All three of Dyce’s paintings at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1860 – Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858–60 (Tate N01407, fig.1); St John Leading Home His Adopted Mother 1842–60 (Tate N01426); and The Man of Sorrows c.1860 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) – were shown in the same room, the East Room or Great Room, although they do not seem to have been hung together. This was a good location: the first room mentioned in the catalogue and the reviews, and the one that held what were thought to be the most important pictures in the exhibition. As a well-established Royal Academician and a prominent history painter, Dyce could expect to have his works favourably displayed, especially as he usually sent in only two or three pictures each year. He was painting relatively few oil paintings in the 1850s, since the bulk of his time was taken up with his fresco commissions.

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858-60

Fig.1
William Dyce
Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858–60
Tate N01407

The extended title of Pegwell Bay must have caught the attention of exhibition-goers because it was so unusual. No other painting in the Academy exhibitions of 1859 or 1860 had the word ‘recollection’ in its title; nor, as far as one can tell from the titles, were there any other pictures in these exhibitions that recorded Donati’s comet. The French painter Camille Corot had started to use the word ‘souvenir’ in the titles of his landscapes: in the 1857 Salon in Paris, for example, he had exhibited a Souvenir de Ville d’Avray (unidentified), and Dyce may have known of this. However, Corot’s landscapes with these titles are misty and evocative, not at all like the sharply focused approach Dyce adopted in Pegwell Bay.

The reviewers treated Dyce’s work with respect. Following the numbering of works in the Academy catalogue, they generally wrote about the two religious paintings first, and then came on to Pegwell Bay. Most of them found the painting poetic and impressive, although some were critical of its overall effect of light and colour, pointing out that the cliffs would be darker at that time of day, with the setting sun behind them. Pegwell Bay was praised for its minute attention to detail, which in many critics’ opinion was as good as anything by the Pre-Raphaelites, and even equal to photography. The contrasts between the three paintings exhibited by Dyce encouraged reviewers to think about the poetry of landscape and the relationship between figures and their setting. Perhaps they were predisposed to find Pegwell Bay solemn and poetic, having already studied St John Leading Home His Adopted Mother and The Man of Sorrows, or perhaps they were simply responding to the inherent qualities of the painting. In any case, they were largely united in finding the painting ‘noble’, at least in its landscape, although some had reservations about the ladies gathering shells. Several critics mentioned the comet, but a surprising number of them did not, and none of them seem to have noticed the artist on the extreme right, looking up at it in wonder. On the possible deeper meanings of the painting – its relationship to religious faith, or to Darwin’s theory of evolution, or to fears of French invasion – they are silent. We should not read too much into this, however, as critics often missed the more philosophical significance of a painting – John Everett Millais’s Autumn Leaves 1855–6 (Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester) is a case in point.1

Tom Taylor’s review in the Times was one of the first to be published, on 5 May 1860. Taylor disliked the combination of a religious subject and a realistic Scottish landscape in The Man of Sorrows. After admonishing Dyce that ‘It will not do to unite medieval figure-treatment with literal modern landscapes or local accompaniments’, he moved on with relief to Pegwell Bay:

There is no such jarring of scenes and accompaniments in Mr Dyce’s Pegwell Bay (141) – one of the most wonderfully elaborated landscapes in the exhibition, with its pallid chalk-cliffs, its dark olive low tide rocks and shadows that reflect the crimson of the sunset, and above all the great comet of 1858. Here all is modern, from the artificially scarped Ramsgate cliffs to the minutely truthful family group in balmorals and linsey-woolsey petticoats, gathering shells by the sea-margin, shells of which a conchologist might discriminate the species, though the basket in which they lie is not half the size of a little-finger nail. In this picture a past master – who writes R. A. to his name – can turn himself into a daguerrotyping apparatus as well as ever a Pre-Raphaelite student of them all.2

Taylor’s reviews were generally highly regarded and set the tone for subsequent reviewers. His characterisation of Dyce as a ‘daguerrotyping apparatus’ is not entirely complimentary, and may be the origin of the accusation, mentioned by James Dafforne, that the picture was painted from a photograph.3 Taylor’s assertion that the cliffs were ‘artificially scarped’ is curious, and seems to have no basis in fact. It may be that he knew about cliffs in the urban part of Ramsgate (rather than in Pegwell Bay) which had been scraped to remove loose stone, in order to prevent it from falling on the beach below.

