This superb watercolour, magnificent in scale, fascinating in technique, and truly astonishing in its state of preservation, 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 this recent exhibit.
The painting belongs to a sequence of large-scale watercolours of figures in outdoor settings, based on existing wood-engravings that Walker had designed but without the specific narrative content found in Philip in Church (Tate Gallery), the watercolour version of an illustration to Thackeray's novel Philip, published in the Cornhill, that had done so much to secure the artist's election to the O.W.C.S. in 1864. Previous works of this type had been the well-known Spring and the perhaps less familiar Autumn (fig. 2) shown at the O.W.C.S. in 1864 and 1865 respectively and both now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is interesting that during its early history The Bouquet was linked more closely to these pictures by being entitled Summer. It bore this name when it appeared at the Royal Academy winter exhibitions in 1891 and 1901. On both occasions it was in the company of Spring and Autumn, which were lent by Sir William Agnew.
F.G. Stephens, reviewing the 1866 exhibition in the Athenaeum, felt that The Bouquet, a scene of 'an old gardener presenting such to two small children (in) a garden, in intense sunlight,' 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 (fig. 3), 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', Stephens felt, The Bouquet was 'nearly equal to Mr Jones's (picture), especially as regards colour'; but 'in all other respects, taste, composition 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 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, the art critic in 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 eschews 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-criticism can seem incredibly pompous to modern taste, but Taylor, like Stephens, makes some helpful comparisons. It would not have occurred 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. This very year he found Burne-Jones's contributions 'unhealthy', 'utterly unreal', and so on. 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 ('Birdsnest') 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 complaints about the 'ugly brick buildings', unrelieved by 'weather-stain and lichen', recall the work of G.P. Boyce, who made such a feature of brick walls weathered and mottled in the way that Taylor describes.
Taylor probably comes nearer than Stephens to identifying the subject when he says that the gardener is 'showing' the bouquet to the children, rather than, as Stephens has it, 'presenting' it to them. Yet by expressing a wish that the children had been made more attractive, he also shows how little he really understands Walker's purpose. The whole point of the picture, and what makes it so poignant, is surely the unbridgeable social gap between the two 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.
Like the equally marvellous and well-preserved W.H. Hunt in our 'Art on Paper' sale on 20 November (lot 108), The Bouquet belonged to Sir Cuthbert Quilter, the elder brother of Harry Quilter, a successor to Tom Taylor as art-critic on the Times and 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 which we sold last February (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 his Bathers (fig. 4), a major example of the artist's rare oil paintings, more or less contemporary with The Bouquet, which had belonged to that great collector William Graham. When Quilter's own collection was sold at Christie's in July 1909, The Bathers was included but not The Bouquet, presumably because no-one could bear to part with it. In fact it has remained in the Quilter family to this day, a circumstance which must have had an important bearing on its incredible condition.