J.C. Horsley's Showing a Preference is almost certainly the finest example of Victorian genre that Christie's has handled since W.A. Atkinson's The Upset Flower Cart, formerly in the collection of Evelyn Waugh and now in the collection of the Lord Lloyd Webber, was sold in these Rooms in June 1992. Horsley was in many ways the epitome of a Victorian artist, belonging unequivocally to the art establishment and representing tastes and prejudices that were typical of their day. Born in 1817, he was an exact contemporary of G.F. Watts and similarly long lived, dying at the age of eighty-six in 1903 (Watts survived him by a year). He came from a highly cultured family. Both his father, William Horsley, and his grandfather on his mother's side, John Wall Callcott, were well-known composers. Horsley himself took a keen interest in music and was a close friend of Mendelssohn, who often stayed with his parents when he was in London. Painting, too, ran in the family, since John Wall Callcott's brother was Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, the so-called 'English Claude' who for many years was Keeper of the Royal Collection. But in some ways the most interesting link was forged in 1836 when Horsley's sister Mary married the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. With him, like Mendelssohn, Horsley formed an intimate friendship, as he describes at length in his Recollections of a Royal Academician, published the year he died. He painted Brunel's portrait more than once, as well as those of his wife and son. He also joined Leslie, Landseer, Egg, Cope and others in decorating the famous Shakespeare Room that Brunel began creating in the late 1840s at his house in Duke Street, St. James's.
Horsley was born in London and received his formal education at a school on the site of the Carmelite Church which still stands in Church Street, Kensington. He then attended Sass's art school in Bloomsbury before graduating to the Royal Academy Schools, where he won the gold medal for a study from the antique and earned the praises of Sir David Wilkie. He began to exhibit at the RA in 1839, and about the same time was appointed to run the life class at the Government School of Design at Somerset House. Perhaps at this stage he had not yet developed the prudish aversion to naked models for which he would later become notorious, unleashing a furious debate on the subject and gaining himself the sobriquet of 'Clothes Horsley'.
In the late 1840s, like his contemporary G.F. Watts, Horsley distinguished himself in the competitions held in Westminster Hall to find artists capable of decorating the new Houses of Parliament with murals. This led to his being commissioned to carry out two frescoes, a composition symbolising the Spirit of Religion in the Lord's Chamber and a Miltonic subject in the Upper Waiting Hall. He also executed two murals illustrating scenes from the early life of Alfred the Great at Somerleyton, the new neo-Jacobean mansion that the railway magnate Sir Samuel Morton Peto had built for himself in Suffolk. There was a link here with the Palace of Westminster since the house was designed by John Thomas, the sculptor and architectural draughtsman who was responsible for overseeing the stone-carving at the latter. However, monumental history painting was not really Horsley's forte, nor did his attitude to the nude equip him to excel in this field. He was much happier in the area to which Wilkie's praises had perhaps pointed him, namely historical, literary and modern-life genre. Although he continued to live all his life at the family house in Kensington, in 1858 he acquired a property at Cranbrook in Kent, joining the circle of artists, often known as the Cranbrook Colony, who specialised in genre scenes in the Wilkie tradition. The moving spirit was Thomas Webster, best known for his Village Choir in the Sheepshanks Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum; other members included G.B. O'Neill, F.D. Hardy and A.E. Mulready. Horsley was also a friend of the doyen of Victorian genre painters, W.P. Frith, and the caricaturist John Leach. Indeed he often suggested themes for Leach's contributions to Punch.
Although Horsley exhibited at the British Institution from 1837 to 1850, he was always more closely associated with the Royal Academy, where he continued to show until 1896. He was elected A.R.A. in 1855 and a full academician in 1864 (not, as the Dictionary of National Biography has it, 1856). Quite apart from exhibiting regularly, he took a leading part for fifteen years (1875-90) in organising the winter exhibition of Old Masters. To quote the DNB, 'he was indefatigable in searching for desirable pictures, and in persuading their owners to lend. For such duties he was remarkably well fitted, being at once extremely popular and yet quite ready with his "no" when inadmissable claims were made on behalf of this or that "masterpiece"'. Horsley was also treasurer of the Academy from 1882 to 1897, when he retired from the list of active academicians.
The present picture exists in two versions, the other being in the well-known collection of Victorian genre paintings formed by the late Sir David Scott. Both versions are dated 1860 and they are extremely similar in detail; the only significant difference is that ours is larger, measuring 36 x 28 inches as against 26½ x 30¾ inches, the dimensions of the Scott picture. One of the versions was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860, and there is little doubt that it was ours. One reason for this conclusion is its relatively larger size. Secondary versions tend to be smaller, having often been worked up from preliminary sketches to make them marketable commodities. The other argument in favour of our version being the RA picture hinges on the label on the back inscribed 'J.C. Horsley ARA/no. 1', Artists often stuck such labels to their pictures when sending them to exhibitions to indicate that they were part of a group submission. Horsley sent three works to the RA in 1860, and if the others could be traced they might well prove to be numbered '2' and '3' on the back.