The highest praise for Pegwell Bay came in a review in the Critic, published on 12 May. This was probably written by Alexander Gilchrist, the biographer of William Blake and the purchaser of Samuel Palmer’s painting of the 1858 comet seen from Dartmoor (The Comet of 1858, as Seen from the Heights of Dartmoor 1858–9, private collection).4 Gilchrist announced his intention to limit himself to ‘a very few among the more noticeable pictures’ and placed Pegwell Bay second in his review, after Millais’s The Black Brunswicker 1860 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool) – an astonishing tribute for such a small painting. Gilchrist effectively recognised it as Dyce’s third religious painting in the exhibition, with more true divinity in it than the two with explicitly Christian figures and titles. He acknowledged the familiarity of Dyce’s material. In 1860 there were many London exhibition-goers who would have had summer holidays in the coastal resorts of Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs on the Isle of Thanet. Dyce’s great achievement, argued Gilchrist, was to make something solemn and profound out of that everyday scene:

It is one of the noblest pictures in the exhibition, and one of the noblest Mr Dyce has ever painted. Thrice welcome is poetic beauty developed out of familiar realities. These white-faced cliffs, assuming more earnest hues at the solemn sunset hour; this long stretch of low-tide sands and shallows reflecting the crimson hues of the sky; the distant breakers; nay, even the majestic crimson-barred sky – are trite enough to Londoners. So, too, the domestic figures straggling in loose order along the beach in the foreground, gathering shells; ladies in sea-side hats, Balmorals, and red petticoats, stooping, as we have all so often seen ladies stoop in that pursuit, or turning round to look at the landscape; the children scampering out amid the rocks.5

However, says Gilchrist, Dyce has lifted this familiar material onto a higher level through his ‘faithful, appreciative spirit’:

With Pre-Raffaelite elaborateness and minute truth of detail, all this familiar matter is reproduced; yet how earnest, grand, is the general result. An especially solemn, yet by no means unusual, moment of nature is seized. But it is the honest, faithful, appreciative spirit in which it is treated, to which the best part of the solemnity of the picture is due. The comet, the effect of which is so well rendered, adds to the beauty of the sky, and vastly to the historic interest of the picture.6

Gilchrist, obviously an enthusiastic supporter of Pre-Raphaelitism, goes on to use his review to champion the realistic wing of the movement against its revivalist side, implicitly criticising Dyce’s two other, religious, paintings in the exhibition:

Perhaps after all, Mr Dyce, Reality is more divine than learned réchauffés of the early Italian masters, in however pure and noble a key. Perhaps thorough and intense recognition, at first hand, of such divinity as lies around our feet, is more religious even than pictorial religion at second hand … Every year will add to the historic value of such a picture.7

Other reviewers followed Taylor and Gilchrist in accepting Pegwell Bay as a Pre-Raphaelite painting, even though it lacked two characteristics that would now be regarded as typical of the movement. It was not painted from nature, in the open air, and it does not have bright colour. Perhaps these aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism have been given undue prominence in recent years because they are respects in which the Pre-Raphaelites seem to look forward to the Impressionists. In 1860, however, it was, above all, the elaborateness and the fine detail, akin to contemporary photography (and at the opposite end of the scale from Impressionism), which marked out Pegwell Bay as a product of the movement.

William Powell Frith, Ramsgate Sands: ‘Life at the Seaside’ 1854

Fig.2
William Powell Frith
Ramsgate Sands: ‘Life at the Seaside’ 1854
Royal Collection, London 

The reviewer in the Examiner also stressed the solemnity of the painting, and contrasted its effect of evening light in a quiet bay to William Powell Frith’s famous painting of the fashionable seaside crowds in his Ramsgate Sands: ‘Life at the Seaside’ (fig.2), which had been one of the sensations of the exhibition of 1854:

Mr Dyce’s Pegwell Bay is probably the most literal transcript ever yet painted of autumn afternoon among the low rocks of the English shore. The quiet bay seems only to be quieter for the figures of the few ladies (represented carefully as little portraits) who are picking up their last shells before returning to the donkeys that had brought them thither. We feel that the rocks and the tide will soon be alone together in the grey of the evening; and now they are the powers of the scene. The visitors here do not swallow up the sea as in Mr Frith’s memorable view of the people on the Ramsgate shore, with which this Pegwell Bay ought to be paired as a suggestive companion and contrast.8

