This superb and beautifully preserved watercolour was Walker's only exhibit at the Old Water Colour Society in 1866. He was still only an Associate, having been elected in 1864 together with G.P. Boyce and Edward Burne-Jones. However, he was to be elected to full membership the following November, no doubt partly on the strength of his recent exhibit.
The watercolour is a large version, with very considerable variations, of one of a series of ten wood-engravings that Walker had designed in 1862, and of which six were to be illustrated in this medium. All, in the words of Walker's friend and biographer J.G. Marks, were of 'that homely character which marked his earlier work when (he was) free to choose his own subjects'. They were commissioned by the well-known firm of engravers George and Edward Dalziel, and were eventually published by Routledge in two books typical of the renaissance of book illustration in the 1860s, A Round of Days (1866) and Wayside Posies (1867). The design eventually developed as The Bouquet appeared in the latter, a collection of poems edited by Robert Buchanan, the man who was to be such a source of tribulation to D.G. Rossetti a few years later. Some of the poems are by Buchanan himself, although as they are all anonymous we cannot tell if this is true of 'The Bit o'Garden', the poem to which Walker's Bouquet design relates. In all, Walker was responsible for five of the book's illustrations, the rest being by G.J. Pinwell and J.W. North.
Four of the ten designs conceived by Walker in 1862, all published in A Round of Days, were entitled Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Summer showed two boys bathing, and was the seed of his most ambitious work in oils, The Bathers (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867. Spring and Autumn were, like The Bouquet, developed as highly-finished watercolours (both Victoria and Albert Museum; see fig. 2), and all three of these watercolour versions belonged to William Leech, who lent them, together with three other works, to Walker's memorial exhibition at the Deschamps Gallery, New Bond Street, in 1876. At this date The Bouquet still retained its original title, but by the time Leech's pictures were sold at Christie's in May 1887 it had been re-named Summer to make it seem thematically linked to Spring and Autumn. It retained this title when it re-appeared in the company of Spring and Autumn at the Royal Academy's winter exhibitions in 1891 and 1901, even though by this time it had been split from the other pair and was in a different collection.
The Bouquet was painted in the summer of 1865, and Marks records that 'for the background, Walker made large use of an old red-brick house standing on the left by the crossroads, about a quarter of a mile out of Croydon along the Mitcham Road'. This was a part of the world well known to the artist, whose younger sister and her husband lived in Croydon. Marks adds that 'the dog in the drawing', seen towards the left edge in the middle distance, 'was painted from my dear old bull-terrier, "Smudge", who from puppyhood to old age lived his faithful life with me and mine'.
F.G. Stephens, reviewing the 1866 O.W.C.S. exhibition in the Athenaeum, felt that The Bouquet was 'one of the most striking pictures in the room'. He then proceeded to make an interesting comparison with Burne-Jones's Le Chant d'Amour (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which had been given 'the place of honour...and deserves it, on account of the superb colour, poetic feeling and vigorous manner it exhibits'. 'Technically', Stephen felt, The Bouquet was 'nearly equal to Mr Jones's (picture), especially as regards colour'; but 'in all other respects, taste, compostion and poetic feeling and force, not the slightest comparison can be suggested; the gardener is awkward, uncharacteristic, ugly; the children are uncouth; the absence of converse qualities to these is not compensated to the spectator by the character or humour. On the other hand, nothing surpasses the splendour of the garden,- see the flowers to our left, - or the atmospheric truth that is here exhibited'.
The picture also won qualified approval from Tom Taylor, a friend of Walker who was the art critic on the Times. 'Mr Walker', he wrote,
in a single drawing, The Bouquet, a cottager, in a sun-lit garden, showing a gorgeous posy of hardy perennials to an admiring pair, a ragged boy and girl, proves the painter's rare power of representing figures and flowers in bright daylight. Mr Walker works in the same manner as the late W. Hunt, with a powerful impasto of body colour. He is to be commended for the courage with which he eshews all aids from picturesque costume, or conventional prettiness, but there is a wide field of natural gracefulness and every-day charm between these and the utter homeliness - if we must not call it squalor - of figures like these. Homely beauty in the children would have better fitted their setting of bright flowers and broad sunlight. We must, besides, venture a question as to the very ugly brick buildings in the background. Brick submits so readily to the kindly influences of weather-stain and lichen, and is so ugly without them, that we should be inclined to charge the painter with a kind of perverseness for his resolute adherence to the harsh nakedness of burnt clay. But, with all deduction, this is a drawing of wonderful power, particularly when seen from a proper distance; examined closely, the palpableness of the touch and roughness of the workmanship detract from the enjoyment of it; it is evidently taste and not power that needs culture in Mr Walker.
