Mulready exhibited this painting in its first state at the Royal Academy in 1809, with the title Returning from the Ale-House. It is an early example of the rustic narrative scenes, full of anecdotal detail, which later brought Mulready success. In the foreground a group of village children collect the coins distributed drunkenly by two ruddy-cheeked men staggering home from the ale-house, witnessed with disapproval by two dour schoolmasters in the building nearby. The background is a serene, bucolic landscape in the evening sun. The subject and style of the painting refer both to the early genre scenes of Mulready’s contemporary David Wilkie (1785–1841) and to those of Dutch seventeenth-century painters, in particular Adriaen Van Ostade (1610–85).
Although the painting was intended to be a humorous and engaging rustic low-life scene, its exhibition in 1809 resulted in critical and public disapproval. The scene was perceived to be unacceptably vulgar, and there was mounting public concern, associated with the newly-formed Temperance movement, about the increasing incidence of public drunkenness at ale-houses. One critic noted:
Are all violations of decency and propriety to be tolerated, because the Dutch painters practised them? To our feelings, human nature does not present any more obscene or disgusting spectacle than a drunken father surrounded by his children; and yet, this is what Mr. Mulready has chosen to make the subject of a picture.
(Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, June 1809, vol.I, p.490, quoted in Heleniak, p.82.)
Undoubtedly as a result of this sort of response to Returning From the Ale-House, Mulready failed to sell the painting, and it remained with him until 1840, when he exhibited the work at the Royal Academy under the less provocative title Fair Time (or Returning from the Fair). Mulready is known to have re-worked areas of the painting, either as early as 1817 or in 1839, shortly before it was shown again. He repainted the background landscape and brightened the colouring of the foreground figures with the clearer, more luminous palette of his later work, which foreshadowed that of the Pre-Raphaelites. The writer William Makepeace Thackeray described the painting:
It contains specimens of the artist’s old and new manner. The picture in its first state is somewhat in the Wilkie style of that day ... having many greys and imitating closely Dutchmen. Since then the painter has been touching up the figures in the foreground with his new and favourite lurid orange-colour and you may see how this is stippled in on the faces and hands, and borrow, perhaps a hint or two regarding the Mulreadian secret.
(As M.A. Titmarsh, title of article? Fraser’s Magazine, June 1840, vol.21, pp.720–32.)
Thackeray ultimately disapproved of the painting’s tonal appearance, referring to the work’s ‘gaudy, prismatic colours ... But, for consistency’s sake, a protest must be put in against the colour; it is pleasant, but wrong; we never saw it in nature.’ (As M.A. Titmarsh, title of article? Fraser’s Magazine, June 1840, vol.21, pp.720–32.)
Public taste had changed by 1840, and subject-matter of Fair Time was seen to be less controversial on its second appearance at the Royal Academy, where it was hung with two other works by Mulready, First Love, 1838–9 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and An Interior (The Artist’s Study, 1840, location unknown). According to Mulready’s account book for 1840, Fair Time was bought for £420 by Robert Vernon (1774–1849), a wealthy collector and patron. Vernon gave his notable collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century British art, including this work, to the nation in 1847, with the intention of helping to establish a national gallery of British art.
It has been noted that the subject and central figure group in David Wilkie’s The Village Holiday (The Village Festival, N00122), exhibited in 1812, relate closely to those of Fair Time. Wilkie also changed the title of his work, probably to avoid censure, from the original The Alehouse Door.
When Fair Time was exhibited at the major Mulready exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in 1864, The Art Journal noted that the painting’s surface showed signs of cracking as a result of the unstable asphaltum which, according to Richard and Samuel Redgrave, Mulready had used early in his career but abandoned around 1816.
Marcia Pointon, William Mulready 1786 –1863, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986, reproduced p.98.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London 1980, reproduced p.81.
William Mulready 1786–1863, exhibition catalogue, City Art Gallery, Bristol 1964.