This painting is by the Irish-born genre painter, William Mulready. It shows an errand boy taunting a dog whilst a schoolboy conceals a whip. It is one of a number of paintings by Mulready showing children playing, which have undertones of violence and cruelty. His paintings, showing examples of good and bad behaviour, were intended as a moral education for children. Contemporaries admired the artist’s meticulously detailed technique but complained about the obscurity and moral ambiguity of his subjects. His narrative approach was later an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites.
Mulready was born in Ireland in 1786. He moved to London with his family when he was seven years old. The painter John Graham (born in 1754, died in 1817) encouraged Mulready’s parents to nurture their son’s artistic talent. At the age of 14 he entered the Royal Academy Schools. There he was taught by landscape painter, John Varley (born in 1777, died in 1842). Mulready went on to marry Varley’s sister, Elizabeth Robinson Varley (born in 1784, died in 1864). She was also a landscape painter. At the Royal Academy, Mulready formed an extremely close friendship with his fellow artist John Linnell (born in 1792, died in 1882).
Between 1809 and 1811 Mulready and Linnell shared lodgings in the village of Kensington Gravel Pits. This area, made up of gravel quarries, cottages and kilns, is now known as Notting Hill Gate. The pair perfected their technique together. They sketched the local landscapes frequently, working together in the open air. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear. It has been suggested that there was a homosexual dimension to their friendship. These suggestions were prompted by the discovery of letters by Mulready’s wife, containing allegations against the artist. She complains of his sexual desire for young men, accuses him of taking a ‘low boy’ to his bed, and blames the breakdown of their marriage on his homosexual affair with Linnell.
Mulready serves as an example of how same-sex desire is not always made explicit in an artist’s work. His later focus on the moral instruction of children may, however, relate to the breakdown of his marriage. After their separation, Mulready insisted on bringing up their four young sons on his own, despite his wife’s efforts to secure access. Under his care the children became unruly and boisterous. Linnell was even called in to help manage the eldest son. Mulready’s images of children engaged in cruelty or misdeeds were unusual in a period which celebrated the innocence of childhood. They may reflect his own difficult experience of single-parenting.