In Disgrace is one of the most well-documented and impressive of Burton Barber's child subject genre pieces. Executed in 1893, a year before his death at the age of 49, it shows Burton Barber at the height of his powers. The composition is simple and arresting; the sense of tension heightened by the location of the girl in the corner of an implicitly lofty room with broad skirting and polished wood floor. The offending object, a broken flower vase, lies off-centre. The rose, which is symbolically linked to the girl by its cream colour, is skewered against the wall by the Jack Russell who peers warily from behind his mistress's legs.
Burton Barber's short career was impressive. He was exhibiting at the Royal Academy by the age of 21, and won several prizes. A love of nature compelled him towards animal painting but his admiration of Sir Edwin Landseer enforced the development of his singular style. In Burton Barber's paintings the animals and children interact, often without recourse to others, as if occupying a private mythology of rituals and games, but the animals are never represented in an anthropomorphic way. They are painted with reference to nature, evincing direct observation on the artist's part. In 1873 Burton Barber's accomplishment as an animal painter inspired Queen Victoria to commission him as her court painter, succeeding Landseer upon his death. The many sensitive works he completed within this remit include the famous depiction of Queen Victoria on her horse, with John Brown holding the reins. Its subtlety is a measure of the complexity of Burton Barber's vision. He should not be categorised simply as a painter of sentimental subjects in the 19th century tradition.
His depictions of children and animals are testament to this complexity. Often set in well-to-do houses, they create an atmosphere of material comfort but occasional psychological unease. No adult presence is visible in these grand interiors; only a plethora of material detail. In 1882 John Singer Sargent's remarkable group portrait, an archetypal image of wealth and loneliness, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, was exhibited at the Paris Salon. Both this and Barber's pictures function as the pictorial equivalent of Henry James's novel of 1897, What Maisie knew, which documents a young girl's attempts to negotiate her way through society's moral maze. Within such an environment, a dog is a companion whose vitality and simplicity provide an antidote to duplitious human motives.
In Disgrace relates to A Special Pleader, which shows the same girl, with a doll by her feet, and a collie dog nearby. The narrative implied is that during the commotion of play the doll has been sent flying. In this context it is the dog who must express humility, albeit in the most graceful manner.
Burton Barber's works were very popular and frequently engraved or reproduced as chromolithographs. Their appeal was also utilised for commercial purposes. A. and F. Pears, the soap production firm, acquired a number of pieces.
The little girl - or her exact counterpart - depicted in the present lot appears in Burton Barber's work throughout the 1880s, and, though altered in detail, her frilled white dress also features in various ramifications. Comparable pictures include Temptation (1883), which shows her monitoring the attempts of a St Bernard to eat her tea. In Suspense, 1894, she is pictured saying her morning prayers, Jack Russell on side, before a tempting breakfast display (see Christie's, New York, 22 May 1997, lot 169; $442,500). Another girl, younger with shorter hair, appears less frequently; as does a small boy in a sailor suit.
Similarly, the mischievous terrier with distinctive black markings is perhaps the most recurrent of the artist's animal characters. Others include a kitten and the aforementioned St Bernard. The terrier featured in a series of watercolour illustrations for children, entitled 'The Adventures of Pincher'.
However resonant Burton Barber's canvases, functioning on the level of pure joyous sentiment or more complex narrative analogy, the artist himself seems to have been loved for his equanimity. Harry Furniss, his neighbour and biographer, wrote: 'How conscientious he was, and how he painted and repainted every detail!'. He also summarised: 'He was...the gentlest and truest of friends, and the sweetest-natured man that ever held a brush'.