'The Bathers' 1865 - 68

Frederick Walker (1840 - 1875)

Oil on canvas, 92.7 x 214.7cm
Accession Number LL3143

'The Bathers', Frederick Walker

This painting was the most ambitious ever attempted by Walker, both in terms of size and subject matter. He normally kept to realistic, genre paintings, but here includes poses, gestures and expressions borrowed from classical art. The painting also has a mood of idealised timelessness, as if divorced from everyday life. It shows a group of boys playing at a river's edge and bathing in the water. Although the clothing worn by some is contemporary, the overall feel is of a mythical arcadia, or at the very least ancient Greece. As such, this painting is of great importance within the development of the classical revival in English painting of the 1860s.

The background is based on Cookham and Marlow, both on the Thames. Walker spent a lot of time painting the landscape directly onto the large canvas in the open air. He began in October 1865 and worked until November. He returned to the area again in March the next year and continued to paint there on and off up to July. In between, he worked on the piece in the studio, adding the figures. Several of the figures, including the two on the right, underwent considerable changes in size and pose during the work's creation. Walker continued to work on 'The Bathers' even after it had been bought by William Graham in 1869.

The painting received mixed reviews when it was exhibited. Some, including John Ruskin, saw it as an aberration within Walker's career, as a type and style for which he was not qualified. Others saw it as a unique mix of his usual genre realism and of a new instinctive grasp of classical, ideal form.