The Old Gate

The Old Gate. Frederick Walker, ARA (1840-1875). 1874-75. Oil on canvas, 134.6 x 168.3 cm. Courtesy Tate Britain N03514. Image released under the terms of the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence. Bequeathed by Amy, Lady Tate 1920. Click on image to enlarge it.

Walker painted at least three versions of this picture. He exhibited the principal oil version at the Royal Academy in 1869. The painting features the crumbling old gate of Halsway Court at Crowcombe in Somerset where Walker stayed in 1868-9. He added figures to the composition, using local people as models, in order to give the picture an ambiguous narrative content. The principal version was painted in his studio based on an initial unfinished oil study painted en plein air. The original version dating from 1868 was smaller, measuring 36 5/8 x 48 3/4 inches (93 x 123.9 cm), and the palette is much brighter because the time was set earlier in the day rather than at twilight. Walker was unhappy with the original arrangement of the figures and altered them for the later version, changing the position of the young woman at the top of the stairs, shifting the position of the figures at the base of the stairs, and as well adding additional figures here. He also added the figure of the labourer and his son at the bottom right. The early version is in the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, accession no. 1894P35. Walker also did a small watercolour replica of the principal version, which was his final exhibit at the Old Water-Colour Society in 1875. When the principal version was sent to the Royal Academy, Frederic Leighton wrote Walker to tell him that his picture was "admired extremely" by the Council (Marks, Walker, 175).

When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869 it received mixed reviews. E. W. Godwin in The Architect praised both the colour and the draughtsmanship: "I must hasten on to Mr. F. Walker's single contribution, The Old Gate (No. 485). The sentiment and the management of colour deserve great praise. The drawing, too, is good, note especially the working man in the right-hand foreground, the dogs, and the ducks. One feels that the children have been placed by Mr. Walker with a promise of "goodies" if they would only stay quiet; and although mere size has apparently been a temptation to Mr. Walker as to many others, still the winter landscape is cleverly filled in, and I never yet saw so much made of nine steps and two bad gate piers" (290).

The critic of The Art Journal recognized the similarities between the work of Walker and Mason, the two leaders in the new artistic movement which came to be known as The Idyllic School:

Here the dominant chord seems to have been struck by three commanding pictures, each holding a central position: Aurora in Romagna – peasants from the mountains on their way to Rome. by W. Linnell (461), The Old Gate (485) by F. Walker, and Girls Dancing (438) by G. Mason. These three pictures, though different, have much in common: in the first place each is a mixed composition of landscape and figures; then, again, here are manifest the idealism and the realism, the romance and the naturalism, which are so strangely blended in certain new phases of the English school; to these characteristics may be added signs of the growing sway of Continental styles, together with tendency to intensity of sentiment, and to a sustained rhapsody of colour…Mr. F. Walker is once more anomalous and defiant. The Old Gate' challenges criticism; in composition the picture falls to pieces; throughout, and especially at the centre, it lacks concentration; the painter's habit of throwing off a subject in defiance of all laws of symmetry and order, becomes fatal upon a scale this large. It may be further objected that the colour is crude, and loaded on opaquely; the prevalence of red suggest the idea that nature is made of brickdust. But on the other hand these defects are counterweighted by equally exceptional merits. The artist has a manner shared by Breton and Millet among the French, by Mason and W. Linnell, his companions in this gallery, of imparting to rustic figures nobility, of suggesting meditative meaning in heads and attitudes, of endowing the wayfarer and the peasant with the attributes of a large humanity. And though the colour may be hot, and in passages almost vulgar, by reason of unmitigated intensity, purest tones and most delicious qualities are interspersed; and so searching and sensitive is the eye of the artist, that even in remote recesses of his picture may be discovered rare truths and beauties which in nature pass, for the most part, unobserved. We would point out a study of trees and a subtle drawing of branches against the sky, as a passage surpassing for loveliness. [199]

F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum particularly admired the lighting, the chiaroscuro, and the colour of the work:

