Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


90 James Leckie and Little Mary ? c.1828

Pen and brown ink and some pencil on thin wove paper 16.5 x 11.4 (6 1/2 x 4 1/2)
Inscribed in ink 'James Leckie and little Bet [deleted] Mary' and in a later hand in pencil on the back 'W. Mulready'


The two impromptu studies on this sheet are the first ideas for a small oil painting dated 1828 which is listed in Mulready's Account Book under 25 June 1830 as 'Father & Child' (Heleniak 1980, no.117, pl.113; Pointon 1986 no.109, pl.xiv). It is essentially a private work, catching as it does a slight incident involving Mulready's ward (perhaps even his daughter) Mary, daughter of the 'wretch' Mrs Leckie, married to James, who replaced Mulready's wife in his affections (Pointon 1986, pp.68-9). The deletion in the inscription implies that when Mulready gave his sketch a title the name of Mrs Leckie's other daughter, Elizabeth (d.1844), who went on to marry Albert Fleetwood Varley (1804-1876), First came to mind. Mulready frequently explored the motif of the child in his paintings, usually with a serious, moralising intention. In the finished oil painting based on these sketches Mulready kept the pose of the two figures but placed them in a cottage interior and showed the child pointing to an illustration in what looks like a family Bible. Behind them, with her back to the viewer, the mother is talking to a baker at the door.

While Mulready was famous as a painter of genre pictures or 'scenes from familiar life' and was one of the most sensitive colourists of his day whose brilliant palette prepared the way for the Pre-Raphaelites' use of colour, he also had a considerable reputation within his profession as a superb draughtsman. Writing in November 1857, the artist Richard Redgrave commented on how Mulready, at the age of seventy-three, was not only still drawing in the life class 'like any young student' but also attending another life class for three days a week. Mulready showed Redgrave 'some pen-and-ink studies which he was making at the rate of one per night' and told another friend '" I used to draw rapidly in pen-and-ink; but I find I have lost some of my power. I used to be able to draw half a dozen hands carefully and correctly in an hour. Now I find I can't do that. I must restore that power; I must get it up again!"' (Redgrave 1891, p.178). The compulsiveness of this activity comes over both in the power behind his pen work and also in the great quantity of drawings which have survived: preparatory studies for pictures and sketches amounting to, as one critic wrote, 'a method of study which, instead of relaxing as age increases, delights in the solution of the difficulties of the art' (Art-Union 1848, p.208).

In June 1848 the Society of Arts organised, with Mulready, an exhibition of his paintings which was the First such show intended to promote the formation of a National Gallery of British Art. It is a measure of the importance which Mulready attached to intense preparatory work with the pencil and pen in the making of paintings - and thus to the ultimate success of the British School - that he included a great number of drawings in the exhibition. The critic of the Athenaeum immediately recognised this, thereby acknowledging the habitual neglect of drawing in the Royal Academy in particular, by urging students to 'look at them earnestly ... and learn the success of that series of finished works on which you have been gazing with such delight' (Athenaeum, 10 June 1848, p.584). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, in the emphasis they placed on drawing owed a debt to Mulready.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.214 no.90, reproduced in colour p.215