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William J. Webbe (fl.1853-1878)
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William J. Webbe (fl.1853-1878)

The Reaper and the Lily

William J. Webbe (fl.1853-1878)
The Reaper and the Lily
signed with initials (lower left) and further signed and inscribed 'No. 1 The Reaper and the Lily/W.J.Webbe./Niton, Isle of Wight.' (on an old label attached to the reverse) and signed and inscribed 'W.J Webb Niton/Isle of Wight (on the reverse of the panel)
oil on panel
14 x 7½ in. (35.5 x 19 cm.)
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Lot Essay

Webb is an interesting figure on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Little is known of him, and his identity remains even more elusive owing to his habit of signing his surname both 'Webb' and 'Webbe'.

According to Benezit, Webb received his artistic training in Düsseldorf. This implies that he encountered the Nazarene painter Wilhelm Schadow, who had worked with Peter von Cornelius and Johann Friedrich Overbeck in Rome, and had been Director of the Düsseldorf Academy since 1826. A certain purity of form which characterises Webb's work can probably be attributed to this early brush with the Nazarene tradition.

Webb was evidently back in England by 1853 when he exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy. He was then living in Hemel Hempstead, but by 1855 he had moved to Niton, on the southernmost tip of the Isle of Wight. He stayed there until 1860, when he settled in London. He was to have a series of addresses in the capital before ceasing to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1878. Meanwhile he supported the British Institution (1855-64) and the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street (1853-70). The label MAN on the reverse of this picture also suggests he might have exhibited at Manchester, and elsewhere in the provinces.

Like many artists, Webb felt the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism in the 1850s, the period when the influence of the Brotherhood was at its height. Allen Staley, discussing him in The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (1973), describes two works of 1854-55 as showing 'Pre-Raphaelite elaboration of microscopic foreground detail pushed to an almost insane extreme'.

Unfortunately we have only the haziest idea of how Webb experienced Pre-Raphaelite influence. The artist with whom he is usually associated is William Holman Hunt, largely because because many of his animals are sheep and sheep figure prominently in two major pictures by Hunt. Hunt never mentions Webb in his biography but by illustrating a drawing of the Church of the Holy sepulchre and identifying its author as 'Webb' he drops a hint they were in touch. Webb visited the Holy Land in 1862.
The present picture strives to adhere to Ruskinian principles of 'truth to nature' in its extraordinary attention to detail. Its composition also surely owes something to Charles Alston Collins's Convent Thoughts, now in the Ashmolean, Oxford, while the subject was no doubt conceived to comfort those parents who had been bereaved by the high rate of infant mortality then prevalent.

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