Thomas Webster

Study for ‘A Letter from the Colonies’


Not on display

Thomas Webster 1800–1886
Oil paint on board
Support: 116 × 122 mm
displayed: 255 × 280 × 35 mm
Presented by J.G. Milner 1986

Catalogue entry

Thomas Webster 1800-1886

T04145 Study for 'A Letter from the Colonies' c.1852

Oil 85 x 100 (3 3/8 x 3 15/16) on prepared millboard 116 x 122 (4 1/8 x 4 3/4)
Presented by J.G. Milner 1986
Prov: ...; bt on the London art market by J.G. Milner c.1980

Webster's popularity during his lifetime rested upon his depictions of scenes from contemporary cottage and ale-house life of just the kind seen in this work. He offered a more refined view of rustic life than did those seventeenth-century Dutch masters who inspired him; but the device which he frequently employed, of setting his figures in interiors where the principal light has as its source an open window beside or beyond the figures and where this diffused and reflected light illuminates expression and detail to sustain the narrative, is a direct borrowing from these models and is obvious even in this small sketch. Webster's working method often entailed the production of small sketches in oil as preliminary studies for larger finished works. A number of these were included in Webster's studio sale at Christie's, 21 May 1887 (lots 133-62). T04145 is typical of such studies, although not identifiable as one of the items in the sale.

Webster's 'A Letter from the Colonies' (Tate Gallery, T00046, oil on wood 413 x 521, 16 1/4 x 20 1/2, signed and dated 1852) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852 (153). Taking as its theme the great emigration boom of the late 1840s and early 1850s it shows an elderly couple seated at a table, together with their daughter, in a room of a modestly furnished cottage. The old man holds an unopened letter and, with the young girl peering over his shoulder, scrutinizes the writing on the outside. There is a look of anxiety in the parents' eyes - as much to do, perhaps, with what the letter will or will not say as with the cost of the postage; the mother distractedly counts this out for the postman who, palm held out, leans through the open window.

The picture was well received by the critics, with one of them drawing attention to the similarity between its composition and that of 'A Rubber', a picture exhibited by Webster at the Academy in 1848 (176; Art Journal, vol.4, June 1852, p.168). This picture is untraced but an old photograph in the Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, shows that it depicted four men seated at a table playing whist in the parlour of an inn. A mug, glass and bottle are on the table, one of the players is holding up his cards and studying them and a man, resting on the window cill beyond the group, leans into the room to watch the game.

In its composition and content T04145 clearly has much in common with 'A Rubber': the figures are all male - with one of them looking through the window - and the drinks on the table suggest that they are in a tavern. On the other hand, in addition to the obvious similarities in the overall composition which T04145 shares with 'A Letter from the Colonies', it has points in common with the latter work which are obvious enough for it to be regarded as an early idea for this picture. With one of the figures reading from a sheaf of papers while others at the table listen to him and the man at the window overhears what he says, the theme is the same as that which is dealt within a 'A Letter' - the arrival of some news. Other details, too, confirm the link between T04145 and 'A Letter': the reader is a man with grey hair who wears spectacles, though in the exhibited picture these are left on the table; the cupboard to the left-hand side of the window is panelled and corniced in much the same way as the cupboard in the same position in 'A Letter'; in both instances there is a vase near the window corner of the cabinet top. Hanging on the right-hand wall in 'A Letter' is what appears to be a sampler in a black frame and a framed work of similar proportions is shown in much the same position in T04145.

In contrast to 'A Letter from the Colonies', where Webster uses a palette of subdued and complementary reds and browns in the costumes of the three main figures in order to lend unity to the group, in the study the clothes of each individual within the group are rendered in a progressively light tone across the composition - from the almost black jacket of the old man on the left to the white shirt of the man on the right; in this man's scarlet cap Webster provides an arresting focal point which has no counterpart in the finished work.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.83-4


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