Frederick Walker

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Frederick Walker

3 artworks

English

Born 1840 - Died 1875

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  • Biography
  • Images of the Artist

The Bathers

1865-1868

Oil on canvas

92.7 x 214.7 cms | 36 1/4 x 84 1/2 ins

Lady Lever Art Gallery, Bebington, United Kingdom

Spring

1864

watercolor

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom

Credit: Richard Darsie

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Frederick Walker A.R.A. (1840-1875)
by Paul Ripley

Visitors to Victorian Art In Britain will know of my fascination for all facets of the art world of the second half of the nineteenth century. English art of the time suffered two losses of enormous consequence by the deaths of two young painters, the first being Joanna Boyce, and the second being Frederick Walker, who died of consumption at the age of thirty five. Walker had, perhaps, achieved more than the tragic Joanna Boyce who died in childbirth at an even younger age. I believe Walker’s loss was of the scale of that of the premature death of Bizet to French Music of the nineteenth century. His pictures combine subtlety, poetic feeling, and artistic ability of the highest degree.

Frederick Walker was born in Marylebone, London on May 26, 1840. His father was a jewellery designer, and the family had artistic interests. He was educated at the North London Collegiate School. He was initially sent to work in the practice of an architect, but was not happy and soon left. His artistic ambitions were encouraged by his mother, to whom he was devoted. Walker then studied at Leigh’s Academy, followed in 1858, by the Royal Academy schools, where he was not regarded as a promising student, and passed the time largely unnoticed. His first job in art was as a wood engraver at T. W. Whymper, where he stayed for two years. Like so many other artists of the time our subject sought employment in magazine illustration. His first published illustration appeared on January 14, 1860 in Every Body’s Journal to a story by Edmond Abbott entitled "The Round of Wrong." His second illustration was in Once A Week the following month, and was of a story called "Peasant Proprietorship." During the year Walker contributed twenty four drawings to the second publication. This enabled him to apply for illustrative work at the much better known Cornhill Magazine. He was remembered by Tom Taylor (1817-1880 academic, magazine editor, and one-time civil servant) as “A nervous, timid, boyish aspirant for employment.” At the Cornhill he illustrated works by Thackeray (William Makepiece Thackeray 1811-1863 novelist, radical, and editor of the Cornhill), a rather thankless task, as the writer - a frustrated artist - sent sketches to be used for illustrations, and resented any change to them. Walker then became bold enough to ask the great man for total artistic independence, which rather surprisingly was granted, with highly satisfactory results. Thackeray was delighted and introduced the young artist to his influential circle of friends. He soon became known as a leading magazine illustrator.

It was at about this time that Walker started to paint in watercolour and oils. He also, in 1863, exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time. The picture was The Lost Path, described as “a hurrying, darkly clad figure, sensitive, and slender,” and modelled by the sister of the artist. Unhappily the picture was “skied” a familiar term for being hung so far up the wall as to be difficult to appreciate. The following year The Bathers (now at the Lady Lever Gallery) suffered the same fate. It is interesting to note that in the mid 1880s this picture was sold for 2,500 guineas. In the ten years following Walker’s death his true stature became appreciated, and his pictures sold for large sums. Perhaps as a result of his treatment by the Royal Academy selection committee the next major picture by the artist The Wayfarers was exhibited at Gambart’s (Ernest Gambart 1814-1902 the greatest art dealer of the day) Gallery in King Street.

Walker became involved with a loose association of artists known as The Idyllists, and his sensitive, beautifully drawn pastoral watercolours, with their intricate detail, and beautiful colouring are amongst the most thoroughly satisfying pictures of the time. Remarkably the painter sometimes retrospectively removed minor detail from the finished picture, in the interest of overall effect. He said, “Composition is the art of preserving the accidental look.” He must also have been something of an idealist, and his social-realist pictures make uncomfortable viewing one hundred and thirty years after his death, so their impact at the time must have been considerable. It should also be remembered that the painting of such pictures was regarded as disloyal by most establishment figures of the day, which made notable artists in this sphere, like Frank Holl and Luke Fildes move into the less controversial and more remunerative field of portraiture.

