- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 762 x 635 mm
frame: 942 x 820 x 85 mm
- Purchased 1912
Henry Walton 1746–1813
A Girl Plucking a Turkey
Oil paint on canvas
762 x 635 mm
... purchased by Charles John Wertheimer (1842–1911), London; with the Leggatt Brothers, London by 1912; bought by the National Gallery out of the Lewis Fund 1912; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1935.
This painting represents a subject common within the pictorial genre of the ‘fancy picture’: a young and physically attractive domestic servant shown at her daily chores in an interior setting. These may be either basically decorous (as here) or aimed more explicitly at exploiting the erotic potential of such subject matter.1 Originating in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art and the work of Jean Baptiste Chardin (1699–1779) and others in earlier eighteenth-century France, such ‘fancy pictures’ were introduced as a distinct genre within British art by the French born Philip Mercier (?1689–1760) in the 1730s and taken up successfully in the 1760s and 1770s by a range of artists including Henry Robert Morland (1716–97), Francis Wheatley (1747–1801) and Walton’s teacher, Johan Zoffany (1733–1810). Relevant examples in the Tate collection would include Mercier’s Girl Sewing (T00759), Morland’s Laundry Maid (N01403) and Lady’s Maid (N01402) as well as Walton’s Girl Buying a Ballad (T07594).
Walton’s picture shows a young female servant in working dress comprising a printed lilac bedgown over a pale green petticoat with a blue checked apron and bonnet,2 shown from the side seated on a plain chair as she plucks a turkey on her lap. The dark background is left without descriptive detail, but is presumably meant to suggest the interior of the kitchen or cellar of a large house where such a woman might be expected to be at work. The painting was first exhibited in the annual exhibition of contemporary art held by the Society of Artists in London in 1776. The early ownership history of the picture is not known, and it may be that Walton, like other artists of the time, created the work speculatively in the hope that its display in the public exhibition would secure him critical attention and interest from potential patrons. Walton exhibited small-scale portraits and genre scenes at exhibitions in London through the 1770s, while he was based in the city. This period of metropolitan artistic activity was a temporary venture by the artist. He subsequently moved to Suffolk, where he had purchased an estate and lived like a country gentleman, running a portrait practice serving the gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk and dealing in art apparently in an only semi-professional capacity. A Girl Plucking a Turkey is one of a small number of genre paintings created by Walton in the 1770s (about ten are documented or survive). Other extant examples include: The Silver Age (1777; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven); A Girl Buying a Ballad (exhibited 1778; T07594); and The Cherry Barrow (exhibited 1779; private collection).
In a monograph on the artist, Evelyn Bell stated in 1999 that, ‘It has been suggested that this is a portrait of Walton’s wife, Elizabeth’, but there does not seem to be supporting evidence for this claim.3 Unlike Mercier or Morland who would generally show such a figure on a half-length format, emphasising the subject’s attractive features and a gaze and (often exposed) cleavage in order to engage the viewer’s attention, Walton’s figure is shown discretely dressed and in profile, absorbed by her work, the whole of her seated figure visible in the plain interior setting. The immediate model for such a reflective image on this scale is Chardin, and Walton has been identified in modern literature as being a pioneer in bringing that artist’s influence to bear in British art. The extreme refinement of technique evident here, with almost imperceptibly subtle tonal grading, a smoothly finished painted surface and a severely limited colour palette, comes closer to the French artist than any other British painter of the time, excepting perhaps some works by Zoffany. In the 1920s Charles Holmes remarked that, ‘we can see for the first time the influence of Chardin upon an English artist’, though ‘Walton lacked the firm hold upon form and substance which the Frenchman possessed’.4 In the following decade Sacheverell Sitwell similarly noted that, ‘it has a superficial resemblance to Chardin, though the handling is lighter and less serious’, while also asserting that the painting had at some earlier point actually been attributed to the French artist.5 In the catalogue of the fullest exhibition of Walton’s work to date, held at Norwich Castle Museum in 1963, Miklos Rajnai stated that, ‘If the comparison with Chardin is at all valid, it is in relation to this work’.6 More recently Evelyn Bell related Walton’s work to Chardin’s and alluded to early evidence that he must have visited France; the Norfolk connoisseur and associate of Walton, Dawson Turner, noted in his Outlines in Lithography (1840) that, ‘with the view of studying or of buying