Childhood was an important subject in Mulready’s output. He had explored narratives of school life in 1815 in The Fight Interrupted (Yale Center for British Art) and Idle Boys (location unknown), both depictions of schoolmasterly authority and discipline, the latter derived closely from Dutch seventeenth-century schoolroom scenes. In The Last In, painted nearly twenty years later, Mulready has brought lighthearted humour to an uncomfortable scene: a schoolmaster, with feigned deference, doffs his hat and bows ironically to a frightened latecomer. The narrative implies the punishment that will be meted out to the late arrival: in front of the master’s desk are a boy in disgrace, tied by his leg to a log, and beside him the birchrod. When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835, the Athenaeum described it as ‘a school scene of ludicrous distress [which] represents a boy who has the double misfortune of being dull and dilatory’ and commented further that Mulready ‘seems fond of subjects unwelcome to our feelings ... but he soothes us by touches of humour and pathos, and we part only with the desire of seeing him again’ (Athenaeum, 23 May 1835, p.394).
Scenes of school truancy and unpunctuality were common in nineteenth-century painting. Thomas Webster (1800–86) exhibited a work depicting a similar scene in 1835, Late for School, or The Truant, also in Tate’s collection (N00426).The overtly moralizing nature of the narrative in Mulready’s painting reflects, as Pointon (p.100) and Payne (p.25) have noted, the authoritarian, patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century educational theory and practice. The idyllic rural landscape, seen temptingly through the window, emphasises the prison-like nature of the schoolroom, and the constraining nature of the educational experience. It echoes the theme of an earlier painting by Mulready, A Sailing Match 1831 (location unknown), which depicts a boy being taken to school looking wistfully at his friends playing with their boats on the pond. Added to the painting is a quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, ‘Creeping like snail unwillingly to school’.
The compositional structure of The Last In was typical of Mulready’s work of the 1830s. The figures are arranged almost theatrically in a kind of foreground frieze, with a framed landscape as a backdrop to the stage-like scene. Pointon (p.133) notes that the movement and gestures of the figures in Mulready’s work of this period relate more closely to Italian high Renaissance painting than the Dutch seventeenth-century works that were prototypes for his earlier genre paintings. The colouring and figures in The Last In have been compared in particular with Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens (1510–11, Vatican Museums, Rome). When the painting was first exhibited, a critic in the New Monthly Magazine admired the technical skill apparent in the work: ‘It is humorously conceived, though a little confined in grouping, and admirably painted’ (1835, Part II, p.246). Mulready was well known for the extensive preparatory studies he made for his finished paintings, evident in the meticulous approach to detail in this work.
Four pen and ink sketches relating to the painting are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and two at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. Mulready apparently used earlier drawings of his own sons for the children in the painting; the model for the tall girl to the right of the schoolmaster was Mrs Albert Varley, his nephew’s wife, who appears in a number of other works of this period, including A Sailing Match. The sketching process led to the production of a finished cartoon for the painting in red and white chalk, also in Tate’s collection (T06501). This shows narrative elements not used in the finished work. In the schoolroom a child leans over from the right-hand staircase, signalling through the window to the boys still playing outside that their friend has arrived; the boy in the foreground has a white rectangle, possibly the sign of a dunce, painted on his back Mulready’s account book for 1834 records ‘Sep 26 Sk[etch] cartoon Last In Fin[ished] tracing on Panel 31 Dec’. The painting was bought by Robert Vernon for £425 in 1835; it was the first of a number of Mulready paintings which he acquired and later gave to the National Gallery as part of the Vernon Gift.
Marcia Pointon, William Mulready 1786 –1863, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1986, reproduced p.73.
Christiana Payne, Rustic Simplicity: Scenes of Cottage Life in Nineteenth-Century British Art, exhibition catalogue, Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham 1998, pp.9 and 24–5 cats.31, 34, 35 and 36, reproduced p.44.
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon’s Gift: British Art for the Nation, 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, cat.50, reproduced p.56.