led to the stake and just as the fire is lit she sees twelve swans flying in formation above. They swoop down and scatter the burning twigs and free her from her bonds. She places a nettle shirt over each of them and she is joyfully reunited with her 12 brothers. At last she can speak and tells her husband who she is and of the wrongs done to her. The evil mother in law is boiled in oil and everyone lives happliy ever after. The 1928 painting illustrates the moment the princess is rescued and begins to distribute the shirts. It was exhibited in Birmingham in the 1928 Memorial Exhibition Arthur Joseph Gaskin and in BMAG's 'Arthur & Georgie Gaskin' in 1982, subsequently in London at the Fine Art Society and at the Hayward Gallery show 'The Last Romantics'.
14.00 x 9 7/8in unframed, 20 7/8 x 16 3/4 framed
Tempera on wood panel; very light varnish
Gift (originally loan)
© Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery