Mulready’s early landscapes depict mainly rural cottage scenes with genre figures, painted from sketching trips around the rural fringes of London which he made with other pupils of his teacher and brother-in-law, John Varley (1778–1842). At the time A Sea-Shore was painted, Mulready was sharing accommodation in Francis Street, Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, with one of these, his close friend John Linnell (1792–1882).
A Sea-Shore is the only known finished oil of a seashore scene by Mulready. Although no precise identification has been indicated for the place depicted, it is likely that the painting derives from drawings and oil sketches he made on a visit to the Kent coast in July 1808 with John Linnell. Linnell’s biographer recounts: ‘Mulready and Linnell made a trip of three days’ duration to Gravesend and Chatham, starting at night from London Bridge’(Alfred T. Story, Life of Linnell, 2 vols, London 1892, vol.1, p.60). There are several small sketches of coast scenes of this date in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the only other known painting of this subject is ‘a sea-piece; very early’ bought by Colnaghi at the Mulready sale at Christie’s in April 1864, now lost. Mulready’s account book records: ‘July with Linnell to Chatham. 3 or 4 carefull sketches one in oil D.Wilkie’, implying that he may have may have been given one of the sketches from this trip to the painter David Wilkie (1785–1841).
A Sea-Shore was first exhibited at the large Mulready exhibition at the South Kensington Museum held shortly after his death in 1864. It is recorded in the catalogue as being signed and dated 1809 on the sail of the boat in the painting: this is no longer visible. The painting shows a group of local fishermen’s children playing around a boat on a beach and swimming in the sea; a sailing ship appears mistily on the low horizon in the distance. The scene is bathed in a warm evening light reminiscent of the Dutch seventeenth-century works which influenced Mulready’s early landscape painting. The low horizon and vaporous, atmospheric treatment of sky and sea indicates that Mulready may have been influenced by J.M.W. Turner’s (1775–1851) seashore painting Sun Rising through Vapour (National Gallery, London), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807. Mulready’s significant concern was, however, with the human, figurative element of the composition, which he developed further after 1810 in anecdotal narrative compositions. His early interest in showing children in his landscape work may have arisen out of the models which presented themselves immediately to him in the form of his own four small sons: he regained custody of his children shortly after his wife Elizabeth Varley left him, in about 1809.
Of the work of this period, Richard and Samuel Redgrave noted: ‘Mulready’s works at this time are very highly finished, but all the finish is thoroughly subservient to breadth and general effect’ (Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, London 1866, p.294). Mulready’s attention to detail and finish is also mentioned by his biographer F.G. Stephens: ‘John Varley grumbled exceedingly at the extent of his new relative’s preparations, and questioned the number of his studies, no less frequently than the oft-repeated erasures of parts of pictures, which, to less exacting eyes than those of Mulready seemed in the first case perfectly finished, and well wrought as they could be.’ (Stephens, pp.54–5.)
Although the theme of children swimming had been explored earlier by other artists such as George Morland (1763–1804), A Sea-Shore is one of the earliest existing examples of the portrayal of the nineteenth-century idea of the beach as a playground and place for the pursuit of leisure, celebrated later in the work of William Dyce (1806–64), and, in France, Eugene Boudin (1824–98) and the French Impressionists. Unlike his contemporary and later neighbour Augustus Wall Callcott (1779–1844), who became noted for his marine paintings, Mulready did not pursue an interest in seascapes, and moved on after 1810 to the interior and village narrative scenes for which he is well known.
Marcia Pointon, William Mulready 1786 –1863, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986, reproduced p.23.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London 1980, reproduced p.193.
F.G. Stephens, Masterpieces of Mulready: Memorials of William Mulready, London 1867.