Tom Taylor, reviewing the RA exhibition in the Times, described the subject of Showing a Preference as 'a naughty nautical gentleman between two ladies, in a cornfield, suddenly revealing how happy he could be with one of them if the other were away'. The critic on the Athenaeum enlarged on this succinct account, pointing out that the young sailor has 'piqued the darker' of the two girls 'by paying marked attention to her fair companion'. While the favoured one 'listens to [his] remarks ..., the other, whose dress is caught by a bramble, is compelled to leave the arm of the gallant, who pays no heed to the accident, so absorbed is he with his own choice. The proper amount of wrath and spite is expressed upon his face'.
The Illustrated London News also noticed the picture, calling it 'a rather smart affair' which 'says much for the impressionable character of our naval service [but] little for their gallantry.' Punch put the same point more wittily. 'Mr Horsley's navel lieutenant (HMS Trifler) is "showing a preference" in a very indiscreet and decided manner. The very poppies hang their heads in shame. Let us hope, however, that he has made a fitting choice, and that his charmer will become a mate before he is a commander'.
Despite the fact that it is almost certainly the prime original and the RA picture, our version has had far less exposure in recent times then the smaller replica. The latter, for example, appeared in the Arts Council's British Life exhibition of 1953, in Agnew's 1961 survey of Victorian Painting 1837-1887, and in the massive exhibition mounted by the Royal Academy to mark its bicentenary in 1968-9. The picture has also been consistently mentioned and illustrated by art-historians pioneering the Victorian revival: Graham Reynolds, the late Jeremy Maas, Christopher Wood and others. All this attention indicates how highly the composition has been rated. Indeed, few would deny that this is one of Horsley's most attractive and satisfying inventions, a picture with something of the iconic status that we accord to A.L. Egg's Travelling Companions, Alfred Elmore's On the Brink or Sophie Anderson's No Walk Today. Perhaps even Frith's Derby Day is not too far-fetched a companion in terms of acknowledged masterpieces that have a unique capacity to capture public imagination.
In his book Victorian Painting (1966) Graham Reynolds observes that Showing a Preference is an example of 'the boom in modern life subjects of the late 1850s', and one of several works in which the artist displays his ability to 'depict without mawkishness scenes of flirtation set in the countryside'. It seems likely that the background was found in the neighbourhood of Cranbrook in Kent, where Horsley had joined the colony of genre painters two years before the picture was painted.
However, the most thorough and perceptive analysis of the composition is given by Lindsay Errington in her catalogue of the exhibition of pictures from the Scott Collection that was held at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1991. She begins by making the interesting comment that Horsley 'has utilised, in an elegant and slightly flippant way, the traditional pictorial theme of The Choice of Hercules'. This well-known subject is derived from Xenophon, who tells in his Memorabilia how the adolescent Hercules was faced with a choice between Virtue and Vice. It was intimately associated with history painting in the grand manner, having been treated by two of the greatest exponents, Annibale Carracci and Poussin. Indeed when the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury had wished to encourage history painting in England in the early 18th Century, he had commissioned a Neopolitan artist, Paolo de Matteis, to paint this very subject as an example to his countrymen. Horsley, with his academic training and early aspiration to be a history painter, may well have been aware of these prototypes, even if his adaptation of them to modern genre was more or less unconscious.
Errington also discusses Horsley's use of symbolism to underline the fate of the two girls in relation to their fickle swain. Everything points to the good fortune of the one to whom he is paying such attention. She leans 'on his right arm, ... walks on the sunny side of the path, her hat filled with flowers, and gathers the ripened ears of corn.' The plight of her rejected companion, on the other hand, is reinforced by the fact that she is 'on the officer's left arm, has the shady side, overrun with weeds, and is heedlessly dragged along, whilst her scarf catches on the thorns of a bramble'. Such antitheses as 'right and left, corn and weeds, sunshine and shadow', become a language of symbols that the Victorians were far more conditioned to recognise and interpret than we are today.
In fact the modern approach is not to 'read' the picture in this way but to focus on formal values, arguing that the 'real' subject of the picture is the dramatic effect of light and shade. Errington sees Horsley as at something of a crossroads here, indulging in symbolism while at the same time 'disguising' it by his 'striking reading of natural colour effects in the open air. His colouring is fresh and light, blonde and silvery, enlivened by a few small strategically placed touches of red in the poppies and faint stripes on the grey dress. What really makes the painting remarkable is the treatment of the shadows. Whereas local shadows, on the side of an object turned away from the light, had traditionally been employed by artists to suggest three-dimensional form, projected shadows cast by one object upon another had often been suppressed and avoided because their effects could be devisive and confusing. Horsley exploits projected shadow in an extraordinary way, decorating the rear girl's skirt with the fringed shadow from the pathside weeds, cutting her face across by the shadow of her hat, and throwing the shadow of the sunshade over the whole upper half of the foremost girl, so that her body and head appear dark against the bright corn and pale blue sky.'