However, the critic writing anonymously in the Athenaeum was not so favourably impressed by the light effects and tonal contrasts in the painting. He or she points out, reasonably enough, that the bright light and the amount of minute detail on the cliffs and foreground figures are not logical in a landscape where the main source of light is coming from behind them. The painting, this critic wrote, shows

an effect just after sun-down, while the sky is perfectly full of light. Very brilliantly and successfully this is painted, and so brilliantly, indeed, that it ought to have been supported by deeper tone throughout the landscape. The lighted sky is behind the cliffs, but we miss the massed shade in which they would necessarily be; in fact, the eye facing such a light would hardly perceive the immense amount of detail shown in the lines of white chalk before us. The figures keep the tone and tint of open, subdued daylight; whereas, facing the sunset, the reds, as in the lady’s dress who stands in front, would be nearly purple; and her figure tell as a whole, opaque, solid and darkly, instead of being bright, thin and transparent, as it is shown to be. A broader consideration of general effect would merit a higher applause than can be given to the elaborate and skilful treatment of individual parts, which is here observable throughout.9

This is a criticism that has often been made of Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings, both today and in the nineteenth century. The concentration on accuracy in individual details can mean that the overall effect of the picture is false. In the case of Pegwell Bay, this may have been exacerbated by Dyce’s method of painting. As far as we can tell, he did not pose his figures on the beach at Pegwell Bay, but painted them separately, possibly out of doors, but more probably in the studio. The amount of light and detail on the cliffs gives the painting a special quality, as if our vision were enhanced by the intensity of our looking, but it cannot really be justified in naturalistic terms, even allowing for the effect of reflected light from the sea. The reviewer for Macmillan’s Magazine made a similar point, criticising ‘the want of due gradations of tone and breadth of effect’ in the picture, although ‘Bits of nature, seen especially in the foreground rocks, glittering pools of water, and shining, saturated sand, are really delicious’.10

Not all the critics agreed about the overall effect of solemnity in Pegwell Bay. The critic for the Illustrated London News wrote that going from Dyce’s religious paintings to this one was ‘a rapid descent from the sublime to the droll’.11 A lengthier and more reasoned discussion of this position was published in the Eclectic Review. The reviewer starts by praising the painting: ‘In “Pegwell Bay” Mr Dyce has satisfied all his own requirements of delicate feeling, exquisite finish, and pure and tender colour.’ A description of the painting follows, including this passage: ‘In the foreground are two or three ladies engaged, as was to be expected in these days, in completing their conchological collections.’ The critic then goes on to use this feature as the basis for an assertion that the painting lacks overall harmony:

On the whole, this is a noble work, painted in love, the production of a fine mind and a tender imagination. But there is, we at first hardly know how, a drawback … the effect is interfered with by the conchological ladies. They are too prominent not to be particularly observed, and it is impossible to rescue them or their occupation from triviality. It is fashionable to be scientific at the coast; that we feel to be the whole account of their science. Their pursuit, therefore, is a mere pastime; and this impression is not in unison with the mellowed splendour of the sunset, with the solemn beauty of that ocean. The breadth, the unity, necessary to powerful and lasting impression, are wanting; the picture cannot be felt as a whole; it has the fatal effect of not being in imaginative harmony.12

This writer was not alone in seeing shell-collecting by ladies as a fashionable, trivial pursuit. The craze for collecting seaside specimens had recently been lampooned in a well-known cartoon by John Leech in Punch entitled ‘Common Objects at the Sea-Side – Generally Found upon the Rocks at Low Water’.13 In this cartoon, women are portrayed on the beach, seen from behind, bending over so low that they expose their underwear and laced-up boots. Since their heads and upper bodies cannot be seen, the rounded shape of their crinolines makes them look very much like sea anemones. In contrast, the women in Dyce’s painting bend over elegantly, showing nothing more than the point of a shoe, and their sensible dress marks them out as women who are not interested in fashion for its own sake. It is probable, therefore, that Dyce intended their occupation to look like a serious pursuit, complementary to his interest in the comet rather than contrasting to it – especially as they were members of his own family.

These last two reviewers were very much in the minority in finding anything trivial about Dyce’s Pegwell Bay. The overall consensus was that this was a solemn and noble painting and a fine example of the Pre-Raphaelite approach to landscape. If some critics recognised any deeper meaning, they refrained from analysing it in print. Modern observers may try to guess what the figures are thinking – the artist as he looks at the comet, his wife and son as they gaze out to sea – but the critics of the time either did not ask such questions, or did not feel that it was appropriate to do so in public.