This picture, one of Stone's largest, is conceived as a celebration of the joys of family life. A humble labourer, employed in digging a trench beside a wall, is interrupted in his task by the arrival of his family who bring him lunch. A proud and loving father, he tenderly lifts his youngest child into his arms, while his daughter offers him a sheaf of corn. The picnic brought by his wife in the wicker basket promises to be abundant, and each member of the family bears a smile. Though 'lowly born', as the attendant quotation from one of Shakespeare's more obscure plays implies, they are happy, united in their love, and 'content'. The contrast with the widow, observing them from behind the garden wall which forms a barrier between them, is marked. Her gabled mansion can be seen behind her, but the emotional barrenness of her life is emphasised by the dead tree above her head, and the unkempt nature of her garden. She appears stranded, Miss Havisham-like, disengaged from the simple pleasures around her. The quotation from Shakespeare is an injunction to her, and to us, not to shut herself away in a world of books and riches, but to embrace life, marry, have children, and live in community with others. Stone has depicted her young enough to make this still a possibility.
The picture delighted the critics. Baldry (op. cit.) thought it had in it 'much more complicated and pathetic suggestion than anything which Stone had previously painted', and suggested 'indeed it is one of his best paintings'. The Art Journal commented: 'At a time when too many of our painters are timidly witholding from new experiment, it is a pleasure to find an artist of Marcus Stone's reputation so boldly enlarging the scope of his labours. The historic gives way to the idyllic, and in place of some domestic incident in the life of a Tudor king, enriched with the resources of learned and accurate research, Mr Stone has found an opportunity of graceful design in a simple study of rustic life'. After praising the 'graceful figure of his wife', the entry concluded: 'This part of the composition has admirable qualities; but what remains to complete the contrast is not so happily presented, for there is too much artifice in the way the light has been attracted to the open space where a high-born widow is seen sorrowfully watching the rustic gladness. This figure is in itself a point of weakness, not sufficiently prominent much to influence the general effect of the picture, which remains as one of the pleasantest and most attractive works Mr Stone has yet given to the world'. In terms of composition the point is perhaps a valid one, though perhaps Stone would have wished us to concentrate on his happy family, leaving the widow as a counterpoise throwing the harmony of the group into relief.
The painting, executed when Stone was only thirty four, helped secure his fortune, for three years later he was exhibiting from 8 Melbury Road, Kensington, the studio house he built in the artistic enclave of Holland Park, where Leighton and Watts were neighbours. Born the son of the painter Frank Stone, Marcus developed his father's friendship with Charles Dickens, who in turn came to regard him 'almost as a son'. When Frank Stone died in 1859, Dickens set about promoting Marcus's career and commissioned him to illustrate Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations in the 1860s. Until 1874, much of his exhibited work at the Royal Academy, as the Art Journal noted, involved depictions of scenes from history. This picture was to prove a turning point in his career, though he was to find lasting fame with his depictions of romantic encounters from the Regency period, many of which were reproduced as engravings.
A smaller version of this picture, measuring 110 x 74 cm., is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. A third version is included in the present sale as lot 259.