Horsley's attempt to paint figures in dazzling sunlight was too much for some contemporary reviewers. That at any rate seems to be the inference of Tom Taylor's curious remark that he '[could not] understand how Mr Horsley ... [could] find it in his heart to represent man or nature with such painfully clean-washed faces as he does [here]'. He might almost be echoing the criticism that had been levelled at Constable's naturalism a generation earlier, or anticipating the outcry that would soon be greeting the Impressionists' far more radical attempts to convey natural light.
Yet some felt that Horsley had not gone far enough. The art critic on the Athenaeum complained that the picture had presented 'an opportunity of painting Nature out of doors with fidelity and freshness, which chance, we regret to say, Mr Horsley has not seized. The whole effect is chalky and opaque;... and the colours of the sun-shadows ... have not been studied as they ought to have been from Nature'. They are 'blackish rather than purple, and seem not at all influenced by the colour of the objects which receive them'.
These comments strongly suggest that the writer was a devotee of Pre-Raphaelitism, and was thinking of such pictures as Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd (Manchester Art Gallery) or Ford Madox Brown's Pretty Baa-Lambs (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). Both exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852, these works too show figures in bright sunlight but pay the most scrupulous attention to the way shadows are 'influenced by the colour of the objects which receive them'. It is tempting to attribute the Athenaeum article to F.G. Stephens, the former member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who had abandoned painting for art criticism. The date when he began a forty-year assignment as the journal's art critic is usually given as 1861, but in 1860 he published an anonymous pamphlet on the work of Holman Hunt, and the language he uses there is strikingly similar to that found in the review of Horsley's picture. He says, for example, that Hunt 'was absolutely the first figure-painter who gave the true colour to sun-shadows, made them partake of the tint of the object on which they were cast'. Not only is Hunt seen as succeeding exactly where Horsley has failed; even the slightly unusual phrase 'sun-shadows' is repeated.
Whoever penned the review in the Athenaeum, Showing a Preference is clearly a picture that invites comparisons. The Hireling Shepherd is relevant not only because it shows figures in brilliant sunlight but because these figures are engaged in flirting, because the scene is replete with symbolism (of a much more portentous kind, indeed, than Horsley's), and because a cornfield plays a significant part in the conception. Cornfields, so potent as images of abundance, well-being and divine beneficence, often feature in mid-Victorian genre. The symbolic dimension is clearly present in W.M. Egley's masterpiece of 1862, Hallo, Largess!: A Harvest Scene in Norfolk (private collection). It is even more explicit in J.R. Herbert's Laborare est Orare of the same year (Tate Britain), in which monks are seen gathering sheaves of corn rather as they might gather souls. Richard Burchett's delightful View across Sandown Bay, Isle of Wight (Victoria and Albert Museum), probably painted in the 1850s, is less ostensibly didactic, but even here the church in the distance hints at the source of the bounty represented by the partially garnered harvest in the foreground fields.
A still richer seam of comparison and analogy is opened up when we see the picture as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Choice of Hercules. Horsley was far from the first to put a modern spin on this time-honoured theme. Sir Joshua Reynolds had done so in his famous composition of Garrick between Comedy and Tragedy. In more abstract terms, moreover, the notion of choosing between frivolity and stern obligation had been implied in those innumerable early Victorian pictures based on Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. Horsley himself had painted two such works, one in 1848, the other, commissioned by Prince Albert, in 1851. Where perhaps he was more original was in associating the idea with flirtation and courtship. Even here he was almost certainly not a pioneer. Further research would no doubt uncover some 18th Century example in the 'comedy of manners' mode, possibly French rather than English and very likely with literary strings attached. But if he was not being startlingly original, at least Horsley was followed by others. D.G. Rossetti gave the subject a medieval twist in The Merciless Lady, a watercolour of 1865 (private collection), while Tissot returned it to the modern world in his Portsmouth Dockyard (How happy I could be with either) of 1877 (Tate Britain). Other artists offered variations on the theme. In John Pettie's Two Strings to her Bow (Glasgow Art Gallery) the roles are reversed; it is the fortunate young woman, man on either arm, who is spoiled for choice. As for F.D. Millet's Between Two Fires (Tate Britain), here the girls have joined forces, ribbing a soberly-clad Puritan whose conscience, far from being external and personified, lies deep in his stony heart.