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About the artwork

Birds’-nesting, the subject of 'Returning from the Haunts of the Seafowl', was a popular pursuit for young boys in the late 18 and early 19 centuries, and was equally popular as a subject for artists portraying children. Collecting eggs, as a form of classifying natural phenomena, was a hobby that exemplified the age of Enlightenment’s spirit of scientific enquiry; but birds’-nesting also partook of the Romantic era’s demand for closer and more immediate contact with nature, involving as it did physical exertion and even mild danger in the act of climbing to awkward locations.

Above all, birds’-nesting as an activity encapsulated the intrinsic cruelty of the male sex towards the female. Artists often depicted boys birds’-nesting in the company of girls. It was a pursuit that provided a universal moral lesson in the separateness of the sexes, emphasising the vanity and shallowness of men. At the same time, in bringing the eggs for the approval of the girl, the boys inevitably remind her – and the viewer – of their positive, as well as negative, role in the process of procreation.

This type of picture, in which the depiction of the pursuits of ordinary, poor people aimed to deliver a universal moral message, had been invented by Dutch artists in the 17 century. In early 19 century Britain, these Dutch paintings of two centuries earlier were becoming intensely popular with art collectors, and Collins’s aim, as with contemporaries such as David Wilkie, Edward Bird and even occasionally Turner, was to respond to the demand for modern, ‘national’, equivalents.

Part of Collins’s achievement in 'Returning from the Haunts of the Seafowl' is to create an ambience that is both distinctively English, with its evocation of coastal life and light, and also modern in its sensibility, with its startling rejection of classical design values and appeal to direct, immediate, physical sensation.

Under cover of a superficially picturesque narrative of children playing by the seaside, Collins creates a remarkably visceral sense of vertiginous danger: the beach is an unimaginable distance below, yet one child has climbed the cliff barefoot, and he and his companion carry heavy wooden implements with a carefree ease that makes the viewer gasp.

The chief source of the painting’s visual effect is Collins’s elaborate design, in which the sweeping, serpentine outline of the cliff divides the picture into two distinct halves. But not satisfied with this remarkable invention, Collins imparts visual interest to every part of the picture: from the busy, racing clouds to the shadows of the cliff face falling across the beach; from the wheeling, disturbed gulls that swirl across the otherwise monotonous centre of the work to the dog that acts as a focal point to the area at lower left.

Even the centre foreground, at first sight an undifferentiated mass of earth and rock, is animated by the hat of a boy disappearing out of the picture. Equally remarkable is the play of light. Collins creates a complex pattern of highlight and shadow, neutral light and contre-jour with wonderful skill, yet he never sacrifices the sense that he is true to life; that he has witnessed these light effects himself.

One of Collins’s largest works, 'Returning from the Haunts of the Seafowl' was shown at the Royal Academy in 1833. It was widely admired, though a fellow-artist caught a sense of its ambitious, carefully thought-out quality when he complained that Collins ‘had attempted to push the illustrative capacities of Art beyond what they would bear’. The painting had already had four owners by the time it was acquired in the early 1850s by the Liverpool banker John Naylor, one of the great collectors of modern British art in the early Victorian era.

William Collins (1788-1847) was a younger contemporary of JMW Turner and John Constable, and to British art lovers in the second quarter of the 19 century, he was even more popular – and collectable – than they were. But his reputation has faded. Today he is probably best known as the father of Wilkie Collins, the author of the classic Victorian mystery stories 'The Moonstone' and 'The Woman in White'. (A second son, the artist Charles Allston Collins, was a friend and associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and married one of the daughters of Charles Dickens).

William Collins was born in London in 1788. From a poor background, he studied briefly as a boy under George Morland, whose paintings of rural types such as gypsies, tinkers, and smugglers had become popular in the 1790s. The same class of people, and above all their children, sentimentalised and prettified, would become the staple of Collins’s art.

He began to make his name when he showed 'Children Fishing' at the British Institution in 1810: this was an exhibiting body supported by aristocratic art patrons, and Collins would become a favourite of high-profile collectors such as the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Duke of Devonshire, Sir Robert Peel, and King George IV himself. Many of his pictures employed coastal settings, and this became a distinct strain in his work. Though successful, he remained modest and diffident about his painting.