In his Life and Letters of Frederick Walker (1896), J.G. Marks refers to this watercolour as follows. In June 1869 'Mr Agnew', the famous dealer and a great admirer of Walker's work, 'suggested' that the artist 'should paint a watercolour of Wayfarers, and as the drawing seems to have been finished by the middle of August, he would have been at work on it during this summer'.
Agnew had recently aquired the prime version of the picture, an oil measuring 36 x 51 inches that Walker had exhibited three years earlier at Ernest Gambart's gallery in Pall Mall. The picture is now lost, probably having been destroyed during the Second World War, but there is an illustration in Marks's monograph (facing p. 81), and it appears in the background of Frank Holl's portrait of Sir William Agnew (as the sitter became), painted in 1882 and still in his firm's possession. In its day one of Walker's best-known creations, the picture was based on an etching, Blind Man and Boy (fig. 2), that he executed early in 1863, and was itself planned that year. Walker first sought a suitable background at Haslemere, but eventually found one in the fields near Croydon, where his younger sister and her husband lived. Studies for the blind man were made from an old soldier that he discovered in Oxford Street, 'selling pocket books'. The canvas itself was commenced in 1864 and was still in progress at Christmas 1865. Walker had originally intended to send the picture to the Royal Academy, but Gambart persuaded him to let him have it and it appeared in Pall Mall in the autumn of 1866.
Despite all the work that had gone into it, the picture was not altogether well received, and after it came into Agnew's possession in 1869 Walker re-worked the figures, perhaps in accordance with Agnew's suggestions. The watercolour was evidently painted at about the same time, incorporating the new ideas and possibly even serving as a trial run for changes to be made in the oil. The two versions were very close iconographically, although in the oil the landscape was more elaborate and the youth, if anything, even more idealised.
The exact relationship between the two versions has been a source of some confusion in the past. When the watercolour was exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society in 1870, the Art Journal referred to it as 'the sketch' for the oil, while F. G. Stephens, writing in his capacity as art critic on the Athenaeum, described it as 'a repetition of a previously painted picture'. At the Quilter Sale in 1923 it was identified in the catalogue as 'a finished study' for the oil. It could of course be both a 'sketch' and a 'repetition' in the sense that Walker might have worked up an existing compositional study when he painted the watercolour at Agnew's suggestion in the summer of 1869.
The watercolour version of Wayfarers was Walker's only contribution to the O.W.C.S. in 1870. Ever since he had been elected an associate in 1864, together with Burne-Jones and G.P. Boyce, his work had been one of the institution's greatest attractions. He was elected to full membership as early as 1867, whereas Boyce had to wait another decade and Burne-Jones never did achieve this status. He resigned in 1870, the very year that Wayfarers was exhibited, after objections had been raised to a male nude in his Phyllis and Demophoön (Birmingham) and the society had failed to give him the backing that he felt he deserved.
Wayfarers was widely noted in the press, but opinions were mixed. F. G. Stephens was dismissive in the Athenaeum, claiming that the work was of 'comparative unimportance', Tom Taylor in the Times, while acknowledging that 'F. Walker can paint nothing that has not its own charm', found the background 'unsatisfactory, and the boy we have seen too often'. The Spectator, however, was more upbeat. The subject was 'worthy of repetition', and there was 'a terrible reality... in the blind man's attitude and gait, and in the way he handles his staff, while the feeling is well maintained by the wild rainy sky and plashy road'. The Art Journal, too, was positive in its response. The watercolour, it believed, was 'better than the fiished work' (i.e. the oil). Walker was one of those 'adventurous pioneers' who are always 'on the lookout for new methods of rendering effects in nature which elude the ordinary pencil. And the drawing before us, of deep shadowy browns contrasted with a liquid luminous sky, attains to qualities not within easy reach. Mr Walker is eminently original', and in due course would have 'much...to divulge which will prove rare and strange'.
One of those who greatly admired the composition was Vincent Van Gogh. He would not have known the watercolour, arriving for his first stay in London three years after it had been exhibited, but the etching is discussed in a letter he wrote to his painter friend Anthon von Rappard on 28 May 1882: 'Do you know "The Wayfarers" by Fred Walker? It is a large etching of a blind old man led by a boy along a frozen gravel road, with a ditch along which there is copse-wood covered with glazed frost, on a winter evening. It certainly is one of the most sublime creations in this style, with a very peculiar modern sentiment, perhaps less powerful than Dürer in his "Knight, Death and the Devil", but perhaps even more intimate, and certainly as original and sincere.'
