William Mulready (1786-1863)
Crossing the Ford
Oil on Canvas 28 x 23cm / 17 x 13cm
This beautiful oil sketch was done by Mulready in preparation for work his well known painting 'The Ford', painted at the height of his artistic career and hanging in the Tate, London, and which was exhibited to critical acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1842. A writer in the Art Union observed: ‘(The Ford) sustains the high reputation of its author; it is a work of surpassing beauty, grace and excellence – one of the most valuable paintings ever produced in England’ (Art Union, 1842, p.121).
'The painting is a closely-observed rural scene. A young girl is carried across a stream by two youths; their traveling companions wait in the shadows on foot and horseback and prepare to cross behind them. The background landscape is hilly and rocky, opening up to a distant blue horizon. As with Mulready’s other narrative works of the period, this rural idyll is imbued with symbolic meaning. The lyrical intensity of the scene and the close psychological connection between the three central figures echoes the theme of courtship Mulready explored in 1839 inThe Sonnet and First Love (both Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The theme of crossing water illustrating a rite of passage to adulthood was a familiar one, used by J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and other nineteenth-century artists and writers. Pointon (p.166) notes the painting’s implicit eroticism, acceptable to the Victorian spectator by virtue of its rural, Arcadian setting. A critic writing in 1852 remarked that the painting was: ‘composed into a charming bit of rusticity, treated with much purity of taste and feeling. The subject is one that might very easily have been vulgarised, though it was perfectly safe on that score in the hands of Mr. Mulready.’ (Art Journal, May 1852, p.158.) ' The Tate Gallery.
Mulready gained a reputation for his innovative use of colour combining ‘the greatest quantity of light consistent with the greatest quantity of colour’ (quoted in Heleniak, p.136). Mulready’s approach to colour was undoubtedly influenced by seeing works by the Venetian painters Titian (c.1485–1576) and Tintoretto (1518–94) at the British Institution ‘Old Masters’ exhibition of 1815.
‘The works completed by him between 1839 and 1848 are the most perfect in story, colour and execution of any of his productions. The chiaroscuro is excellent, the colour rich and jewel-like, the execution refined and perfect of its kind.’ (Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters of the English School, London 1866, p.298.)
Crossing the Ford was bought by Mulready’s patron Robert Vernon in 1842 for 600 guineas, in three installments, and was given by him to the nation in 1847. There is a related pen and ink drawing in the Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, Italy; a chalk cartoon for the work (now in a private collection) was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 1847. On the back of the panel is a sketch for another work on a similar theme by Mulready, The First Voyage 1833 (Bury Art Gallery), which shows a child in a tub being pushed and towed across a stream.