The Art Journal reviewer of the 1858 Academy exhibition noted the contrasting placidity and vigour of the river and rapids depicted in
Emmerson's Maid of Derwent. The maid, he states, is '...painted
with infinite sweetness.' and '[the] surface of the water behind her is liquid and lustrous, but as it flows over the wear, the charm of that breadth and brilliancy is broken - it falls in thousands of sharp and cutting threads'.
Though perhaps a little forcibly expressed, the comments draw attention to the extreme care and fidelity with which Emmerson realises his scene. Painted in the decade following the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelites, the artist succeeds in being 'true to nature' and further pays tribute to their innovation with his luminous colour palette.
Emmerson was born in County Durham and studied in Newcastle with William Bell Scott. He remained devoted to the area and lived at Ebchester, Bywell, Whickham, Morpeth and Cullercoats. His reputation grew locally and his works still form a valuable nexus in the permanent inventories of public museums such as the Laing, Newcastle, York City Art Gallery, and a number of smaller, private, collections. Emmerson also found fame in London, exhibiting 54 works at the Royal Academy between 1851-93.
The artist's preference for rural genre is evident from his London exhibits: titles such as 'The Village Tailor' (1851, now at the Laing), Going to market (1858) and The farmer's daughter (1873) illustrate a theme. He also painted historical genre.
The Derwent is the largest river in the Peak District and a major tributary of the River Trent. Wordsworth's verse, To the river Derwent, composed during his 1833 tour of the Derbyshire region, paid homage to its loveliness and perhaps inspired Emmerson's romantic image.