Catalogue entry

T04170 A Day's Sport at Bidston Hill c.1865

Oil on canvas 301 × 401 (11 3/4 × 15 3/4)
Inscribed ‘W DAVIS’ b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Prov:...; anon. sale, Christie's 26 Oct. 1979 (78, as ‘A Day's Sport at Boston Hill’, repr.) £950; ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 29 March 1983 (15, as ‘A Day's Sport at Beeston Hill’) £850 bt in; ...; by 1986 with Julian Hartnoll, from whom bt by Tate Gallery

William Davis was born in Dublin and after studying at the Dublin Royal Society settled in Liverpool, first exhibiting at the Liverpool Academy in 1842. Davis was initially concerned with portrait and still-life subjects (the latter chiefly of dead game), but in 1853 he started exhibiting small-scale landscapes. The impact made by London-based Pre-Raphaelite painters in the annual Liverpool Academy exhibitions contributed to the development of Davis's own meticulous technique. When he first exhibited a landscape at the Royal Academy in 1855 it was noticed by Rossetti who described it as one of the four best landscapes in the exhibition, containing ‘unity of perfect truth with invention’ (quoted by John Ruskin in ‘Academy Notes, 1855’, E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin, XIV, 1904, p.30).

Davis produced many paintings and exhibited with the Pre-Raphaelites at their Russell Place exhibition of 1857; but his retiring nature and slow, fastidious method of painting meant that apart from a select group of interested Liverpool collectors he had few patrons. He rarely put dates on his pictures and T04170 is dated on the basis of its closeness, in size, style and subject matter, to the ‘View from Bidston Hill’ in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. This is almost the same size as T04170 and shows a mounted sportsman about to shoot a hare which runs across the foreground.

The landscape of Bidston Hill and Bidston Common was a popular subject with Liverpool artists during the latter half of the nineteenth century: for example, Robert Tonge (1823–56), a friend of Davis's and a formative influence on him, painted the view from the Hill in 1850 (Mary Bennett, Merseyside Painters, People & Places, Liverpool 1978, I, p.201, no.308, repr. II, p.199) and B.B. Wadham (active 1851–83) exhibited a picture of ‘Bidston Hill’ at the Liverpool Academy in 1851 (29). From Tonge's work, as well as Davis's, it is clear that the flat and rather featureless terrain appealed to that generation of artists which, having absorbed the tenets of Pre-Raphaelitism, was attracted to the un-picturesque and the humble details of rural life. The area is now part of Birkenhead in Cheshire, having been converted from farming use to public open space and residential areas at the turn of the century.

Though he painted the subject several times, Davis only once exhibited a view of Bidston, ‘At Bidston Hill’, which was shown at the Liverpool Academy in 1865 (266); this is probably the picture now in the Walker Art Gallery mentioned above (oil on canvas, 305 × 405, 12 × 16; Bennett 1978, I, pp.87–8, no.1495, repr. II, p.205). A smaller version of this work, formerly belonging to Joseph Beausire of Liverpool was on the London art market in 1971 (oil on canvas, 229 × 324, 9 × 12 3/4, repr. Twenty Five Victorian Pictures, exh. cat., Hartnoll and Eyre 1971, no.4).

Other recorded views by Davis of the same subject are as follows: ‘Bidston Marsh’, 1855, oil on board, 301 × 454 (11 7/8 × 17 7/8), now in the Walker Art Gallery (Bennett 1978, I, p.85, no.1494, repr. II, p.204) and ‘Bidston Hill - Twilight’ (both lent by the Birkenhead collector George Rae to the memorial Loan Collection of Works by William Davis held at Liverpool Art Club after the artist's death in April 1873, nos.31 and 36 respectively); ‘Bidston Hill’, lent by Alderman Samuelson to the Grand Loan Exhibition held at the Walker Art Gallery in 1886 (1379); and ‘Bidston Hill, Cheshire’, oil on ?canvas, 320 × 495 (12 1/2 × 19 1/2), sold out of the collection of Andrew Tucker Squarey of Bebington, Cheshire, Christie's 5 Feb. 1912 (50; 7 gns, bt King).

T04170 shows evidence of Davis's painting technique as described by F.G. Stephens in the Art Journal for 1884: ‘his technical practice involved the use of a solid body of pure flake white, not “wet”, laid on the canvas and rubbed as smooth as ivory. On this light-bearing ground he “floated” the pigments, using very old fat oil as a vehicle. It is obvious that most of his pigments were transparent or semi-opaque’ (p.328). (The compiler is grateful to Edward Morris for his help in confirming the identity of this landscape and for supplying details of Davis's exhibited works in Liverpool.)

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996