This work, exhibited with considerable critical success at the Royal Academy in 1842 as The Ford (later retitled Crossing the Ford), was painted when Mulready was at the height of his artistic career. A writer in the Art Union observed: ‘(The Ford) sustains the high reputation of its author; it is a work of surpassing beauty, grace and excellence – one of the most valuable paintings ever produced in England’ (Art Union, 1842, p.121).
The painting is a closely-observed rural scene. A young girl is carried across a stream by two youths; their traveling companions wait in the shadows on foot and horseback and prepare to cross behind them. The background landscape is hilly and rocky, opening up to a distant blue horizon. As with Mulready’s other narrative works of the period, this rural idyll is imbued with symbolic meaning. The lyrical intensity of the scene and the close psychological connection between the three central figures echoes the theme of courtship Mulready explored in 1839 in The Sonnet and First Love (both Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The theme of crossing water illustrating a rite of passage to adulthood was a familiar one, used by J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and other nineteenth-century artists and writers. Pointon (p.166) notes the painting’s implicit eroticism, acceptable to the Victorian spectator by virtue of its rural, Arcadian setting. A critic writing in 1852 remarked that the painting was: ‘composed into a charming bit of rusticity, treated with much purity of taste and feeling. The subject is one that might very easily have been vulgarised, though it was perfectly safe on that score in the hands of Mr. Mulready.’ (Art Journal, May 1852, p.158.)
Mulready began painting in transparent glazes and semi-solid pure pigments on a white ground in the 1830s. This produced the luminosity and brilliant purity of colour which characterise his later works, foreshadowing the Pre-Raphaelite palette. Mulready’s sketchbook records his aim of combining ‘the greatest quantity of light consistent with the greatest quantity of colour’ (quoted in Heleniak, p.136). In N00395 this can be seen particularly in the vivid colouring of the flesh tones and drapery of the central figures. Mulready’s approach to colour was undoubtedly influenced by seeing works by the Venetian painters Titian (c.1485–1576) and Tintoretto (1518–94) at the British Institution ‘Old Masters’ exhibition of 1815.
Mulready’s study and treatment of shadows contributed to the freshness and purity of colour in his late works. A sketchbook note reads: ‘The blue that prevails in a local colour should also prevail in its shade, unless satisfactorily accounted for by reflected light’ (quoted in Heleniak, p.136). According to the Redgraves, Mulready ‘seemed to have a great dislike to losing his ground’, and often, as with N00395, the preparatory drawing is visible on the white ground of the panel as part of the finished painting.
A writer in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1843 criticized Mulready’s innovative use of colour in Crossing the Ford, writing that ‘Mr. Mulready has fallen into a reprehensible style of colouring’. On the other hand, the Redgraves wrote that, ‘The works completed by him between 1839 and 1848 are the most perfect in story, colour and execution of any of his productions. The chiaroscuro is excellent, the colour rich and jewel-like, the execution refined and perfect of its kind.’ (Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, London 1866, p.298.)
Crossing the Ford was bought by Mulready’s patron Robert Vernon in 1842 for 600 guineas, in three installments, and was given by him to the nation in 1847. There is a related pen and ink drawing in the Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, Italy; a chalk cartoon for the work (now in a private collection) was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 1847. On the back of the panel is a sketch for another work on a similar theme by Mulready, The First Voyage 1833 (Bury Art Gallery), which shows a child in a tub being pushed and towed across a stream.
Marcia Pointon, William Mulready 1786 –1863, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986, reproduced p.163.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak, William Mulready, New Haven and London 1980, reproduced p.128.
William Mulready 1786–1863, exhibition catalogue, City Art Gallery, Bristol 1964.