Praised by the Art Journal of 1869 as 'perhaps the cleverest genre picture in this gallery, if not in the whole Academy', this picture 'has made itself a favourite among all exhibition goers', then as now. A hugely enjoyable and very English 'scene of schoolboy quarrel and tussel', it depicts an encounter between a well-to-do pugilist and his rustic opponent dressed in a smock.
Nineteenth century boys were notoriously prone to fights. One immediately thinks of John Faed's Boyhood, 1849, in which a tearful schoolboy is separated from a pugnacious urchin (see lot 7). For the rich, schools were lawless places where during the middle of the century a culture of violence was positively encouraged: the ability to stand one's ground was held as a key rite of passage on the path to manhood. Contemporary novels describe such institutions in gruesome detail, and the modern reader sympathises with the plight of the eponymous heroes of David Copperfield (1850) and Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857). For the poor, education was slight or non-existent, perhaps taking place in a village dame-school until the age of eight. As in this picture, children were expected to work as soon as they were able, taking birds to market or minding the crops.
Around the time this picture was painted various reforms were introduced by Parliament. An Act of 1867 prevented children under eight from working in gangs in the field, while the first Education Act of 1870 forbade work to children under ten. For the expanding middle class, there was a proliferation in the foundation of public schools, which through their promotion of games - the wall game at Eton, rugby, named after the school at which it was invented, and cricket - channelled boys' more boisterous instincts and fostered ideals of Victorian masculinity. The game of cricket, for example, later became central to the ethos of an English gentleman, reaching its apotheosis in lines from Sir Henry Newbolt's famous poem Vitaï Lampada:
A bumping pitch and a blinding light
An hour to play and the last man in
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote - 'Play up! play up! and play the game!'
Morgan has brilliantly encapsulated all these trends and contrasts in his picture, making it a charming period piece. The painting is 'extremely good', as the Art Journal commented, with 'the characters varied, not only in form but in motive and action'. Morgan was adept at painting crowd scenes: he was nicknamed 'Jury Morgan' after the success of his British Institution exhibit of 1862, and The Auction, (sold at Christie's London, 14 June 2000, lot 10, for £100,000) also shows his mastery of this genre. In The Fight he makes an inspired use of red leading the eye in an elipse from the boy's red cap at the right, to his shoes, to the cockerel and up through the neckerchiefs and waistcoats of the protagonists in the centre. The composition is also carefully anchored through the use of black in the boy to the left and the woman behind the tree.
The picture is full of humour and incident, and marks a high point of Morgan's career. Along with his son, Fred Morgan, Arthur John Elsley and Charles Burton Barber, Morgan was one of the finest painters of children in late Victorian England. He exhibited sixty-four pictures at the Royal Academy between 1852 and 1886, and also supported the Society of British Artists and the British Institution. He moved between several addresses in the south of England, leaving London for Aylesbury in 1865, and later residing in Guildford and Hastings.
The Art Journal deemed the painting worthy of Thomas Webster. This was high praise, alluding to an artist who was considered heir to the tradition of Wilkie and the seventeenth century Dutch school, and who, as a member of the Cranbrook Colony, specialised in humorous depictions of childhood misdemeanour.
As Susan Casteras has noted in her preface to the exhibition Victorian Childhood held in 1986 at the Yale Center for British Art (pp. 4-6), the Victorians venerated childhood and relished its depiction in art. In The Fight, we find one of the most eloquent expressions of this genre.