Fred Walker "The New Men of the Sixties," in contrast to the leading illustrators of the previous generation such as George Cruikshank, Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") and John Leech, were formally trained rather than self-taught. Like John Everett Millais and Luke Fildes, Frederick Walker was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Art. However, Walker's academic preparation was rudimentary at best, and his surviving letters reveal little reading in the classics and no knowledge of a foreign language, although a fragmentary poem of his survives in the Witt Archive. Even if he did not attend the ateliers of the Continent as his great admirer George Du Maurier did, Walker is still a possible model for Du Maurier's "Little Billee" in Trilby (1894) because, through his association with him while an illustrator for Once a Week, Du Maurier would have experienced first-hand Walker's complex and often contradictory character: on the one hand, Walker was shy, reticent, and sensitive with strangers; on the other, high spirited and fun-loving with friends.

Frederick Walker, the son Marylebone jeweller William Walker, was born in London, on 26 May 1840, and died in St. Fillans, Perthshire, on 4 June 1875. After just a few years at the North London Collegiate School, Walker became for a short time an architect's apprentice. Pursuing his childhood interest in drawing, at seventeen he became a student at the Royal Academy school in London. Walker acquired most of his training in drawing and painting through studying in the British Museum, where he copied extensively from antique sculpture, especially the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. In the evenings he attended life classes at Leigh's Art School. At the end of 1858, he began a two-year apprenticeship with Josiah Wood Whymper (1813­1903), in whose workshop he met his life-long friends the painter J. W. North, A. R. A., and the noted illustrator George Pinwell, A. R. W. S.

During his time at Whymper's studio Walker became associated with "The Langham," a group of artists and amateurs. This group met regularly in the evening to complete artistic "challenges" — a subject being chosen and sketches completed within two hours. Many of the sketches made by Walker at the "Langham" survived to be reproduced in J. G. Mark's Life and Letters of Frederick Walker. [Milton]

It was through Whymper, too, that Walker began to illustrate for the Dalziel brothers. In 1859, Walker's engravings began appearing in the new London illustrated magazines such as Good Words, Everybody's Journal, and Once a Week; in 1860 William Makepeace Thackeray accepted some of Walker's illustrations for his new journal, the Cornhill Magazine. Although Walker's biographer, John George Marks, does not mention the artist's having known Dickens, Walker is associated with some of Dickens's friends, including the writers Mark Lemon and Wilkie Collins, and the artists John Leech (with whom Walker used to go horseback riding), Sir Edwin Landseer, John Everett Millais, Daniel Maclise, Sir John Tenniel, and Sir John Gilbert, who was commissioned by James T. Fields to illustrate Dickens's A Holiday Romancein 1868.

From 1860 his illustrations appeared frequently in the pages of Once a Week, Good Words and in The Cornhill Magazine. He never found it easy, drawing to order and often struggled with his commissions. In his finest black and white work, Walker is among the very best of the brilliant illustrators of the 1860s. He was, in the words of the Pall Mall Gazette Art Critic, J. Comyns Carr, able to "reveal some secret beauty that escapes ordinary observation." On the other hand, on occasion some of his black and white work can be rather mechanical and dull. At the end of 1860, Walker was approached, through the publisher George Smith, to redraw illustrations from Thackeray's own sketches for The Adventures of Philip which was about to be serialised in The Cornhill Magazine [1861-62]. Walker met Thackeray and won the commission by executing a neat sketch of the Author shaving. Philip began to appear in January 1861 but Walker could not bear to merely copy Thackeray's sketches and bravely refused to go on unless he was given freedom to interpret the subjects in his own way. Thackeray accepted Walker's demands and the two were soon on friendly terms — the young man becoming a frequent visitor to Thackeray's home. The commission was a great success for Walker and in the same year, he completed 49 drawings for Once a Week as well as others for the Dalziel Brothers. [Milton]

In early September 1871, Walker undertook the design of a poster (as he said, "a dashing attempt in black and white") to advertise Wilkie Collins's own dramatic adaptation of The Woman in White, scheduled to run at the Olympic Theatre that fall. On a huge sheet of paper (which in a letter of September 6 to Hooper Walker describes as "the size of a door"), it represents a life-size woman with a huge shawl partly over her head and draped down her back, her face seen in profile as she apprehensively turns back to regard for a second the room she is exiting as she passes out into the starry night. Walker first sketched the outline in charcoal and chalk, then pricked the paper to transfer the outline to wood, upon which Walker himself then drew the complete picture. The original was exhibited in 1872 at the Dudley Gallery, and again in 1876, after Walker's death, the transfer holes made by Walker still distinctly visible.

