The Warren

The Warren by John Wright Oakes, ARA HRSA 1820-1887. c. 1858. Oil on canvas. 19 1/8 X 25 1/8 inches, 48.6 X 63.8 centimetres. Signed and inscribed on the return edge of the canvas "July 19 to 28, 2 long, 2 1/2, 5 1/2, Sept, 14 1/2, 28-5/4, 29-1, 30-1/2, Oct, 8-1/2, 9-1, 10-1/2, Nov ?, 12-1, Dec ?, 5-1/4."

Exhibited: Royal Academy, London, 1858, Summer Exhibition, number 526; Royal Academy, London, 1888, Summer Exhibition, number 944

Provenance: William Rodman & Co, Belfast.

Commentary by Hilary Morgan

This work is a quintessential Liverpool School painting in its sensitive atmospheric rendering of a very ordinary scene. The bisection of the canvas by an almost unbroken horizon line and the lack of "incident" in the foreground are just two instances of the way in which it overturns Victorian conventions of landscape painting and attains real originality. Yet its sheer quality made it acceptable to its Victorian audience. This work was exhibited in the year Oakes resigned his membership of the Liverpool Academy. In 1859, the following year, he moved to London to pursue a successful career there. It is probable that the enthusiastic reception of this painting was a factor in his decision.

The work was probably painted in the Wirral, Oakes's favourite painting ground in his Liverpool days. Marillier wrote: "His first nature studies were made along the sand dunes and flat beaches of the Wallasey Peninsula, where his constant preoccupation caused him to pass as a harmless lunatic. He made numerous sketches of such scenes with rabbit warrens, etc., and also of fruit and flowers." By the time Oakes painted the "Warren" he combined this intimate knowledge of nature with a Pre-Raphaelite technique. The inscriptions along the edge of the canvas are witness to the hours he spent at the scene painting it.

When the "Warren" was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Oakes received high praise from the critics of the most prestigious papers. The Athenaeum did not mention the work specifically but placed Oakes among the artists who "stand this year very high" . The Art Journal stated: "The subject is sufficiently meagre - a mere sandy bank, broken and overgrown with speargrass and such weeds as find sustenance in sand: over this low crest we behold the sea, - and this is the story, but it is really made out with unimpeachable honesty" and the Saturday Review wrote: "Mr. Oakes this year has as much gentleness as Mr. Creswick, with an incomparably closer and fuller aim after truth. "The Warren" is singular as an example of a picture painted wholly in clear, pallid light. There is scarcely any body of shade in it .... The sea - one knows not whether to call it rather grey-green or blue, vanishing into the white sky at the horizon line, is beautifully expressed". Even Ruskin, notoriously critical, found it "exquisitely painted in the flowery centre". although Oakes's style changed, this work continued to represent his art at its best, and was included in the Academy Summer Exhibition following his death as a memorial tribute.

References

The Athenaeum number 1593, (May 8th 1858): 598.

Marillier, H.C. The Liverpool School of Painters. London: John Murray, 1904.

Morgan, Hilary, and Peter Nahum. Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989. Catalogue number 36.

Ruskin, John. Notes on some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy, number IV, 1858. The Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T Cook and A. Wedderburn. London: George Allen, 1904. XIV, 169.

Saturday Review (15th May 1858): 504.

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Last modified 27 December 2001