Henry Walton

Plucking the Turkey

exhibited 1776

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Not on display

Henry Walton 1746–1813
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 635 mm
frame: 942 × 820 × 85 mm
Purchased 1912

Display caption

This painting was exhibited in London in 1776, during the early stages of the war with revolutionary America. Walton’s image of a cookmaid plucking a turkey is an example of the kind of lowly subject-matter denigrated by Sir Joshua Reynolds and the new Royal Academy.

But it may also make a coded political reference. The turkey was very closely associated with America: Benjamin Franklin even proposed that it should become the symbol of independent America, instead of the eagle. The painting may, therefore, be a pro-British comment on the anticipated fate of the rebellious colonists.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Henry Walton 1746–1813

A Girl Plucking a Turkey
Exhibited 1776
Oil paint on canvas
762 x 635 mm
Purchased 1912

Ownership history
... 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.

Exhibition history

Society of Artists, London, 18 April 1776 - ? (131)
Paintings by Henry Walton (1746–1813), Norwich Castle Museum, 2 November – 8 December 1963 (10) (as ‘Plucking the Turkey’)
La Révolution française et l’Europe 1789–1799, Grand Palais, Paris, 26 March – 26 June 1989 (190).
Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th-Century British Art, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham, 28 March – 4 May 1998 and Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London, 14 May – 9 August 1998 (60).


Rev E. Farrer, ‘Henry Walton’, Connoisseur, vol.25, 1909, p.145.
E.V. Lucas, The British School: An Anecdotal Guide to the British Painters and Paintings in the National Gallery, London 1913, p.227.
Laurence Binyon, ‘A Forgotten Painter’, Times Literary Supplement, 18 December 1913, p.613.
C.H. Collins Baker, ‘Notes on Some Portraits in Mr John Lane’s Collection’, Connoisseur, vol.48, 1917, pp.135–6.
Charles Holmes, Old Masters & Modern Art: The National Gallery France and England, London 1927, p.178.
Oliver Warner, ‘Eight English Pictures’, English Review, October 1929, pp.476–8.
‘“Conversation Pieces” of Another Order: Arts and an Interlude’, Illustrated London News, 1 March 1930, p.331, reproduced.
Trenchard Cox, The National Gallery: A Room to Room Guide, London, p.212.
Tancred Borenius, ‘The Kaleidoscope of Taste’, The Studio, vol.102, 1931, p.336, reproduced.
‘The Most Comprehensive View of British Art’, Illustrated London News, 30 December 1933, p.1074 reproduced.
Sacheverell Sitwell, Narrative Pictures: A Survey of English Genre and its Painters, London 1937, p.49.
Ellis K. Waterhouse, Painting in England 1530-1790, Harmondsworth 1953, p.209.
Miklos Rajnai, Paintings by Henry Walton (1746–1813), exhibition catalogue, Norwich Castle Museum 1963, p.12, reproduced on cover.
Anne Buck, Dress in Eighteenth-Century England, London 1979, p.105, reproduced.
William L. Pressly, James Barry: The Artist as Hero, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, pp.60–1, reproduced.
La Révolution française et l’Europe 1789–1799, exhibition catalogue, Grand Palais, Paris 1989, vol.1, no.190, reproduced.
Martin Postle, Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th Century British Art, Nottingham 1998, p.81 reproduced.
Evelyn Bell, ‘The Life and Work of Henry Walton’, Gainsborough’s House Review 1998–9, Sudbury [1999], pp.42, 75, reproduced.
Michael Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: ‘A Little Business for the Eye’, New Haven and London 1999, p.219, reproduced.
John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England, New Haven and London 2007, p.276, reproduced.
Holger Hoock, Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750–1850, London 2010, p.85.

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.

