In 1860, the year before this picture was painted, Cooper created a sensation at the Royal Academy with Drovers crossing Newbiggin Muir, East Cumberland, in a snowdrift, a work comparable in scale to the present example. Cooper had already sold the picture to Agnew's before it was submitted, but recorded 'I could have sold it several times over'. Amongst those who wished to buy the picture were William Dyce, the Scottish painter of religious subjects, and the 14th Earl of Derby, then serving as Prime Minister. The present picture was commissioned by another thwarted patron, the Earl of Ellesmere, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year, 1861. Cooper recalled in his autobiography (op. cit.) 'It was not a copy of the Newbiggin Muir picture, but the same class of subject ... I thought it equally successful, and Lord Ellesmere was much pleased and satisfied with it'.
Scottish drovers frequently left the main roads to drive their flocks across the moors, because they objected to paying tolls, and feared that anything resembling a metalled surface would damage the feet of the animals on their long journey to southern markets. The subject eloquently conveys the bitter cold of the driving snow, and the hazards of losing animals in the limited visibility of such a landscape. Artists and patrons found the subject so dramatic that, even though snow scenes had been seen on the walls of the Royal Academy before, Cooper started a minor vogue for the genre, which continued until the end of the century.
We are grateful to Kenneth Westwood for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.