The Blind Basket-Maker with his First Child, 1858. Oil on canvas, 37 x 22 inches (94 x 56 cm). Collection of Lord Lloyd Webber. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

This painting shows the influence of his artistic mentor J. E. Millais. The couple standing upright and embracing each other is reminiscent of similar works by Millais such as his A Huguenot of 1852 or The Order of Release of 1852-53. Millais had also previously treated the subject of blindness in his The Blind Girl of 1856, a painting which Halliday closely watched its gestation. Halliday’s choosing to portray another blind individual is likely not coincidental either. Halliday’s subject is painted in the bright colours and with the painstaking detail characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite works by both Millais and Holman Hunt at this time period.

The painting is filled with symbolic references to sight, sound and, touch which helps to explain its meaning. As John Christian has explained: “The poignancy of Halliday’s image lies in the several reminders of the acuity of the basket maker’s remaining senses. His wife holds his hand over the child’s face so he can feel its breath, while the family cat rubs itself against his legs. Against the light streaming from the window lies a violin, while a bird kept for its song stands in its cage above them. All this he can hear and feel but not see. Too often, to twentieth century eyes, such images have appeared overly sentimental. Yet Halliday has used every means at his disposal to engage the viewer’s empathy with the basket maker’s fate. He has tried to let us imagine, at one of life’s most joyous moments, what it is to be blind” (Christie’s, The Forbes Collection, February 20, 2003, lot 115, 165). When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 the critic for The Art Journal wrote: “The basket-maker is standing up, and his wife, who holds the child in her arms, is conducting his hand to its face. The pain felt for the infirmity is not compensated by the interest with which we regard the trait of tenderness on the part of both parents” (21 [1858]: 169). The critic for The Literary Gazette was equally appreciative calling it “The most successful that this fast-rising artist has yet exhibited” ( New series, I 1858).

Left: A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day refusing to shield himself from danger by wearing a Roman Catholic badge. Middle: The Order of Release. Right: The Blind Girl. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

D. G. Rossetti admired the painting and responded to criticism of the work by his aunt Charlotte Lydia Polidori in a letter of February 1859:

You ask me about Halliday’s sketch. I think that, like all he has done, it is very satisfactory, considering that it is only a few years ago that he began painting figures, and that at a later time of life than most men begin at. The subject is a good one of its class; but I do not sufficiently recollect the head of the mother to be sure I agree with your criticism. The artist might plead, however, that grief for the father’s want of sight at that moment might predominate at least as justly as joy at the child’s birth.” (Fredeman, Letters, II, letter 59.12, 252).

Links to the Study for the Painting, and details

Last modified 20 February 2022