Martin Myrone
September 2013


1 La Révolution française et L’Éurope 1789–1799, exhibition catalogue, Grand Palais, 3 vols, Paris 1989, vol.1, nos.187–94, usefully collates and illustrates together a group of comparable pictures featuring young women seated and at work in kitchen interiors by French, Spanish, German and Swedish artists, with the present painting as no.190.
2 See Anne Buck, Dress in Eighteenth-Century England, London 1979, p.105.
3 Evelyn Bell, ‘The Life and Work of Henry Walton’, Gainsborough’s House Review 1998–9, Sudbury [1999], p.75.
4 Charles Holmes, Old Masters & Modern Art: The National Gallery France and England, London 1927, p.178.
5 Sacheverell Sitwell, Narrative Pictures: A Survey of English Genre and its Painters, London 1937, p.49.
6M. Rajnai, Paintings by Henry Walton (1746–1813), exhibition catalogue, Norwich Castle Museum 1963, no.10.
7Dawson Turner, Outlines in Lithography from A Small Collection of Pictures, Yarmouth 1840, p.22, quoted and discussed in Bell, ‘The Life and Work of Henry Walton’, p.142.
8 For Hunter and the collecting of Chardin in Britain see Peter Black ed., ‘My Highest Pleasures’: William Hunter’s Art Collection, exhibition catalogue, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, 2007, nos.15–17, pp.39–41.
9Marcel Roethlisberger and Renée Loche, Liotard: Catalogue sources et correspondence, 2 vols, Antwerp 2008, vol.1, no.342.
10 William L. Pressly, James Barry: The Artist as Hero, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.61.
11 Holger Hoock, Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750–1850, London 2010, p.85.
12 See Tad Tuleja, ‘The Turkey’, in Angus K. Gillespie and Jay Mechling eds, American Wildlife in Symbol and Story, Knoxville 1987, pp.15–40; J. A. Leo Lemay, ‘The American Aesthetic of Franklin’s Visual Creations’, in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, no.111, 1987, pp.497–9; Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely, ‘Benjamin Franklin and the American Turkey’, in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol.6, no.4, 2006, pp.19–25; Andrew F. Smith, The Turkey: An American Story, Chicago and Urbana 2006, pp.110–11.
13 The print The Flight of the Congress includes a whole array of American animals but not the turkey (British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, BMC 5401); the American zebra appears in The Curious Zebra (BMC 5487); the snake is in, for example, The American Rattle Snake (BMC 5973) and The British Lion Engaging Four Powers (BMC 6004). For these prints and many others showing America personified as an Indian see Peter D.G. Thomas, The American Revolution, Cambridge 1986, nos.59, 75, 101, 106, etc. The turkey appears to become a significant figure in caricature only in the nineteenth century, and then on the basis of its associations with stupidity and pomposity. See Lise Lotte Möller, ‘Turkeys in French and English Caricature’, in William W. Clark, Colin Eisler, William S. Heckscher, Barbara G. Lane eds., Tribute to Lotte Brand Philip: Art Historian And Detective, New York 1985, pp.117–31.
14 Thanks to David M. Waterhouse, Curator of Natural History, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, for his advice on this point (email correspondence, April 2012).
15 See, for example, ‘On the Celebration of Christmas in Town and Country’, Monthly Miscellany, no.4, January 1776, pp.11–13; ‘A Christmas Feast’, Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, no.31, 29 February 1776, p.306. See also Smith, The Turkey, p.38.
16 Francis Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London 1811.
17 Quoted in Tuleja, ‘The Turkey’, p.17.
18 Tuleja, ‘The Turkey’, pp.19–21.
19 On the politics around French culture in eighteenth-century Britain see, for instance, Gerald Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism 1740–1830, New York 1987; on the representation of the poor, see John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730–1840, Cambridge 1980 and Michael Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough: ‘A Little Business for the Eye’, New Haven and London 1999, especially pp.291–33.
20 The published advertisement for Walton’s widow’s sale refers to ‘paintings’ as among the lots, but without any indication that these included works by the artist. Bell, ‘The Life and Work of Henry Walton’, p.84.
21 Letter from Leggatt Brothers to Hawes Turner, dated 21 March 1912 (National Gallery Archives, NG 7/403/2). The date of the purchase of the painting by Leggatt Brothers is not documented but the phrasing of this letter implies that the painting was a recent acquisition. Wertheimer died in April 1911 and his collection was subsequently dispersed in a series of sales. By March 1912, however, the only sales to have taken place involved jewellery and silverware (Christie’s, London, 12 July 1911 and 14 July 1911, respectively).
22 Letter from Martin Leggatt to Sir Charles Holroyd, dated 29 March 1912 (National Gallery Archives, NG 7/403/3).
23 Ibid.
24 Letter from Leggatt Brothers to Dennis Farr, 2 September 1955 (Tate Archive, Artist’s Catalogue File, Henry Walton, PC 4.2.2).
25 ‘Notes of the Week’, Saturday Review, 27 April 1912, p.512.
26 Laurence Binyon, ‘A Forgotten Painter’, Times Literary Supplement, 18 December 1913, p.613. The claim that the picture passed at auction as Chardin was repeated by Sitwell, Narrative Pictures, p.49. It has not proved possible to identify this sale.
27 E.V. Lucas, The British School: An Anecdotal Guide to the British Painters and Paintings in the National Gallery, London 1913, p.227.
28 Oliver Warner, ‘Eight English Pictures’, pp.477–8
29 Ibid., p.476.
30 Trenchard Cox, The National Gallery: A Room to Room Guide, London 1930, p.212.
31 Ellis K. Waterhouse, Painting in England 1530–1790, Harmondsworth 1953, p.209.

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