Although Webbe is included in Percy Bate's early study of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters (four editions 1899-1910), he remains a shadowy figure. Even the spelling of his name is equivocal, 'Webb' and 'Webbe' both appearing in lifetime exhibition catalogues. He is said to have received his artistic training in Düsseldorf, an experience which must have laid him open to the influence of the Nazarenes. Peter Cornelius, one of the leaders of the movement, had been director of the Düsseldorf Academy in the early 1820s, and his associate Wilhelm Schadow, who had succeeded him in 1826, was still the incumbent when Webbe was a student. Webbe was back in England by 1853, when he made his debut at the Royal Academy, and he continued to show there until 1878. During this period he also supported the British Institution and the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street, while his patron C. Lucas showed two of his pictures at the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862. He drops from the records after his last appearance at the R.A., but whether he had died or simply ceased to exhibit we do not know.
Not surprisingly for an artist trained in the Nazarene tradition, Webbe was an early convert to Pre-Raphaelitism. The ideas of the Brotherhood, which was launched in 1848, gained ground rapidly in the 1850s; and Allen Staley, writing on Webbe in his book The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (1973), describes two of his works dating from 1854-5 as showing 'Pre-Raphaelite elaboration of microscopic foreground detail pushed to an almost insane extreme'. The artist with whom Webbe particularly identified was William Holman Hunt, and specifically Hunt as a painter of sheep in The Hireling Shepherd (Manchester Art Gallery), exhibited at the R.A. in 1852, and the closely related Strayed Sheep (Tate Britain), which appeared at the same venue a year later. Bate illustrates one of the pictures Webbe painted under Hunt's influence, Lambs at Play, observing that it 'might almost be taken for the work of the artist of Strayed Sheep himself'. Webbe lived on the Isle of Wight in the later 1850s, and his picture seems to have been painted there. Quite apart from its Pre-Raphaelite detail and technique, it shows the eponymous lambs gambolling in a meadow overlooking the Channel, just as the sheep in Strayed Sheep huddle on cliffs at Fairlight on the Sussex coast.
But Hunt's importance for Webbe did not end here. In 1862 Webbe visited the Holy Land and began to paint Eastern subjects, exhibiting about twelve during the next eight years. A Street in Jerusalem, a major example shown at the R.A. in 1867, was sold in these Rooms on 14 June 2006, lot 44. Webbe's journey was almost certainly inspired by Hunt, who made his first visit to the Holy Land in 1854-56, returning in 1869-72, 1875-8, and 1892. Unless Webbe paid a later visit of which we have no record, the two artists cannot have met in the East, and Hunt failed to mention Webbe in his autobiography, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905). However, by illustrating a drawing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and identifying its author as 'Webb', he revealed both knowledge of his follower's travels and, presumably, some personal contact.
The present picture is either one that Webbe exhibited at the R.A. in 1856 or a contemporary autograph version. Showing there only for the second time, he sent two pictures that year, the other being an Isle of Wight landscape. The Pre-Raphaelites themselves were present in force. Hunt was showing products of his recent visit to the East, namely The Scapegoat and a group of watercolour landscapes, while Millais was represented by Autumn Leaves, The Blind Girl, Peace Concluded and L'Enfant du Régiment. There were also major examples of such close associates as Arthur Hughes (April Love and The Eve of St Agnes), Henry Wallis (The Death of Chatterton) and W.S. Burton (The Wounded Cavalier). Meanwhile a host of other artists demonstrated how Pre-Raphaelite values, derided when unveiled a few years earlier, were now being widely embraced.
John Ruskin, whose advocacy had done so much to bring about this revolution, was understandably triumphant. 'A singular change', he wrote in Academy Notes, his annual review of the summer exhibition, had taken place, with even the most conservative artists 'struggling' to overcome their 'conventionalism' and meet 'the Pre-Raphaelite standard. The meaning of this is simply that the battle is completely and confessedly won...; that animosity has changed into emulation, astonishment into sympathy, and that a true and consistent school of art is at last established in the Royal Academy of England'. He proceeded to illustrate this thesis in notes on individual pictures, discussing works by Hunt and Millais at length, showing how a 'rising school' was adopting Pre-Raphaelite principles, and detecting instances of Pre-Raphaelite influence on older and more conventional artists such as David Roberts and W.P. Frith.
