This charming picture shows the children of William and Anne Pattinson of New House, Felling, near Gateshead. It was painted to mark the fifth birthday of Norman Percy Pattinson, the little boy seated second from the left wearing a garland of bluebells. The other children, from left to right, are Hugh, Ethel, Victoria, Margaret, Edith Anne and Walter. The picture was commissioned in 1866 and exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year (the same year as Holman Hunt's Il Dolce Far Niente, lot 26). F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, thought it showed 'how tenderly' Hughes could 'read the faces of fair children, (and) how beautifully he can paint them', but the Times was more critical. 'We cannot congratulate Mr Hughes', Tom Taylor observed rather tartly, 'on having triumphed over the proverbial difficulties of family picture-making in his "Birthday Picnic".'
William Watson Pattinson (1814-1895) was the nephew of Hugh Lee Pattinson (1796-1858), a Tyneside chemical manufacturer who in 1833 patented a process for the desilvering of lead. With the profits resulting from this invention, he established a chemical works at Felling, Gateshead, in which his son and nephew were partners. W.W. Pattinson resided nearby, produced a typically large Victorian family, and built up a library and a collection of pictures. They included works by Turner, Varley, Bell Scott, Birket Foster, Albert Goodwin, Simeon Solomon, and Charles Napier Hemy, but he seems to have had a special feeling for Hughes. He owned two of the artist's subject pictures, Elaine and The Singer (Roberts, nos. 92 and 84), as well as commissioning the present group-portrait of his children. He also seems to have considered ordering another group, perhaps showing himself and his wife, although this failed to materialise.
In its heyday Pattinson's extensive chemical works on the south side of the Tyne employed 10,000 workers in the production of sulphuric acid, soda and chlorine. Many of them were Irish immigrants, and the company was well aware of its obligations, erecting houses, public baths and a school for its employees. However, many of the chemical processes were highly toxic, and the firm was constantly in trouble with the authorities for releasing poisonous gases and polluting the countryside. As Jane Vickers observes in the catalogue of the exhibtion Painters and Patrons in the North-East (from which many of these details are taken), this environment was in marked contrast to the idyllic picture painted by Hughes of children enjoying a picnic in Felling Woods.
Pattinson belonged to a circle of industrialists who patronised the Pre-Raphaelites. The Newcastle lead manufacturer James Leathart (1820-1895), who built up one of the most interesting Pre-Raphaelite collections ever formed, rich in the work of Madox Brown, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others, was a neighbour in Gateshead. In fact it was almost certainly Hughes's portrait of Mrs Leathart and her three Children (Roberts, no. 61), exhibited at the R.A. in 1865, that inspired Pattinson to commission the present picture. Or perhaps one should say the portrait and Home from Work, lot 13 in this catalogue, which Leathart also owned, and which gave such striking evidence of Hughes's ability to capture the innocence of childhood.
Even better known to Pattinson, however, was Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816-1904). A metallurgical chemist and ironmaster, Bell had extensive industrial interests in the area. Like so many Victorians of his type, he was also intensely public spirited, serving as mayor of Newcastle, Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of County Durham, and an M.P.. He was created a baronet in 1885, and his daughter Mary married Lyulph Stanley, the brother of Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle.
Sir Lowthian Bell's wife, Margaret, was Pattinson's cousin, and the two men did business together and shared both a concern for social issues and a love of the arts. Bell was as well known as a patron as Leathart. Rounton Grange, his house at Northallerton in Yorkshire, was built for him by Phillip Webb and decorated by the Morris firm in the 1870s. Margaret Bell and her daughter Florence themselves executed a needlework frieze for the dining-room, designed by Morris and Burne-Jones and illustrating Chaucer's Romance of the Rose (now in the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow). Bell also had a collection of pictures, including examples of Cox, Millais, Boyce, Prinsep, Calderon and Albert Goodwin. He owned only one Arthur Hughes, Beauty and the Beast (Roberts, no. 63), but Florence Bell copied a painting by Hughes that was owned by the Pattinsons, Elaine. The copy was sold in these Rooms on 26 November 2002, lot 110.
Jane Vickers suggests, very plausibly, that A Birthday Picnic owes something to Millais' painting Spring (or Apple Blossoms) (fig. 1). Interestingly enough, this belonged to yet another Tyneside collector, Jacob Burnett, between 1861 and 1876, although Hughes is more likely to have seen it when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859. It is also tempting to compare Holman Hunt's painting The Children's Holiday (Portrait of Mrs Thomas Fairbairn and her Children) (fig. 2), which had been shown at the New Gallery, 16 Hanover Street, London, as recently as 1865. All such picnic subjects no doubt have a generic resemblance, but there do seem to be certain similarities here, for example the way each artist allows a more or less adult female figure to dominate his composition and shows some of the children seated on the ground while others wander in the distance. The woodland settings, too, are comparable. In any case, we sense that both artists are struggling with what Tom Taylor called 'the proverbial difficulties of family picture-making', Hughes perhaps with more success than Hunt.