The Harbour of Refuge (fig. 1), the oil painting of which this is a reduced watercolour version, is probably Walker's most famous work. His last major picture to be exhibited, appearing at the Royal Academy in 1872, it epitomised his later style and proved immensely popular. A reproductive etching by R. W. Macbeth enabled the image to be widely disseminated, and the picture itself found an early home in the national collection. Presented to the National Gallery by Sir William Agnew in 1893, it was transferred to the Tate Gallery when this was founded four years later.
The subject was conceived in 1870. Walker's friend W. Q. Orchardson, staying with Birket Foster at Witley in Surrey, went to church with his host and saw 'a group of old, bent labourers on a long bench in front of the pulpit, reposing in the gleams of sunlight that lightened the gloom of the place' (J. G. Marks, op. cit., p. 238). The two artists immediately thought of Walker, and summoned him to Witley to see the scene for himself. He agreed that it was very much in his line, and the seeds of The Harbour of Refuge were sown.
The concept, however, was to undergo major developments. Walker decided to place the figures out of doors against a background based on the old almshouses at Bray, near Maidenhead. Marks illustrates a watercolour sketch in which this setting is established, as are the two figures, emblematic of youth and age, in the left foreground. However, the mower with his scythe, a rather obvious reference to the death that soon awaits the refuge's inmates, is in the centre-left middle-distance, while the right foreground is occupied by a group of three paupers seated on a bench under a tree. In the composition as it finally evolved, this group, the remnant, as it were, of the 'bent labourers' that Walker had originally seen in Witley church, was pushed back into the middle distance, while the mower, one of those classically - proportioned sons of toil that so appealed to Walker's imagination, came to occupy a prominent place in the right foreground.
The present watercolour was painted in the summer and autumn of 1873, and was Walker's only contribution to the Old Water-Colour Society's exhibition the following winter. On 27 September he wrote to his friend and fellow artist J. W. North: 'I am finishing a very careful and elaborate watercolour of the "Harbour of Refuge"; been at it ever since I came from Devonshire, and it's almost been the death of me, especially as I had to refuse that invitation to the salmon and the North. I suppose I shall have my reward some day. The watercolour is 3 feet long, the most important I've yet done.' In fact he was not to 'finish' the drawing for some while yet, 'pounding away' at it well into October and perhaps not giving it its final touches until shortly before the sending-in date in November.
Critics were inclined to agree with Walker's estimate of the work's importance. F. G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, thought it 'a fine picture, differing from the larger painting in points which are interesting to students'. Others felt that it was actually better than the oil. For the Spectator it was 'an improvement upon it in more ways than one', while the Times commented:
Probably no drawing here makes so strong an appeal to the imagination, and certainly none leaves such an impression on the memory as F. Walker's 'Haven of Rest' [sic], a repetition in water-colour of his oil picture of last year, with some improvements in detail, particularly in the expression of the young girl who is leading the old woman, who strikes us as altogether more sympathetic in the drawing than in the picture.
Even after Walker's death this view prevailed. Sir Claude Phillips, art critic and keeper of the Wallace Collection, wrote in his 1897 essay on the artist that the watercolour was 'perhaps in some respects an improvement on the original, of which it retains the beauties unimpaired, while reduction of size gives greater concentration. The movement of the mower - but this may be fancy - appears in this version rather truer to nature.' It is perhaps no accident that Phillips focussed on the symbolic mower, the 'grim reaper' personified, since this was a passage to which Walker had devoted particular attention during the last weeks of the watercolour's development. On 9 October 1873 he told J. W. North: 'I have been going at the watercolour so hard - at the mower for instance - and it looks so much better than when you saw it.'
However, it was left to Walker's fellow watercolourist Albert Goodwin to confer the ultimate accolade on the picture by claiming that it was nothing less than the greatest watercolour to date:
Frederick Walker's 'Harbour of Refuge' has always seemed to me to be the best watercolour drawing extant. In dignity of subject, in beauty of colour and technique, it seems to attain the highest summit of watercolour art, and as far as I can see is likely to stay there 'King of the Castle'. For though the work of Turner in the same material is as wonderful, yet the two men cannot be compared, and the realism [?realisation] of a completely beautiful subject is an achievement of a higher order than (as in Turner) the suggestion of it.
This flattering but perhaps incautious claim was made in the catalogue when the picture was exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1901. It was a survey exhibition entitled The Watercolour-Colour Art of the Nineteenth Century by One Hundred Artists. Not surprisingly, such an important example of Walker's art was often requested for exhibitions at this date. In 1885, ten years after his premature death from consumption at the age of thirty-five, it appeared in a show of his watercolours at Robert Dunthorne's Rembrandt Gallery, and in 1891 it was included in one of the loan exhibitions organised in Whitechapel by Canon Samuel Barnett, the enterprising Warden of Toynbee Hall, for the benefit of the poverty-stricken East End. A few months later again it was among a group of Walker's watercolours that the Royal Academy showed in a winter exhibition to help illustrate 'the progress of the art of watercolour in England'. For this exhibition, in which Wayfarers (lot. 14) was also included, the picture was mysteriously re-named The Vale of Rest, presumably by some absent-minded cataloguer who was thinking of Millais' well-known picture of this title (Tate Gallery). As we have seen, he was not the first to make this mistake. The critic who had reviewed the picture in the Times in 1873 had opted for a half-way solution, The Haven of Rest.
The generous lender to all these exhibitions was Humphrey Roberts, a figure of whom at present we know all too little. The fact that he was lending to exhibitions at Whitechapel and the Royal Academy suggests that he was well known to the art establishment, but research has yet to show what else he actually owned, apart from two Rossettis (Surtees 100, 169).
Our ignorance with regard to Roberts is due partly to the fact that he seems to have had no sale. However, our watercolour must have changed hands within a few years of its appearance at the Fine Art Society since by March 1908 it was being sold at Christie's as part of the collection of R. E. Tatham. Now deceased, Tatham had had a fine collection of British paintings and watercolours at his house in York Street, Marylebone. The forty-seven lots also included examples of Turner, Cox, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and many others. There were five works by Fred Walker, four watercolours, including The Harbour of Refuge, and one important oil, The Old Gate of 1869 (Tate Gallery).
Studies for The Harbour of Refuge are in the Tate Gallery (2762) and the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (Tatlock 4648). They may well be identifiable with the preliminary watercolour illustrated by Marks or two other studies that are mentioned by Phillips.