September 14, [Walker] to Hooper:— "Wilkie Collins has just been, and expresses himself delighted with what I've done. I have got it on to the big paper, but not on to the blocks. These I have fastened together by a carpenter, and I don't quite know whether you'd say they fit close enough. I don't like to ask you to come round again, but you could tell in an instant whether they'll do to proceed upon . . . I have got more 'go' and purpose in the figure, and it strikes me we shall make a good thing of it." [cited in Marks, 233]

Walker's first serious effort in oil — The Lost Path — had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. The subject — a woman carrying a baby in a snowstorm — may be viewed today in the social realism genre to be followed by Herkomer and others in later years. There followed in 1866 The Wayfarers with its exquisite landscape background. The Wayfarers was not well received when it first appeared, but this [response] was nothing compared to the critical furore that surrounded The Bathers which appeared at the Academy the following year. [Milton]

Walker's illustrations reveal careful detailism and a sense of modeling, proportion, and beauty derived from his copying classical models in the British Museum. Among his most important commissions was the illustration of Dickens's Hard Times for These Times. Originally published between 1 April and 12 August 1854, in Dickens's weekly magazine Household Words, the story had never appeared with illustrations, although the first cheap edition (1865) had a frontispiece by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Although by 1864 Walker, feeling constrained by book illustration, had expressed the determination to devote himself to painting exclusively, he continued to illustrate the work of Thackeray's daughter until 1870. For the 1868 Library Edition of Dickens's works, in collaboration with engraver Maurice Greiffenhagen Walker contributed four drawings to accompany Reprinted Piecesand a further four to accompany Hard Times (165 pages, single-columned).

For his first significant watercolour, Strange Faces (1862), Walker had used as his model for the central female figure his sister Fanny. For his first celebrated oil, Philip at Church, which he painted the following year, Walker placed his mother and brother in the background. Despite its drawing considerable criticism from John Ruskin, the painting won both a medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1863 and the admiration of William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Submitted to the Old Watercolour Society in January 1864 along with two earlier works, this painting won Walker unanimous election to the Royal Watercolour Society. For most of the oil paintings that Walker displayed in his 1863 exhibit at the Royal Academy her had, in fact, re-workinged some of his best magazine engravings. He demonstrates his considerable skill as a painter in his most notable such re-working, The Vagrants, which had first appeared as an "extra" full-page composite woodblock engraving in Once a Week in 1866. Although when he exhibited the naturalistic canvas at the Royal Academy he failed initially to find a buyer for it, The Bathers (1865) and The Harbour of Refuge​​ (both of which, though examples of Social Realism, reveal Pre-Raphaelite tendencies) exerted a powerful influence on such young artists as Luke Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer. "There followed in 1866 The Wayfarers​ with its exquisite landscape background" (Milton). The Wayfarers​ had but a poor reception when it first appeared, but this lukewarm response "was nothing compared to the critical furore that surrounded The Bathers,​which appeared at the Academy the following year" ​(Milton). As a result of a tour of Somerset in 1868 and to Torquay, Salisbury, Cookham and in Scotland in the four years following with his friend and fellow painter North, Walker produced such stunning nature paintings as The Plough, The Old Gate, The Mushroom Gatherers, At the Bar, The Well-Sinkers, The Right of Way, The Village, A Fishmonger's Shop, and The Street, Cookham, in a new style dubbed "Idyllist" for its fusion of idealism and social realism. Walker's leadership of a burgeoning school of Social Realism in England was cut short by his untimely death at St. Fillans, Perthshire, on 4 June 1875 "on the ninth day after the completion of his thirty-fifth year" (Marks, 312) as the result of phthisis (a hemorrhage in the lungs), which carried him off when he was touring the Highlands for his health. The promising careers of the remaining Idyllists were cut short by the ultimately deaths of George Heming Mason in 1872, Pinwell in 1875, and Cecil Gordon Lawson in 1882.

The Times said:— "Today will be laid in the secluded churchyard of Cookham, by the side of his mother and one of his brothers, Frederick Walker, A. R. A., a young painter of rare genius, cut off prematurely in the springtide of his powers. At little more than thirty Walker had already made his power felt in three fields of art— as a designer on wood and as a painter in water-colours and in oil— in a way possible only to genius. His later achievements as a painter have gone far to override the recollection of his earlier work as a designer on wood; but in this character he had the same wide and well-marked influence on his contemporaries and successors as he had already had on the younger generation of our water-colour painters, and as he promised, and had indeed already begun to exert upon the oil painters of his time." [cited by Marks, 314]

Books Illustrated in whole or part by Walker

Walker's Exhibitions, 1863-75

Reference List

Armstrong, Walter. "Walker, Frederick."​ Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 20. 1909. Pp. 508-510.

Black, Clementina. Frederick Walker. New York: Dutton; London: Duckworth, 1902.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by Fred Walker. The Illustrated Library Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1868.

"Frederick Walker."

"Frederick Walker."

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book [1910].

Marks, John George. Life and Letters of Frederick Walker, A. R. A. London and New York: Macmillan, 1896.

Milton, Steve. ""Fred Walker, ARA." Online version available from Web. 5 May 2001.

Phillips, Claude. Denis Duval's Valet by Walker. Frederick Walker and His Works. London: Seeley & Co., 1905 [re-issue of the 1894 edition].

Last modified 23 July 2018