Victorian art-critism can seem incredibly pompous to modern taste, but Taylor, like Stephens, makes some helpful comparisons. It would not have occured to him to invoke the name of Burne-Jones. He heartily disliked the Pre-Raphaelite's work, sensing in it a threat to his own artistic assumptions, and never missed an opportunity to disparage it. But Taylor was perfectly right to compare Walker's remarkable technique of bodycolour overlaid with broken touches of transparent watercolour to that of William Henry ('Bird's Nest') Hunt, who had died in 1864. It is interesting that Ruskin, who was such a great admirer of Hunt, made much the same point when discussing a still-life by the younger artist, claiming that 'it entirely beats my dear old William Hunt in the simplicity of execution, and rivals him in the subtlest truth'. Ruskin himself probably had some impact on Walker's technique, which has much in common with that advocated in his Elements of Drawing (1857).
Taylor's review suggests comparisons with artists whom he does not even mention by name. In criticising Walker for not giving more 'homely beauty' to the two children, he was almost certainly thinking of Birket Foster, one of the pillars of the O.W.C.S., and his complaint about the 'ugly brick buildings', unrelieved by 'weather-stain and lichen', recalls the work of G.P. Boyce, who made such a feature of brick walls weathered and mottled in the way that Taylor describes.
The subject of the picture is enigmatic. Marks describes it as 'a gardener giving a bunch of flowers to two children in black', and for Stephens too the infants are being 'presented' with the bouquet by their elderly friend. But Taylor was perhaps nearer the mark when he wrote that the gardener was merely 'showing' a 'gorgeous posy' to the 'admiring pair'. The whole point of the picture, and what makes it so poignant, is surely the unbridgeable social gap between the urchins and those for whom the bouquet has been prepared. Nothing is explained, but we are left to imagine a grand country house beyond the kitchen-garden wall, presumably owned by the local squire and his family. The bouquet is for a wedding or some smart dinner-party, and the children are being allowed no more than a glimpse of an exotic world they will never experience themselves. Their reactions are beautifully calculated. The young boy views the bauble with awe but his older sister is more detached, even a little disdainful of the conspicuous consumption it implies. The fact that the children are dressed in black might indicate that they are in mourning, a circumstance that would add to the subject's pathos. This theory tends to be confirmed by the treatment of the children in the original wood-engraving, although in all other respects the print is so different that it is irrelevant to the watercolour's meaning.
The picture's first owner, William Leech, lived in Kensington Palace Gardens and formed a large collection of English watercolours. Most of the well-known names were represented, but Leech clearly had his favourites and Walker was one of them, the sale including no fewer than nineteen of his watercolours and drawings. Only Turner accounted for more, with a stunning twenty-four examples.
At the Leech sale, the picture was bought by Sir William Agnew, who had been Walker's dealer, and by 1891 it belonged to Sir Cuthbert Quilter, the elder brother of Harry Quilter, a successor to Tom Taylor as art critic on the Times and, famously, a victim of Whistler's mercilessly caustic wit. Cuthbert was a wealthy corporate capitalist who invested in the nascent telephone system, entered parliament, and was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1897. Like his contemporary Sir John Aird, he tended to like large, well-reviewed academic pictures; and he was almost over-eager to lend them to exhibitions, aware that this reflected well on himself and enhanced the value of the work concerned. J.W. Waterhouse's Mariamne, formerly in the Forbes Collection, which was sold in these rooms on 19 February 2003, lot 32, was the quintessential Quilter picture. Perfectly tailored to big international exhibitions, it travelled eighteen times across Europe and America during his twenty-two-year ownership, in the process picking up medals in Paris, Chicago and Brussels.
But not all Quilter's pictures were of this type. He also owned works by Constable, Cox, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones, and he evidently had a genuine fondness for Fred Walker. He also owned The Bathers, mentioned above, and the small watercolour version of Wayfarers (fig.3) which was sold in these Rooms, 24 November 2004, lot 14 as part of the collection of the late Sir Paul Getty. The Bathers appeared at Quilter's first sale at Christie's, 9 July 1909, and Wayfarers at the second, 22 July 1923, but The Bouquet was not included in either sale, presumably because no-one could bear to part with it. In fact it remained in the Quilter family until 2003, a circumstance which must have had an important bearing on its marvellous condition.
W.H. Hunt's The Eavesdropper, a watercolour very comparable in scale and preservation to The Bouquet that also came from the Quilter collection, was sold in these Rooms, 20 November 2003, lot 107.