Another item of the group of remarkable pictures referred to in our last hangs close to Mr. A. Moore's Quartet (No. 483) in The Old Gate (485), by Mr. F. Walker, one of the most original of our painters. This picture has for effect that sunny and yet veiled brilliance which has been ere now happily treated by the painter, but never so admirably as here. For its subject we recognize that a lady – widow, it may be, of the lord of an old but decayed demesne - is passing through a gate, which in broken statues bears noble armorials on its piers. She is attended by the affectionate observances of the people about, – regarded not heedlessly even by a rough "navvy," who, magnificent in form as young Hercules, strides along the highway to which the gate opens; the women salute her, the rough fellow takes his pipe from his mouth. The charm of the work is in its lighting, chiaroscuro, and color, which are balanced with rare power. To a love, which we think excessive, for the second-named quality the artist appears to have sacrificed the solidity of some parts of his picture, as the figures to our right in front and the pier on our left, – both of these are needlessly flimsy in aspect. [738]

The Builder found mystery in what exactly was the meaning that Walker meant to imply by this painting:

But there is no poverty so hard to be borne as that which is of new and unexpected experience; of such, for instance, as The Old Gate suggests, which, thanks to Mr. Walker, will lead to the building of several stories (485). This is a picture that will talk for ages unless the artist tells its intention, and no longer leaves it to the canvas for canvass; the want of elucidation necessary to give it special significance rather adds to its interest than lessens it, for it invites conjecture to supply that want, taking such hold of the attention as good acting in a strange language might do. How the house was built; how its former tenants prospered and perished, and why its last should have to leave so sorrowfully attended, are some of the questions that occur. Ideas of fresh and fresh growth may crop up from the trodden foreground, and every step give a different footing in the tale that leads to the fallen old house: the old gate may typify the old gait that causes such effects, and effects such causes as ruin in its mazes of carelessness, trouble, circumstances, and sin, finds a centre in sooner gained than got out of. Does she who looks so sad in her deep mourning, that she may have lost father, mother, husband, children, at all, see in the mock structure of a paper-built house the metaphor of her own fragile, fortune; or does she envy the mother of the sunburnt, ruddy urchins who are the builders of even such weak promise; or does she behold in the labourer on his way to his work a type of what destiny will make of her in the need that will oblige her to become a labourer too? Or did Mr. Walker find "the old gate" just as he represented it, before some dilapidated old mansion that was all the more indicative as an emblem of decay when seen in the bright spring time, and introducing such figures as in his artistic instinct he would select for a novel illustration of "The Past in the Future" paint a fine picture – as he could scarcely fail to do – that preaches in the eloquence of a rare expressive power and poetic feeling a long sermon from a short text? [420]

A reviewer for The Illustrated London News surprisingly found Walker's picture disappointing at first glance:

The Old Gate (485), Mr. Walker's single contribution, is rather disappointing at first sight, though containing many passages evincing exquisite artistic feeling and rare powers of expression. The spectator at once desiderates more unity in the somewhat scattered elements. You note, seriatim, the dilapidated gate before a forlorn-looking decaying mansion; its mistress, you will take to be the worn and sad lady in black pausing at the portal to gaze wistfully at a group of children who may seem to her to be building in unconscious mockery a fragile, baby-house on the steps; the buxom wench entering will be the maid-of-all-work, to which the retinue of the great house is reduced; a handsome young labourer, from involuntary habit, shows, in passing, a mark of respect to the lady of the manor. All these elements, we say, are pictorially too isolated; yet they are so sympathetically treated, they are so pregnant with significant hints, that from them a novelist might construct a most pathetic story of the decay and extinction of a noble house. How seldom can so much be said of a picture! [526]

Tom Taylor in The Times felt the painting left an enduring impression on the viewer: "The first thing that strikes one in connection with it, is the power of arresting attention, and the art it shows, not of telling a story, which is common enough, but of setting those who study it to make a story for themselves, which is far rarer…The composition is scattered, and the figures are too few for the space they are set in; and, finally, parts of the picture, as the boy's figure behind the labourer, are manifestly unfinished. In spite of these drawbacks, the picture remains one of the few deeply impressed on the memory after leaving the Exhibition" (Marks, Walker, 176).

Details and Related Material


"Fine Arts. The Royal Academy." The Illustrated London News LIV (May 22, 1869): 526-27.

Godwin, Edward William. "The Royal Academy Exhibition." The Architect I (June 5, 1869): 289-90.

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

"The Royal Academy." The Art Journal New Series VIII (July 1, 1869): 197-204.

"Royal Academy Exhibition." The Builder XXVII (May 29, 1869): 419-420

Stephens, Frederic George" "Fine Arts. Royal Academy." The Athenaeum No. 2170 (May 29, 1869(: 738-39.

Created 6 July 2018

Last modified (with new commentary) 3 May 2023