This exceptional oil study is by one of the finest painters of the Liverpool school. William Davis was the son of a Dublin attorney. He moved to England in 1837 and to Liverpool in 1842-3, where he began a life-long affiliation with the Liverpool Academy, exhibiting there as well as at the Royal Academy, and becoming acting Professor of Drawing 1856-72.
Figurative work by Davis is rare. It was as a landscape artist that he came to the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who nominated Davis' 1855 Royal Academy exhibit, Early Spring Evening, Cheshire, one of the four best in the exhibition, embodying: 'unity of perfect truth with invention'. History has classed Davis as a Pre-Raphaelite, as his labour-intensive technique made use of the white ground for which the circle were known. This wet white ground caused colours to glow with unparalleled lucidity, and sometimes lent objects the appearance of corresponding glassy lightness. Davis compounded the sense of fineness by applying pigment with a thin hog's hair brush, and floating glazes over this first, linear, layer.
The present work is unarguably Pre-Raphaelite, and can probably be dated to circa 1850. The translucence of the colours, and the sculptural quality of the figures, evokes the fresco work of 15th Century Italian artist Piero Della Francesca, who did indeed pre-date Raphael.
When Davis does introduce figures into his landscape compositions, they carry immense resonance. The Return from Labour (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), shows two boys leading their plough horses home. The peace, as day slips into night, is apparent, as is the sense of companionship between the men and the animals. Davis' conception of husbandry, and humanity's duty to nature, is a strong theme in all his work; even apparent in Fetching Water, wherein the distant horse and cart moving down the road suggests an awareness of the daily cycle of work and engagement with the landscape. A Day's Sport at Bidston Hall (circa 1860; Tate London) shows a dead hare in the foreground of an empty landscape; its stretched form all the more poignant for its semblance to the living, running, creature.
Davis sometimes signed his name 'Davies', though the former version has now become accepted.