Walker the man was not an easy individual, and his life was blighted by the consumption that killed him in his mid thirties. A number of ill-considered articles in the aftermath of his death, speculate that he died as a result of his temperament, when it is far more likely that his behavioural problems resulted from the severity of his illness and short life expectancy. He was fretful, nervous, easily offended, and his pictures were the product of constant analysis, stress, agonising, and meticulous workmanship. He did have a considerable amount of personal success in his short life. He became a full member of the Royal Water Colour Society at the age of twenty-four. He secured a second class medal at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, and this was virtually unheard of with a watercolour. In 1871 he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in the same year was elected an Honorary Member of the Belgian Society of Painters in Water Colours. In the late 1860s Fred Walker visited Paris and Venice. In Paris he became familiar with the work of François Millet, whose influence may be seen in some of his subsequent work. From 1865 all his pictures had been painted in the open air. The Harbour of Refuge of 1872 was one of his later great works, and the last picture he completed was The Right of Way, in 1875. Fred Walker spent the winter of 1873-4 in Algiers, but it only provided a temporary respite from the deadly disease that was stalking him. In the spring of 1875 there seemed to be some improvement in his health, but on June 4 he died whilst at St Fillans, Perthshire on holiday. He was buried in Cookham in the same grave as a brother and his adored mother.

In July 1875 an appreciation of the dead artist appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. It was signed by “S.C.” I set out below part of this appreciation.

“Only space fails, one would like to speak of some of his infinitely refined and lovely way of painting garden flowers and foliage, a lady watering her borders; another lady, beautiful exceedingly, sitting on a mound at the foot of a sun-dial in an old Scotch garden. Or of the style and beauty which he knew how to put into common things…. Or, what is important, the great and immediate influence his art had upon his contemporaries; and how, both in water-colour and drawing for the wood-engraver he has been virtually the founder of a school. Or, what in a larger matter still, of the range and variety of sentiment, which his work covered. This has not been sufficiently acknowledged…. He was a great fisherman. One day a friend sent him an account of a heavy fish he had caught and an invitation to join the party. The reply is a drawing, quite brilliant and masterly of the Temptations of St Anthony Walker! He kneels in a long gown and hood upon a hassock, the tonsured likeness of himself, admirably humorous, painting and, as it were, doing penance at his easel. The tempter presents himself as a huge and grinning Highland gillie with his rod, who rises from a water all ringed over with leaping salmon; the air is full of salmon, they leap and curl; drawn as only one who knew them well could have drawn them, and one of them thrusts his insidious nozzle between the very bars of the easel…Do not think there is any reason to suppose he had reached or approached the fulness of his powers. Scarcely any painter has reached them at thirty-five. And his methods hitherto had always been experimental, always rather uncertain, both in oil and water-colour, and showing the hand of one who was continually feeling after something greater than he could yet do. No man was ever more disinterested in the state of his ideal…. His conceptions would grow gradually from small beginnings; not one of his large designs, but there exists for it a number of sketches, attempts, commencements, improved ideas.. He was in the habit of altering, effacing, repainting as he went along, often almost despairing and giving up ……. In the street, in the country, on the river, among the antiques, everywhere, he was always stopping, watching, receiving, and combining impressions; in the studio his chief work lay in giving shape to the images that had formed themselves in that ever active laboratory of his brain. He was poignantly sensitive to all kinds of impressions, as well as those of the lovely looks of human beings and aspects of the world which he has put forward for us….. One felt towards him almost as to a woman or a child, because of his small stature, his delicate hands and feet, quick emotions, as well as because of a look there was in his eyes like the wistful and liquid looks of children.

In his short life Walker not only produced beautiful work, but had a profound influence on artists and the art world, which lasted many years after his death. It is interesting but frustrating to speculate what he would have achieved had he lived a more normal life span.

Frederick Walker, one of the great artistic talents of the nineteenth century, who sadly died so very young.

Acknowledgements:
Our thanks go to Paul Ripley for kindly allowing us to quote this article from his website, Victorian Art in Britain.