pictures [he] had made frequent journeys to Paris’, although such is not further documented.7 Whether Walton had or had not been to Paris is perhaps beside the point, as Chardin’s works were available in reproduction and several paintings were in British collections. The most immediately relevant models from within Chardin’s output would include the single-figure studies of female servants at work such as: L’Ouvrière en tapisserie (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, engraved 1743 and 1757); L’Écuruse (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, formerly in the art collection of Dr William Hunter 1718–83 and engraved in 1740);8 La Pourvoyeuse (Louvre, Paris, engraved 1742) and La Ratisseuse (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, engraved 1742). To these could be added British-published prints deriving from the French originals (such as The Governess, engraved by Thomas Burford, c.1710–-c.1779; The Grace, engraved by John Simon, c.1675–1751), painted copies and pastiches, and works by comparable French ‘petits maîtres’ (minor masters) producing small-scale genre scenes. Perhaps the most immediately accessible model for Walton was the Swiss pastellist and painter Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–89). The extreme delicacy of his technique, the small-scale format of his pictures, and the Chardinesque quietude that characterises his compositions were all relevant to Walton’s art. The Swiss artist had been in London in 1773–4, exhibiting a large group of twenty of his own works at a private exhibition, including a Chardinesque genre scene in oils A Dutch Lady Pouring out Coffee c.1744 (Stansted Park Foundation), and sending an even larger group of thirty-six works to a sale in 1774.9 Walton was based in London, exhibiting with and closely involved in the management of the Society of Artists at this point, and so it is almost inconceivable that he would not have been aware of this celebrated artist’s works being on show in the metropolis.
Walton’s A Girl Plucking a Turkey was first exhibited under that title at the Society of Artists in 1776, but without receiving critical notice from the contemporary press. Given that Britain was then in the early stages of the war with revolutionary America (1775–83), a course of events which overshadowed public life, several modern commentators have been tempted to speculate that a political subtext was intended for the image. In 1983 the art historian William Pressly appears to have made the claim in passing, in discussing the political work of the Irish artist James Barry, speculating that the picture offers a barely disguised ‘pro-English statement reflecting popular sentiment’ against the Americans.10 He was followed in 2010 by the historian Holger Hoock, who in his ambitious study of art and empire in the eighteenth century repeats the claim that the painting ‘can be read as a pro-British statement of popular sentiment against the ungrateful colonies, represented by the bird which was so closely associated with America that Benjamin Franklin advocated that it be adopted as the national symbol instead of the bald eagle’.11 However, this specific claim seems to be unsustainable. The long-standing idea that Franklin sincerely advocated the use of the turkey as a national symbol is now queried by scholars.12 The American statesman seems to have suggested it only in a private letter of 1784 and then as a wry and quite specific joke. Moreover, Franklin was a member of the committee that had already in 1776 agreed on the eagle as the national symbol, and he had on that occasion personally advocated the use not of the turkey but of a biblical tableau. Contemporary satirical prints of the period commenting on the American war – of which there is a considerable volume – would almost inevitably represent America in the form of an American Indian woman or male warrior (albeit with their hair dressed with what might be turkey feathers). Even where animals are used as symbols for the various national parties involved in the conflict, there appear to have been a whole range of other beasts more readily associated with America (the snake, ass, boar and armadillo and, more surprisingly, zebra and tiger) to match the British lion and French cock.13
Arguably, the association between the kind of turkey being plucked ready for the table in Walton’s picture, and the nascent United States, was far from obvious by the time this picture was exhibited. Instead, we can note that domesticated turkeys were introduced to Britain (from Mexico, via Spain) in the sixteenth century and feature prominently in eighteenth-century cookbooks as a standard part of the English diet of the middle and upper classes. The bird being plucked in this picture appears to be a standard Norfolk (or Spanish) Black, raised extensively not only in Norfolk but around the country.14 The now-familiar association with Christmas was also long-established and current in 1776,15 and such was their prevalence of turkeys on the British food market that the vernacular term for a general poulterer was a ‘Turkey Merchant’.16 While turkeys may have featured