The Old Farm Garden

The Old Farm Garden, by Frederick Walker (1840-1875). 1871. Watercololur and gouache on paper; 117/8 x 16 inches (30.2 x 40.6 cm). Collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, accession no. D.2009.XX.10.

The beautiful and poetic Idyllist work by Walker was never exhibited during his lifetime. Joanna Selbourne has characterized it as follows: "The combination of careful observation with an element of poetic idealization is characteristic of Walker's narrative landscape scenes in which of the human figure – here a solitary woman knitting in walled garden - is the focus of the scene" (72). The model for the female figure was his sister Mary. In a letter of June 11, 1871 to Mary he writes:

I want you to help me again. I came up last night, bringing with me a water color, with a figure in it, of a woman knitting – nearly back view, black frock with white spots [or rather little circles] all over it, the frock, white plain in make – that is, plain gathers, or plaits up to the waist - and the sleeves like ordinary coat sleeves, rather full at the shoulder, with large white collar. This is my idea of the figure, which is only just put in, there being no suitable shemales down thar. Now, could you, without much inconvenience, come to-morrow morning and stand for it? I say "much inconvenience," dear, for I know it will bother you, but then I know that you have offered to help me whenever you can, and I want to get this off my hands soon as possible. This drawing isn't anything much; merely a bit of garden, belonging to a farm, with tulips and beehives. [Marks 229]

The elegant standing figure of the woman appears unaware that she has dropped her ball of worsted wool upon which a tabby cat is about to pounce. The model for the cat may be Walker's own beloved cat Eel-eye. A row of tulips and beehives border the path to the woman's right. A lilac tree in full blossom cascades over top of the wall of the garden with farm buildings in the background. A solitary slender birch tree rises in the garden to the right.

This watercolour was bought by the collector Frederick Lehmann who lent it to the memorial exhibition Works of the late Frederick Walker, A.R.A., held at Deschamps Gallery in 1876, no. 33. Here it was admired by John Ruskin who wrote: "I retreat resolutely to the side of the exemplary young girl knitting in the Old Farm Garden (33), and would instantly pick up her ball of worsted for her, but that I wouldn't for the world disappoint the cat. No drawing in the room is more delicately completed than this unpretending subject, and the flower-painting in it, for instantaneous grace of creative touch, cannot be rivalled; it is worth all the Dutch flower-pieces in the world" (344).

The watercolour was later exhibited at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition in 1891, no. 150. This exhibition consisted of watercolour drawings considered masterpieces produced during the past one hundred and twenty years. The last group on display featured fourteen watercolours by Walker who was considered the latest master of the English school of watercolour painting. The critic of The Athenaeum, likely F. G. Stephens, criticised the work for its shortcomings while praising the work in general: "The middle distance in The Old Farm Garden (150) is a little lacking in solidity, no uncommon shortcoming in a Walker. It is decidedly flat, while much of the rest of the drawing is thin, spotty in color, and deficient in force. It is easy to forgive such faults as these while we study the charming colour of the parts beyond the old garden wall and the figures of the girl who is knitting and the cat who gambols with the knitter's ball of thread. These parts are solid, vigorously touched and finally drawn, full of spirit, character, and grace" (256-57).


Marks, John George. Life and Letters of Frederick Walker A.R.A. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1896. 227-29.

Ruskin, John. Works of John Ruskin. Ed. Cook, E. T. and Alexander Wedderburn, London: George Allen, Vol. XIV, 1904: 344.

Selbourne, Joanna. "The Old Farm Garden." Life, Legend, Landscape. Victorian Drawings & Watercolours. London: The Courtauld Gallery in conjunction with Paul Holberton publishing, 2011. Cat. 13: 72-74.

Stephens, Frederick George. "Fine Arts. Royal Academy." The Athenaeum No. 3304 (21 February 1891): 255-57.

Created 3 May 2023