Webbe's The White Owl was one of the pictures by the 'rising school' that Ruskin singled out for praise. 'A careful study', he wrote, 'the brown wing excellent. The softness of an owl's feathers is perhaps intimitable'. However, he could not resist adding: 'but I think the breast might have been nearer the mark.'
This was typical of Ruskin. A pedagogue by nature, he was particularly prone to hector artists in the mid 1850s, when he was deeply involved in teaching at the Working Men's College. But Ruskin was not alone in admiring The White Owl. The art critic on the Athenaeum felt that, apart from the works by Landseer, the R.A. exhibition did not have 'much to interest' in the way of animal subjects. Webbe's 'careful and promising little picture' was a rare exception. It was, the writer considered, 'wonderful in execution', if perhaps a trifle 'hard and flat'.
The existence of two versions of the picture, a phenomenon seemingly without parallel in Webb's small and painstaking oeuvre, is further testimony to the popularity of this appealing image. The other version, which was sold at Sotheby's Belgravia on 14 June 1977 (lot 31) and bought by the Fine Art Society, is almost identical to ours in every respect. Both are signed in monogram and dated 1856. Both are in oil on board. They are approximately the same size, and correspond closely in detail. But which is the R.A. picture and which is a contemporary replica?
On the evidence we have at present, it is impossible to be certain. The R.A. has no record of who, if anyone, bought 'their' version in 1856, and both pictures can be traced back to within a few years of their execution. Ours belonged to William John Broderip (1789-1859), an eminent lawyer and naturalist who had been instrumental in founding the Zoological Society of London in 1826. He was also an omnivorous collector, both of natural objects (these were bought for the British Museum) and pictures by the modern British school. An outstanding example of the latter was Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd, and since this was a work that profoundly influenced Webbe, it seems more than coincidence that The White Owl was also in Broderip's collection. Broderip may indeed have bought it with Hunt's encouragement, although the subject alone must have endeared it to such an ardent naturalist.
The picture did not appear in Broderip's posthumous sale, which took place at Christie's on 11 June 1859. Presumably he had already either given or bequeathed it to Professor Richard Owen (1804-1892), in whose family it has remained to this day. Owen tends to be remembered as a fierce opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution, but he was a leading and highly respected figure in the scientific establishment of early Victorian London. Since 1836 he had been Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1856, the year Webbe's picture was exhibited, he became Superintendent of the Natural History Department at the British Museum.
Owen knew Broderip well. Their paths were constantly crossing, not least because both were fellows of such distinguished bodies as the Royal Society, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society, and others. In short, Owen was precisely the sort of person to whom Broderip might have given or bequeathed Webbe's picture. What makes the change of ownership so interesting, however, is that Owen, like Broderip, was a great admirer of Holman Hunt. Broderip introduced him to the painter in 1852, and many years later Hunt was to paint a remarkable portrait of Owen (Natural History Museum, London), exhibiting it at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881.
The second version of The White Owl seems to be one of the two pictures by Webbe that another patron, C. Lucas, lent to the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862. It is identified as such in the Sotheby's Belgravia catalogue, where it is also claimed that this is the R.A. picture. These statements may of course be based on documentary evidence (old labels or inscriptions), but they may simply be assumptions made with knowledge of the records but in ignorance of the fact that another version existed.
On balance, our picture perhaps has a slightly better claim to be the R.A. picture. The fact that its history can be traced back to before 1859 while that of the other only begins in 1862 could be construed as giving it superior status. So, more importantly, could its presence in the collections of Broderip and Owen, both of whom were closely associated with Webbe's mentor, Holman Hunt. But the question of which version appeared at the R.A. in 1856 is still not settled beyond doubt.