BP Spotlight: The Nature of Common Life: Drawing the Everyday 1800–60

This Spotlight Display explores 19th-century daily life by artists such as as William Mulready, J.M.W. Turner and David Wilkie

Drawing heavily on the Oppé Collection of works on paper, this display highlights the preoccupation with everyday life seen in the work of early nineteenth-century artists such as William Mulready, J.M.W. Turner, John Varley and David Wilkie. The works, in a range of media and including several never before displayed, demonstrate artists’ compulsion to observe and depict the world around them, from the bustle of street life or the industry of rural labourers, to the intimacy of the family home.

The focus on scenes of everyday human interest coincided with a new emphasis on close looking and description of detail. This is exemplified by the work of John Varley, who encouraged his students to study small fragments of a scene to hone their observation skills. Many of the exhibits are swiftly drawn sketches, including a letter over which David Wilkie has jotted ideas for his painting The Village Holiday. More highly finished works, such as Turner’s An Old Woman in a Cottage Kitchen, represent the prevalence of everyday subjects in contemporary exhibitions and their popularity with consumers of art.

The artist and writer William Henry Pyne encapsulated this emphasis on observing the everyday by advocating in 1806 that the artist should not make ‘an imaginary nature his model, or any other nature, but the nature of common life’.

This display has been curated by Amy Concannon

See also