The Wayfarer

The Wayfarers. Frederick Walker, ARA (1840-1875). c.1868. Oil on canvas, 91 by 130 cm., 36 by 51 inches. Signed and dated l.r.: “F.W./ 186.” Courtesy Sotheby’s. Exhibited: Ernest Gambart, St. James's, London, 1866; Manchester, Royal Jubilee Exhibition, 1887, no.681; Royal Academy, 1894, no.44; New Gallery , 1898, no.183; Royal Academy, 1901, no.65. Click on image to enlarge it.

The painting differs from the earlier etching entitled The Wayfarers (see below) in interesting ways that reveal how differently the artist approached painting and etching. When Walker returned to the subject in this oil painting he transformed the ragged old blind man into a veteran and made the composition more dynamic by having the old man’s cane extend to the side and making the body of the boy, his guide, create a curving space between the two figures. Walker also replaced the single tree, open sky, and furrowed fields with a bush in the right foreground and multiple trees at different distances from the wayfarers. Equally important, he exchanged the dry roadway with a wet reflective surface, and the clear, bright lighting and mood of the etching with an autumnal one appropriate to the age of the veteran. — George P. Landow

Sotheby’s Catalogue Note

The day and the year are drawing to a close and a blind veteran is being led along a muddy country path by a young boy. Fred Walker’s The Wayfarers is one of the most famous and celebrated works of The Idyllists, the group of remarkable and original painters of the mid-nineteenth century who painted real life subjects in a sincere and heartfelt way. However, for the last century and a half the painting has been judged from an engraving and a watercolour version (sold in these rooms, 26-28 June 2001, lot 399) exhibited at the Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1870. The oil painting was bought from Walker by one of the greatest of all art dealers Sir George Agnew and has remained in the family collection until now. Scholars believed that the picture had been destroyed during WWII when Agnew’s country home, Rougham Hall in Suffolk, took a direct hit from a German bomb. We are delighted to dismiss this rumour and announce the survival of this exceptional painting in unscathed condition.

The painting was apparently begun in 1863 when Walker went to Haslemere in Surrey and to the area around Addington Hills near Croydon to make studies for the background. He spent almost a month making preliminary sketches for the painting. Eventually he found the ideal location in the fields close to Beddington Cottage and painted much of the background en plein air, described in a letter to his mother dated 9 February 1863:

‘I am happy to tell you I have got regularly into the bowels of my picture. Yesterday was a capital day. I worked with a will, after great trouble in getting the canvas (no trifle), easel and things to the spot, which is on the swell of a hill beyond the copse where I did ‘Spring,’ and looking over some ploughed land towards old Croydon, and indeed I shall just indicate the church; so instead of having the stupendous ridge I originally intended for the background, there will be the modest line of hills and feathery trees I have got to appreciate from seeing so often; and in front, quite to the right, I have slapped in an old pollard willow stump, of which there is a fine ivy-grown specimen in John’s own place. I thought I should never have got the things up to the place, for the wind was high, and I had to cross a lot of heavy land, and a ploughed field where I nearly stuck fast, but I did not mind, I had snowboots over my own, and I preferred going that way to crossing Steadman’s violet field, and suffering the grins and probably the company of ‘hands’. I sincerely hope it may go well, for I give myself credit for having begun it in the right spirit.’ [John George Marks, Life and Letters of Frederick Walker, A.R.A., 1896, pp.56-57].

Back in his London studio Walker worked industriously upon the figures, which he painted into the landscape but Walker was frustrated by the gloomy light of London in the winter and the picture was put aside for a while and taken up at various times over the next few years. The model for the old soldier was a street hawker who worked on Oxford Street selling pocket books and he was probably the model that Walker referred to in a letter dated 25 January 1865 ‘I have begun a sketch for the blind man’ (Marks, p.55)

Walker had intended to exhibit the picture at the Royal Academy but in January 1865 he met the picture dealer Ernest Gambart at the home of Arthur Lewis at Campden Hill, at a meeting of the Moray Minstrels (a musical soirée). Gambart persuaded Walker to exhibit the picture at his gallery off Pall Mall. The Wayfarers took Walker three years to complete and although on 15 June 1866 Walker was making the final touches to the picture, on the 18th of that month he had repainted the boy’s head; ‘far better I think – of a higher kind’ (Marks, p.81). Satisfied that the picture was finally complete it was delivered to Gambart and in November 1866 it was put on public show. Walker wrote to his brother on 4 November after the opening of the exhibition: ‘I cannot tell what the verdict is on my picture ‘Wayfarers’ at Gambart’s, for the crush was so hateful, and everything so distasteful to me, that I merely nodded to people, and got out as quickly as possible.’ (Marks, p.92)

The critical response to the painting was mixed with some commentators being shocked by the new approach to painting, but the painter John William North wrote that ‘for mere painting, Walker never did anything finer than the landscape in this picture. His impression is that from the painting being less “tight” in execution than the majority of the pictures by eminent men of that day, such as Gerome, Meissonier, Holman Hunt, or even the earlier works of Millias, the critics did not understand it’ (Marks, 92). Another writer congratulated Walker’s depiction of the figures: ‘The poetic charm of the boy’s pale face is precisely the fleeting charm imparted by the melancholy of twilight. In another light, in other surroundings, we should see another boy. But on this road, at just this moment of the declining day, this was he, large-eyed, pale and pensive. As we look at the picture we feel that sense of looking into reality which is exactly what we fail to feel in looking at the reproductions.’ (Clementina Black,Frederick Walker, 1902, 93-94)

Vincent van Gogh mentioned this picture in a letter to a friend after seeing the engraving in 1882;

Do you know “The Wayfarers” by Fred Walker? It is a large etching of an old blind man led by a boy along a frozen gravel road, with a ditch along which there is a copse-wood covered with glazed frost, on a winter evening. It certainly is one of the most sublime creations in this style, with a very peculiarly modern sentiment, perhaps less powerful than Durer in his “Knight, Death and the Devil”, but perhaps even more intimate, and certainly as original and sincere.’ (English Influences on Vincent Van Gogh, exhibition catalogue for the Arts Council, 1974-75, p.20)

The Earlier Etching

The Wayfarers [otherwise called The Blind Man]. by Fred Walker. Etching, thought to have been composed in 1863. Framed: ​14.4 cm high by 14.9 cm wide. Courtesy of Dundee Art Galleries & Museum: 272-1987-310. The British Museum has a version “printed by John Postle Heseltine (his assistant). It was published by Noseda. Click on image to enlarge it.


Frederick Walker, The Wayfarers. Sotheby’s. Sale of 13 November 2012. Web. 30 July 2018.

Black, Clementina. Frederick Walker. London: Duckworth, 1902.

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

Phillips, Claude. Frederick Walker and His Works. London: Seeley & Co., 1905. P. 22.

Created 30 July 2018