Description: signed with initials and dated l.r.: H. W. / 1854 oil on canvas
Dimensions: measurements note 50.5 by 60.5 cm.; 19 ¾ by 23 ¾ in.
Literature: Art Journal, 1854, p.161;
Sotheby's, Pictures from the Collection of Sir David and Lady Scott, 2008, pp. 92-93.
Provenance: Lifford Antiques;
Sotheby's, London, 27 March 1973, lot 47 where bought by J. S. Maas on behalf of Sir David Scott.
Notes: Henry Wallis' subject, showing the impoverished Dr Johnson being given an impromptu meal when visiting his publisher Edward Cave, was inspired by a note by Edward Malone in the third edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, published in 1799. This describes how Johnson was living a hand-to-mouth existence in the period before he gained a professional reputation. Wallis shows him as prematurely aged (he was only in his mid-thirties at this time), and with worn and badly repaired clothes. He peers myopically (he had poor eyesight as a result of contracting scrofula as a child) at the writing slope at which he works, and appears not to be happy to be interrupted by the arrival of the young servant who brings food to him. The visit to Edward Cave in fact represented a turning-point in Johnson's career, because it was from Cave that he received the commission to write a series of pieces for the Gentleman's Magazine, of which Cave was the founder and proprietor. The esteem in which these articles were held eventually led to Johnson becoming one of the most eminent literary figures of the day. Among them was his poem 'London', of 1738, in which he described his friend the poet Richard Savage's miserable life in the city and their nocturnal ramblings together. This was followed by his Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), one of the seminal works of biography in the English language. His Debates in The Senate of Lilliput - a commentary on contemporary parliamentary debate, also appeared in Cave's periodical. Johnson's work as a writer is alluded to in the painting: the paper lying beside the inkwell is inscribed 'For June 1744 / Debates' and 'Lilliput', while the paper upon which the red bound book is placed is marked 'Savage'. The pattern of Henry Wallis's training as an artist was slightly unusual in that he studied for a period in Paris, in the atelier of the painter Gleyres and also at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He first exhibited in public in Manchester in 1853, and then showed the present painting at the Royal Academy in 1854, the first of thirty-five of his works to be shown there up until 1877. He remained a figure on the Pre-Raphaelite fringe until the early 1860s. He was a member of the Hogarth Club which may be regarded as indicating that he was part of the progressive movement in painting that led forward from Pre-Raphaelitism to the Aesthetic Movement. However, he apparently inherited a considerable property in 1859, a factor which perhaps allowed him to be less ambitious about his professional career. Certainly the works that he showed in later years are much less interesting than those of the 1850s. In later years, Wallis devoted much of his energy and resources to studying and collecting ceramics. The colour and texture of the present work, and the careful observation of detail (when showing the painting to friends, Sir David used to point out the red marks on the arms of the servant, which he believed were burns from a hot oven), identify Wallis as one who was influenced by contemporary Pre-Raphaelitism. The work was not approved of by the critic of the Art Journal, who condemned it as a 'subject [...] unsuited to Art and [one that] ought not to have been painted'. It was, however, the prototype of the most remarkable painting of Wallis's early career, and the work for which he is now remembered, The Death of Chatterton (Tate), and which showed the suicide of the young poet in a garret bedroom. This was accompanied at the 1856 Royal Academy by another literary subject, Andrew Marvell Returning the Bribe (whereabouts unknown). Dr Johnson was an admired figure of English literature in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860 Dante Gabriel Rossetti made a pen and ink drawing of Dr Johnson at the Mitre, illustrating a passage from Boswell's Life of Johnson (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
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