Would Van Gogh have been as enthusiastic about the oil or watercolour? In his later work Walker consistently sought to impose a sense of grandeur and timelessness on his rustic subjects by idealising his figures in the light of his early study of the antique in the British Museum. How far this classicising tendency had been taken in the oil before 1869 is impossible to say, but it is certainly very apparent in the re-worked canvas and the contemporary watercolour, and the changes did not please everyone. Sir Claude Phillips, in an essay on Walker published in 1897, devoted a long passage to the contrast between the etching and the artist's subsequent treatment of the subject. Phillips was actually writing of the oil, but his comments are equally applicable to the watercolour.
There is, perhaps, in the whole range of Walker's oeuvre no design more forcible, more masterly in its absolute grasp of nature, than the little-known etching The Wayfarers. The suggestion of onward movement, the characterisation of the two figures - that of the sturdy, youthful rustic, no less than that of the old and disabled peasant of forbidding aspect who leans on him for support - is perfect. The landscape is certainly more prosaic and less attractive than in the later version - the large canvas of the same name and subject which dates from 1866 and was last seen in public this winter at the Old Masters' Exhibition. This latter landscape, with its late autumn melancholy, its moist atmosphere, its maze of tangled branches and twigs nearly stripped of their leaves, is one of the painter's most elaborate and beautiful transcriptions from nature. The figures, however, will not bear comparison with the singular and more realistic ones of the etching. A sort of pseudo-idealism has been at work, sentimentalising them at the expense of the unvarnished truth which, as we may guess, appeared to the artist too prosaic for perpetuation on a large scale. The pretty youth who supports and guides the steps of a vagrant, of milder but less probable mien than that of his predecessor, skates rather than walks on the down-hill road; an air of weak, sweetened semi-realism pervades the whole, and in this instance individual truth is sacrificed, but general truth is not attained in a compensatory degree. The etching not having been published during the painter's lifetime, it is not easy to fix the exact date of its execution. Still it is manifest that it rests upon a design which must, from its very nature, have preceded that of the finished picture in oils.
The watercolour was bought in 1887 by Sir Cuthbert Quilter, the elder brother of Harry Quilter, who succeeded Tom Taylor as art critic on the Times and gained dubious fame as the 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, 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 possessed works by Constable, Cox, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones, and he evidently had a genuine fondness for Fred Walker. In addition to Wayfarers, he owned The Bouquet, a superb watercolour exhibited at the O.W.C.S. in 1866 and sold in these Rooms in November last year (fig. 3), and The Bathers (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), an ambitious if not altogether successful oil that appeared at the Royal Academy in 1867 and had belonged to that great collector of old and modern masters, William Graham. G. J. Pinwell, Walker's fellow member of the so-called Idyllist school, was also represented in the collection. The Bathers was among a number of pictures that Quilter sold at Christie's on 9 July 1909 when he gave up his London house in South Audley Street, which was equipped with a picture gallery. Wayfarers remained in his possession until his death in 1911, and was sold, again at Christie's, by his executors twelve years later. The Bouquet descended in his family until its sale last year.
Both Wayfarers and The Bathers were to enter the collection of William Hesketh Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme, each acquisition being made through his favourite dealers, Gooden & Fox. They bought The Bathers first, not at Quilter's 1909 sale but when the picture returned to Christie's in February 1918 as part of the collection of K. M. Clark, father of Kenneth Clark, the art-historian, Wayfarers followed five years later, being bought by Gooden & Fox for Lord Leverhulme at the second Quilter sale in 1923.
The Leverhulme collection is too well-known to need description. Perhaps the greatest of all those formed in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period, breathtaking alike in its size and scope, it is also the one that can be most readily appreciated since the cream of it survives in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, built by the collector to house it as a source of recreation for his workforce and a memorial to his wife. Leverhulme, like Quilter, had a decided penchant for Fred Walker. His early enthusiasm for the great Victorian novelists and their illustrators did much to determine the course of his collecting, and Walker's illustrations to the novels of Thackeray and his daughter were no doubt his introduction to the artist's work. By the time he died in 1925 he owned not only The Bathers and Wayfarers but three other watercolours; A Fisherman and Gillie, a study for The Harbour of Refuge (see lot 13), and the celebrated Fisherman's Shop.
All except Wayfarers are now at Port Sunlight. Wayfarers was probably not included in Leverhulme's gift to the Gallery because he aquired it in 1923, a year after the Gallery opened and only two years before his death. It is recorded hanging at The Hill, his house in Hampstead, to which he added a picture gallery in 1924, and on his death it descended to his son, who had it at Thornton Manor, the family's country house some five miles from the soap factories at Port Sunlight on which the Leverhulme fortune was based. The second Viscount seems to have been paricularly fond of it since he had it hanging above his bed. Sir Paul Getty acquired it when the contents of Thornton Manor were sold in June 2001.
We are grateful to Lee Edwards for her help in preparing this entry.