The Bathers

The Bathers (1866-67). Frederick Walker, ARA (1840-1875). Oil on canvas, 92.7 x 214.7 cm. Lady Lever Gallery, Liverpool Museums. Kindly released by the gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence (CC BY-NC). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

This is one of Walker's most important paintings and a work which Edward Morris has referred to as "one of the most original and searching masterpieces of British 19th century painting" (80). The first germ of the idea for The Bathers came from a drawing Walker did entitled Summer that was subsequently engraved by the Dalziel Brothers to illustrate the poem "The Seasons" by Dora Greenwell in A Round of Days published in 1866. Walker's original drawing dated to 1862 and featured two boys – one swimming in a river and the other beginning to undress to join him. By April 1865 Walker's first idea for the large picture had been established and he chose Cookham on the Thames as the location for his background. By October 1865 he had decided he wanted to work on a larger canvas and chose as his background a location on the Thames near Marlow. He then painted the backgound en plein air until November 1865.

Walker, in a letter to his sister Mary, described the tribulations of painting on a seven-foot canvas under these circumstances: "My dear, it's fetching work – such trampling over fields with the horrid great canvas – it's all warped, having been wetted through once or twice. I pull up in a boat to the scene of action, and then have to take all the things across a great meadow…You see as I have to work at the composition up, taking a bit here and a bit there, I have to drag the canvas to all manner of places, and nearly put a hole in it getting it over a hedge this evening…It is astonishing how much I have rubbed out in order to keep it simple for if I don't, I know by bitter experience how it will be when I get in the figures. The first two days' work went out at one lick" (qtd. in Black 96-97). Once Walker was back in his studio from January to March 1866 he did life drawings from models for the figures of the boys and then painted them onto the canvas. Two painters, John Phillip and J.E. Millais, gave him advice and approval during this period. Walker returned to the Thames at Hurley when the weather improved in March for a short period with his partially completed canvas and then in June and July he again returned to Cookham for more work on the background of the painting. He worked on the figures of the boys in the studio through the autumn and winter of 1866 and into the early spring of 1867. During this time the two figures to the right, in particular, underwent considerable changes in size and pose. When the painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1867 the picture was still unfinished and was hung in a poor position. Even in late 1869 Walker was still working to improve the work after the prominent collector William Graham had already purchased it from the dealer Agnew's. Walker never again attempted a work on this monumental scale.

When The Bathers was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867 it received mixed reviews. The critic of The Art Journal disliked it intensely, perhaps because of the French influences on it: "Why in the name of all the arts, it may be asked, should Mr. Frederick Walker have painted The Bathers (627)? There are some pictures it were hard for even genius to justify. That no ordinary talent presides over this repulsive production few will deny. Yet why also so opaque and muddy, why so ungainly the figures of the bathers? Walker, but scarcely Apelles, might thus conceive of the human form divine. The best passages are the limpid water, and a line of landscape almost out of sight. The picture shows French influences" (143). In answer to the question as to why Walker had painted this picture John Ruskin, in a letter to painter H. Stacy Marks in 1876, felt that Walker had been diverted from painting genre paintings by the spurious lure of High Art: "Under which sorrowful terms, being told also by your grand Academicians that he should paint the nude, and, accordingly, wasting a year or two of his life in trying to paint schoolboys' backs and legs without their shirts or breeches" (341). Esposito has pointed out that that The Bathers "attempted to fuse the 'modernity' of 19th century Britain with the classical world of ancient Greece that Walker had so admired, as a youth, from his intense study at the British Museum" (40). The Art Journal may have been correct, however, in noticing the influence of French art on this work. Walker had visited Paris in the springs of 1863, 1866, and 1867 and would have seen the annual Salon exhibitions of contemporary French paintings in these years. He also visited the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Here he would have seen versions of Puvis de Chavannes' Rest and Work, which may have inspired his own monumental conception and the rough execution seen in The Bathers. (Morris 79-80).