in the decorative arts and cartography of the seventeenth century as a means of representing America, by the time Samuel Johnson came in his famous Dictionary of 1755 to define the creature it was as ‘a large domestick fowl brought from Turkey’.17 Indeed, the effect of Franklin’s jokey proposal of the (wild) turkey as national emblem appears in fact to rest on the idiosyncrasy of such an assertion by this time.18 Without contemporary commentary to indicate that a political reading of this image is appropriate, it is entirely possible to read it instead as a straightforward scene of everyday domestic life, albeit one which might be read as political in making a highly determined connection with recent French art and which offers an objectified image of a lower-class woman.19
The early history of the painting is undocumented. The picture was engraved in 1777 by John Raphael Smith as ‘Plucking the Turkey’ and in 1797 by an unidentified engraver as ‘A Cottage Maid’, but without an indication of the owner of the original composition on either occasion. This may suggest that the painting was retained by Walton, and would have passed with the rest of his collections to his widow and may therefore have been included in her sale with a local dealer in Norfolk after her death in 1828.20 It was brought to the attention of the curators of the National Gallery in March 1912 by the London art dealers, Leggatt Brothers, who asserted that it was ‘of sufficient quality to be worthy of the National Collection’.21 The proposed price was £500, which was discounted to £420. At the time of its purchase by the Gallery Leggatt indicated that it had been acquired from a now-deceased ‘C. Wertheimer’, which must be the art dealer and collector Charles John Wertheimer (1842–1911), who had reportedly purchased it privately for ‘a very big price’.22 With Wertheimer’s recent death, and a ‘Mr Permain’, named as Wertheimer’s agent in the original purchase also being dead (presumably the London art dealer William Permain, 1840/1–1910), Leggatt Brothers apologetically noted that they could not ‘find anything very definitive’ about the previous history of the painting.23 The subsequent loss of gallery’s records prior to 1923 during the Second World War meant that they were even less able to help with later efforts by staff at the Tate Gallery to research the picture’s provenance.24
The acquisition of such a relatively understated eighteenth-century British painting by the National Gallery in 1912 was welcomed by a contemporary journalist:
The National Gallery has bought and exhibited a picture by a comparatively unknown English artist, a small genre piece by Henry Walton, who towards the close of the eighteenth and in the first part of the nineteenth century painted good small portraits and had a vogue with the engravers. Sir Charles Holroyd is to be congratulated. This is a little step towards making good one of our National Collection’s gravest deficiencies, its extraordinary non-representation of our national art. We all, no doubt, feel rather sore because the Continental galleries have next to nothing British in them. Perhaps we shall yet manage to be first in our own field.25
According to a literary reviewer of the same time, ‘Since the National Gallery acquired the other day a charming picture by Henry Walton, that quite forgotten painter – the picture passed at auction as a Chardin – has begun to live again.’26
E.V. Lucas, addressing the general visitor with his anecdotal guidebook to the British collection (1913) remarked that of Walton ‘little is known’ but asserted that ‘If a name had to be sought for him … he might be called the English Chardin’.27 An essayist in 1920 proclaimed the picture an ‘unobtrusive masterpiece’ from the National Gallery’s collection, and a lyrical evocation of timeless English beauty, ‘the epitome of gentle obscurity’ and a ‘perfect work of art’.28 That author noted that, ‘Though placed with extreme care so that the eye should catch sight of it in passing from one room to another, it has no general fame’.29 A general guidebook to the National Gallery published in 1930, however, was more bluntly dismissive, terming it: ‘a workmanlike representation of a scene which would make an appropriate Christmas card’.30 It was nonetheless referred to in Ellis Waterhouse’s canon-making Painting in England (1953), which noted the rarity of Walton’s work and its unusual Chardin-esque character when considered in the broader context of eighteenth-century British painting. 31 By that time it had been transferred to the Tate Gallery from the National Gallery In one of the periodic transfers of ownership between the galleries during the first half of the twentieth century.
As noted above, the painting was titled ‘A Girl Plucking a Turkey’ when it was first exhibited by Walton in 1776, although it was published as ‘Plucking the Turkey’ in the Smith print of 1777. Both titles have been used in the modern literature. Although the latter has previously been used in Tate’s official catalogue records, the original, exhibited title is here restored to the work.
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