The Vagrants

The Vagrants. Frederick Walker, ARA (1840-1875). Oil on canvas, 832 x 1264 mm. Courtesy Tate Britain N01209. Purchased 1886. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND. Click on image to enlarge it.


A family of gypsies encamped on Clapham Common, south London, fascinated Walker, who produced both an engraving and an oil-painting from his sketches of the five figures. According to the Tate Gallery label for the painting, Walker "tried to use the gypsies as models but found that they had moved on. Instead his sister Polly posed for the standing woman. The background landscape was painted in the open air at Beddington, near Croydon." The usual procedure for creating the woodblock engraving, reversed the original drawings, and therefore the painting mirrors the illustration publshed in Once a Week (1866, facing p. 112). Although Walker initially failed to find a buyer for the canvas after he had exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1868, it had an enormous influence on younger artists, including Vincent Van Gogh. Critics ranging from Gilbert Chesterton, writing in 1912, to modern bloggers disagree about whether Walker skillfully avoided Victorian sentamentalism or bathetically plunged into it.

Chesterton, who praises the painter for being “original in everything that he undertook” credits him with both creating a “school of illustrating” and influencing later painters. According to him, The Vagrants (1868)

was one of his favourite pictures, and may therefore be taken as representative of him. It shows his power of interpreting the beauty, as well as the realism, of rustic life, and also bears the mark of the influence of the British Museum in the classical grace of the gipsy girl. The scene of the picture is laid at Beddington, near Croydon, and the autumnal loveliness of the landscape, with its harmonies of warm colour, throws into bold relief the figures of the gipsies, grouped with an air of destitution around the fire.

The oil painting created two years after the wood-engraving chiefly differs in three ways, the first of which is that the artist moved the people farther away, thus emphasizing landscape and mood slightly more than in the book illustration. Secondly, he removed the man whose back is turned to the spectator. Thirdly, he added two children huddled together for warmth. Claude Phillips’s Frederick Walker and His Works (1905) claims that these added figures destroy the effective composition of the earlier work while also adding a touch of sentimentality. Philips, however, does praise the “erect figure of the moody, handsome gipsy, lost in her musings, but evidently dreaming no happy daydream, [who] is a noble conception nobly realised; there is a not inappropriate grandeur, too, in the figure of the mother bending over her child as she sits in front of the newly lighted fire of twigs.” (48).

The styllized smoke and mask-like faces of the two boys and the woman (detail) holding the infant detract from the social realism of the original composition, just as the two children huddled together for warm (left of centre) perhaps strike a note of sentimentality in the 1868 canvas. Walker more sharply defines the figure of the young woman with her arms folded, who is nonetheless the point of commonality between the small-scale engraving and the large-scale canvas. Perhaps the greatest change that Walker has effected is changing a lowering sky for a golden, sunlit sky that occupies more of the 1868 composition, relieving the fatalistic mood which the dark vegetation reinforces. Both compositions tell a story, but the presence or absence of the man in the centre, the younger children huddled together, and the flames struggling to break free of the smoke in the painting condition how the viewer constructs that narrative.

The engraved version of the painting, commissioned for the 1894 retrospective of Walker's works, throws the figures into sharper relief against the natural backdrop of the wild common, so that one can identify the central woman's burden as an infant and see more clearly the melancholy boy and girl just left of centre, behind their older brother, who is throwing twigs on the fire. In particular, the wagon and its contents stand out — a jug in a basket, ropes, and a tarpaulin​thrown back.

Illustration that appeared in Good Words (1863)

Engraved Version of the Oil-Painting (1894)

Above: Walker's black-and-white version of the painting Vagrants, "Engraved by permission of Messrs. Thomas. Agnew & Sons." 12.7 cm high by 19.8 cm wide (from Phillips, facing p. 48).

Related Material​on Poverty and Homelessness


Chesterton, Gilbert. Famous Paintings. London, New York, and Toronto: Cassell, 1912.

"Frederick Walker." Online version available from Spartacus Educational at Web. 10​July 2018.

Phillips, Claude. Frederick Walker and His Works. London: Seeley & Co., 1905. Facing p. 48.

Walker, Fred. "The Vagrants" by Fred Walker from the Tate Britain Collection. Google Arts and Culture, 1866.​Online version available from The Tate Britain. Web. 10​July 2018.

Walker, Fred. The Vagrants. Once a Week. 27 January 1866. Extra illustration facing p. 112.

Created 28 July 2018