The Saturday Review also did not particularly like this work, especially its absence of the delineation of light and shade:

We like Mr. Walker's Bathers much less than many other works by him. A rather dull gray sky, a green field seen across the river, the river itself, and the near shore with a number of boys undressing, and undressed, other boys in the water making ripples – these are the materials, and, on the whole, little has been made of them. There is no effect whatever; no part of the water or land in going from right to left is perceptibly darker than any other part. There are one or two good attitudes; the boy in the middle kneeling and wiping himself, and the other boy who is putting on a red shirt, are both good and, we believe, original. But the picture has no visible arrangement for light and dark. Very probably there was none in old Greek art, but then the Greeks, we imagine, devoted themselves exclusively to form, and there is little form here. A picture that is painted, as this is, on modern principles, cannot afford to sacrifice modern advantages; and an effective arrangement of light and shade, or light and dark, it does not matter which, is the most conspicuous of these advantages. [148]

The critic of The Times felt it was "nothing but a study of vulgar little boys bathing on the flat bank of, say, the Lea river not far from Tottenham. With his gifts he should aim higher" (6).

F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum, however, expressed his admiration for the work:

Near the first named of Mr. Prinsep's pictures hangs a very powerful and original work by Mr. F. Walker, Bathers (627), – a large gathering of naked boys, on the banks of a pool, all in different attitudes of dressing or undressing, the brilliancy of their bare flesh in varied tints "coming" very strongly in that peculiar sunlight suffused with mist which the artist sometimes affects. Here are great richness of colour, capital design, drawing which is sometimes excellent, but oftener only "good enough," but everywhere first rate tone and force in painting. Among the good points of the picture, notice the boy who, with only a cap on, lolls on the grass and watches the water; also, the group to our right, of an elder boy who hauls an unwilling youngster to the bath. The surface here is rough, so that the picture must be seen at a distance when its power is apparent to the learned eye and fascinating to that of the general observer. [629]

Over time the painting began to be valued not only for the magnificent painting it was but for being the harbinger for the works to follow. In 1879 J. Comyns Carr wrote about the originality of the work and was also surprisingly the first to mention its debt to ancient classical sculptural reliefs:

Nothing he did is in this way more valuable than the picture of The Bathers, for although the execution will not compare with what came later, the design of this work, with its simple record of the unconscious grace of boyhood, is of most distinct originality. Here we are in the presence of a conception that has no sadness at all. There is no grave feeling to be expressed such as we find in Plowing or The Harbour of Refuge; and, so far as invention goes, the picture is no more than an attempt to see what could be done with a simple incident of boyish life. It is characteristic of Walker that he should have seized one of the few opportunities of modern life for dealing with nude design, and that this should be the only study of the nude from his hand. For it seems to have been one of the fixed principles of his art not to disturb or depart from the realities of the world about him. With his feeling for grace in form it might have been thought that he would have been led to a class of subjects where the difficulties of modern costume would not have confronted him. He seems at no time to have been tempted to create for himself an ideal world; but, on the contrary, he took special pleasure in using only such materials as lay near to his hand, fashioning them to shapes of beauty without sacrificing any of the realities of modern life. In this picture of boys bathing he was able for once, and once only, to reach the nude without departing from modern habit; and it is not surprising that he should have grasped the occasion, or that he should have turned it to good account. Some of these youthful figures prove very decisively that Walker's understanding of the sources of beauty in antique sculpture was no mere reminiscence of the masterpieces of antique art. He has found out for himself in these boy-figures a kindred grace; and here, at least, it may be said that the union of reality and refined beauty is successfully accomplished. [209-10]

Details in Walker's Painting


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

Carr, Joseph Comyns. Essays on Art. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1879.

Esposito, Donato. "George Heming Mason." Frederick Walker and the Idyllists. London: Lund Humphries, 2017, Chapter II, 40-41.

"The Exhibition of the Royal Academy." The Times (14 May 1867). 6

Marks, John George. Life and Letters of Frederick Walker A.R.A. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1896.

Morris, Edward. "Paintings and Sculpture." Lord Leverhulme. London: Royal Academy of Arts (12 April-25 May 1980): cat. 39, 79-80.

"Pictures of the Year." The Saturday Review XXIV (3 August 1867): 147-49

"The Royal Academy." The Art Journal New Series VI (1 June 1867): 137-46.

Ruskin, John. Works of John Ruskin. Ed. Cook, E. T. and Alexander Wedderburn, London: George Allen, Vol. XIV, 1904, 341.

Stephens, Frederic George. "Fine Arts. Royal Academy." The Athenaeum No. 2063 (11 May 1867): 628-29.

Created 6 August 2018; replaced with new commentary 4 May 2023