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This is one of several rural cottage scenes painted in oil by Mulready between 1804 and 1810, shortly after leaving the Royal Academy. Mulready’s interest in landscape painting during this period was inspired by the close contact he maintained with his teacher and brother-in-law, the landscapist John Varley (1778–1842), with whom he lived at this time in the Fitzroy Square area in central London, and the painters John Linnell (1792–1882) and William Henry Hunt (1790–1864). Mulready made frequent plein-air sketching trips with them around the outskirts of London, as Stephens has commented: ‘In the habit of making excursions, Mulready was certainly strengthened, if not originally indebted to him for the notion, by John Varley; the secret of whose system of teaching was an injunction to go to nature for everything’ (Stephens, p.36).
Varley encouraged his pupils to sketch out of doors from nature, and to concentrate on unspectacular vernacular subjects. The motif of tumble-down cottages with rustic figures, rooted in the Picturesque tradition, occurs frequently in the work of the Varley circle during the early 1800s. Uvedale Price, in his influential Essay on the Picturesque (London 1794), advocated the seeking out of neglected rustic buildings as suitable Picturesque subject matter, and Varley himself later wrote that:
The great interest which is excited by cottage scenes, originates in the facility of finding so many of those subjects in nature subdued in all their primitive and formal eccentricities and offensive angles; where age and neglect have both united to obliterate the predominance of art, and to blend them with nature by irregularity of lines, and neutrality of colour; with growth of weeds, varieties of plaster, mortar, bricks, tiles, old greenish glass windows, ancient and greyish beams of timber, gently contrasting with the sober and subdued warmth of tiles and brick.
(John Varley, Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Design, London 1816–18, quoted in Heleniak, pp.49–50.)
T01746 is one of two works with the title Cottage and Figures that Mulready exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807; the location of the other is unknown. T01746 was in the Lenox Collection at New York Public Library from 1895 to 1943. The work shows a close-up view of the gable end of a ramshackle cottage by a riverbank, brightly lit to emphasise the meticulously observed variety of surfaces and textures – plaster, wattle, and so on – evident in the decaying building. Children play in the foreground, their activity taking second place to the main dramatic interest of the work – the treatment of the dilapidated cottage wall. The tower of St.Alban’s Abbey appears in the distant mist: the area around St.Albans, Hertfordshire, was visited frequently by Mulready and his circle at this time; John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) also painted there. Mulready’s sketchbooks show that he made extensive preparatory pencil drawings for his cottage paintings, studying in detail the buildings’ structure and textural qualities. Mulready remarked to Samuel Palmer that ‘we cannot proceed a step without anatomy; and in landscape what is analagous to it. We cannot rightly see or imitate what is before us without understanding structure.’ (Quoted in Pointon, p.41.)
The warm palette and naturalistic detail of T01746 relate it to Mulready’s An Old Cottage, St. Albans of 1805–6 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Both works show the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish landscape and genre paintings, which Mulready would have seen in private collections such as that of his patron Thomas Hope, M.P..
Although John Constable (1776–1837) later referred disparagingly to Mulready’s early cottage scenes as ‘privys’ (quoted in Heleniak, p.56), they helped establish him as a successful landscape artist. The paintings were also a much-needed source of income to support his wife, Elizabeth Varley, and their four sons, born between 1804 and 1809. We know that such works by Mulready were purchased by Thomas Hope, the engraver Wilson Lowry and others. The taste for Mulready’s cottage landscapes waned after 1810, and he concentrated from this date on the kind of anecdotal narrative figure compositions which his friend David Wilkie (1785–1841) was making popular. According to Stephens (p.60), Wilkie’s 1806 work The Blind Fiddler (N00099), the success of which influenced Mulready to change his approach, hung next to one of Mulready’s two Cottage and Figures
paintings in the 1807 Royal Academy exhibition.
Marcia Pointon, William Mulready 1786–1863, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986, reproduced p.22.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London 1980, reproduced p.55.
F.G. Stephens, Masterpieces of Mulready: Memorials of William Mulready, London 1867.