William J. Webbe is a somewhat shadowy figure on the fringe of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He is included in Percy Bate's comprehensive study The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters (four editions 1899-1910), but is dismissed in a single sentence. It epitomises the elusive nature of his personality that even the artist himself seems to have been in two minds as to how he spelt his name, the variants 'Webb' and 'Webbe' appearing in exhibition catalogues.
According to Bénézit, Webbe received his artistic training in Düsseldorf. This implies that he encountered the Nazarene painter Wilhelm Schadow, who had worked with Peter von Cornelius and Johann Friedrich Overbeck in Rome, and had been Director of the Düsseldorf Academy since 1826. A certain purity of form which characterises Webbe's work can probably be attributed to this early brush with the Nazarene tradition.
Webbe was evidently back in England by 1853, when he exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy. He was then living in Hemel Hempstead, but by 1855 he had moved to Niton, on the southernmost tip of the Isle of Wight, and he stayed there until 1860, when he settled in London. He was to have a series of addresses in the capital before ceasing to exhibit at the RA in 1878. Meanwhile he had also supported the British Institution (1855 - 64) and the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street (1853-70). Whether he stopped exhibiting in 1878 because he had died or given up painting, we do not know.
Like many artists, Webbe felt the impact of Pre-Raphaelitism in the 1850s, the period when the influence of the Brotherhood, founded in 1848, was at its height. Allen Staley, discussing him in The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (1973), describes two works of 1854-55 as showing 'Pre-Raphaelite elaboration of microscopic foreground detail pushed to an almost insane extreme'. At this date Webbe seems to have eschewed the human figure, populating his landscapes and hedgerows exclusively with animals and birds. After Sunset (Staley, pl. 44a), which appeared at Suffolk Street in 1856, features a startled rabbit, and the title of The White Owl, seen at the Royal Academy the same year, speaks for itself. Significantly, this picture attracted the attention of John Ruskin, always on the lookout for evidence that Pre-Raphaelite values were spreading. The picture was, he wrote in Academy Notes, 'a careful study - the brown wing excellent'. With his passion for playing the role of instructor, however, he could not resist adding: 'The softness of an owl's feathers is perhaps inimitable, but I think the breast might have come nearer the mark'.
Unfortunately we have only the haziest idea of how Webbe experienced Pre-Raphaelite influence. The artist with whom he is usually associated is William Holman Hunt, largely because many of his animals are sheep and sheep figure prominently in two major pictures by Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd (Manchester Art Gallery) and Strayed Sheep (Tate Britain), exhibited at the Royal Academy respectively in 1852 and 1853. Bate goes so far as to say that the example of Webbe's work he reproduces, Lambs at Play, 'might almost be taken for the work of the artist of Strayed Sheep', and it is true that Webbe's lambs disport themselves on cliffs overlooking the Channel in the Isle of Wight just as Hunt's more senior animals huddle on cliffs at Fairlight on the Sussex coast.
As Allan Staley has pointed out, Hunt never mentions Webbe in his autobiography Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905), but by illustrating a drawing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and identifying its author as 'Webb', he drops a hint that they were in touch. Nor is it irrelevant that the drawing represents a major landmark in Jerusalem, for if Webbe was following Hunt in painting sheep subjects in the 1850s, he was also doing so when he went to Jerusalem in 1862. Hunt had paid his first visit to the Holy Land in 1854-6. He was to return in 1869-72 and 1875-8, and make a final visit in 1892.
We have no evidence for Webbe's own visit except what can be inferred from the resulting pictures. The date of his journey is revealed by the title of a Royal Academy exhibit of 1864, Treading out the Corn, Lower Pool of Gihon, Jerusalem, May 1862, and it seems unlikely that he stayed more than a few months since he sent Eastern subjects to the Academy, the British Institution and Suffolk Street in 1863, giving a London address. He continued to exhibit such themes until 1870, sending about twelve in all to the three venues. One was certainly executed on site according to strict Pre-Raphaelite principles, a view of the Garden of Gethsemane 'painted on the spot' that he showed at Suffolk Street in 1863, but most of them must have been worked up from drawings in his London studio.
Just as Webbe's early sheep pictures carry none of the Biblical and moral baggage that characterises Hunt's Hireling Shepherd and Strayed Sheep, so his Middle Eastern subjects are far less portentous and bristling with symbolism than their Hunterian counterparts. It is true that some pictures were exhibited with Biblical quotations in the catalogue, but the general impression is that Webbe was not seriously concerned with the sermonising potential of his subjects. Many of his later pictures are straightforward genre scenes with such titles as I'm the King of the Castle and Country Courtship, and he seems to have seen the Middle East too as essentially a source of picturesque genre. In fact the real parallel is not so much with Hunt's work as with J.F. Lewis's accounts of life in Cairo, based on his long residence there in the 1840s.
The present picture is particularly reminiscent of Lewis, with its strong, clear colours, its feeling for light and shadow, and its eye for anecdote and telling detail. The emphasis on animals and birds is another very Lewis-like feature, although the sheep looks back to Webbe's earlier pictures of lambs gambolling in the Isle of Wight.
Webbe had shown a picture called Street in Jerusalem at the British Institution in 1863. It is not known if the present picture, which appeared at the Royal Academy four years later, is a larger version or an independent composition, but it is certainly one of his largest works to survive. It received warm but not uncriticial reviews. The Art Journal pronounced sententiously that 'it may be a street but it is not a picture', although it was gracious enough to add that 'the artist (had) been at infinite pains'. Tom Taylor, writing in the Times, compared it to Hosanna, an account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem by William Gale (1823-1909) that appeared in the same exhibition. This picture, Taylor wrote, 'is treated in the most realistic spirit ..., but the composition seems to us too crowded for the canvas, and there is an abuse of bright colour'. However, he admitted, 'it may be that the critic in this cold, grey north is not competent to pass judgement on eastern colour ..., for Mr Webbe's clever and careful Street in Jerusalem is very like Mr Gale's Hosanna'.
In fact, Webbe and Gale were almost certainly friends. They supported the same exhibition societies, and both had felt the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1850s. Gale seems to have visited the Isle of Wight while Webbe was living there, and they were subsequently neighbours in Langham Chambers, Portland Place, home to the Langham Society of Artists to which John Tenniel, Stacy Marks, J.D. Watson, Charles Keene and many others belonged. Most significant in the present context, Gale paid the first of two visits to the Holy Land in 1862, the very year that found Webbe in Jerusalem. It would not be in the least surprising to discover that they either met at this time or were even travelling companions. In other words, their pictures at the Academy of 1867 may not only have been comparable in theme and treatment but actually products of a shared experience.