Frederick Walker – A brilliant Career cut short

Frederick Walker (Source: Wikipedia)

Frederick Walker was born in Marylebone, London, on the 26th May 1840. His father William Henry, a jeweller, died when Walker was still a young child. Mother Ann thus supported herself and her eight children by doing embroidery. At the age of 15, Walker was briefly apprenticed to architects Messrs Baker and Harris. When he was 17, he enrolled at Leigh’s Art School (est. 1848, it still exists under the name of Heatherley School of Fine Art) and in 1858 at the Royal Academy Schools. Both his early biographers, Sir Claude Phillips (published in 1894) and his brother-in-law John George Marks (published in 1896), claim that he was a very unreliable attendee at both establishments. He also sketched extensively from the antique sculpture at the British Museum, especially the Elgin Marbles of which he later had a plaster cast in his studio. Gleeson White, author of English Illustration ‘The Sixties’: 1855-1870 (published in 1897) even suggests that “[..] his male figures seem nearly always youth from the Parthenon in peasant costume.”

Towards the end of 1858, he became an apprentice for three days per week in the workshop of the illustrator and wood engraver Josiah Wood Whymper (1813-1903). There, he became life-long friends with fellow employees John William North (1842-1924), Charles Green (1836-1899) and George John Pinwell (1842-1875). The apprenticeship lasted two years, and during that time he became a member of ‘The Langham’, a circle of mainly young illustrators, which had its origin in the Artists’ Society and was founded in 1838; its offshoot, the London Sketch Club (est. 1898), is now based in Chelsea. Walker began working for the Dalziel brothers in 1859 as well and started designing illustrations for journals such as Good Words, Once a Week and Everybody’s Journal. Two of his earliest published works were Peasant Proprietorship in Once a Week on the 18th February 1860 and God help our Men at Sea, which accompanied the poem of the same name by Samuel Reynolds Hole (1819-1904), a week later in the same journal. Marks explains that the established wood-engraver Joseph Swain (1820-1909) gave Walker the poem to illustrate after he had seen examples of his work.

Peasant Proprietorship, Once a Week Vol.2
1860, PL4612
God help our Men at Sea, Once a Week Vol.2
1860, PL4610 

In November 1860, Walker finished his apprenticeship at Whymper and commenced working as a freelancer. Around the beginning of the following year, the artist was contacted by George Smith, the owner of The Cornhill Magazine, and asked whether he would be interested in illustrating William Makepeace Thackeray’s (1811-1863) The Adventures of Philip. When Walker went to meet the popular author, Thackeray set his nervous, young visitor the challenge to draw him while he was shaving. Having completed that task to the writer’s satisfaction, the illustrator got the commission. However, initially he was only required to copy Thackeray’s own designs from February onwards (Thackeray had illustrated the first part of the novel in the January edition himself.). Not happy with this situation, he demanded more creative freedom; this was duly granted, starting with the May 1861 issue of Cornhill Magazine. The serialisation of the novel ran until August 1862.

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Thackeray and Walker established a genial relationship, and Walker went on to illustrate some of the author’s daughter’s books, too. Lady Ritchie (née Anne Isabella Thackeray, 1837-1919) wrote, for example, The Story of Elizabeth (1863) and The Village on the Cliff (1867). Walker’s brother-in-law relates that the artist happened to stop at the author’s house on Christmas Eve 1863 only to hear that his friend had just died. Marks quotes Lady Ritchie: “When my father died, I remember being touched and affected by hearing some one say that Mr Walker had come running to the house, and that one of the household met him wandering about the stairs in tears.” Walker attended Thackeray’s funeral on the 30th December.

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Frederick Walker was not content with being an illustrator. He worked tirelessly on becoming a successful painter in oils and watercolours as well. The Lost Path (introduced further below) was the first painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. From the late 1860s onwards, he would regularly take part in their shows with pictures such as Bathers (1867), Vagrants (1868, see further below), The Old Gate (1869), The Harbour of Refuge (1872) and The Right of Way (1875). The Plough, his entry for 1871, was so well-received that he was elected associate member (A.R.A.) of the eminent institution. He also became an associate member of the Old Watercolour Society in 1864 and full member in 1866, and frequently showed his work in their summer and winter shows. A watercolour adaption of Philip at Church, an illustration originally created for Thackery’s above-mentioned novel, was the piece with which he had applied for membership. (In 1867, Philip in Church won a second-class medal at the International Exhibition in Paris.) Walker was also a member of ‘The Clique’, a group of painters around St. John’s Wood that met on a regular basis to scrutinise each other’s work and give advice. Marks remarks that his brother-in-law was close friends with most of its members but was also very sensitive when it came to criticism. 

Frederick Walker, Philip in Church, c. 1862, Tate (N03515), digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Walker specialised in scenes of the social realism genre; people going about their daily routine in bucolic or urban surroundings. He paid very close attention to details, such as dress patterns and folds and the accurate depiction of nature. In that respect, he was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites who, in turn, were admirers of his work; John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was a friend. Walker’s cat ‘Eel-eye’ was apparently the model for the black kitten in Millais’ A Flood (1870, now in the Manchester Art Gallery).

Although he was aware that fellow members of the Old Watercolour Society disapproved, Walker liked using plenty of Chinese White pigment in his paintings. One of his many caricatures he included in his letters to friends and family, shows him holding a huge tube of Chinese White; the caption reads “What would “The Society” say if it could only see me?” He also worked with palette knife and razor. He was very careful to find the right props and models for his images and would send his family out on errands to find him, for example,  a photograph of a certain statue of Charles I, because he liked the horse very much, or a place where a “white horse and his harness are to be hired – a cart horse or a brewer’s horse”, so that he could paint it. Family members like his sisters Polly and Mary were also not spared from being eternalised on canvas in the guise of young mothers or gypsies. Even a depiction of his mother appears in the background of Philip in Church. Then again, she probably did not mind as she was very supportive of her son’s artistic career.

What would “The Society” say if it could only see me?, from Life and Letters of Frederick Walker A.R.A., by John George Marks, 1896 (Source:

His circle of friends and acquaintances included fellow artists such as John Leech (1817-1864), Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), and Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914); writers Mark Lemon (1809-1870), for whom he did some drawings for Punch, and Wilkie Collins (1824-1889). Walker created the poster for Collins’s 1871 play, The Woman in White, which was based on his ‘sensation novel’ of the same name that had been published in 1860. The politician and art dealer, Sir William Angew (1825-1910) also became a patron and friend.

Frederick Walker, The Woman in White, 1871, Tate (N02080), digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Walker loved nature and went for long walks in the countryside. He often painted outdoors and would recount in his correspondence inspiration he had found on his excursions, curious encounters with locals, or any mishaps that would befall him whilst out and about. He thus explained to one of his sisters: “You see, as I have to cook 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 over a hedge this evening; my poor nails were numbed.”

The Walker family was close-knit, and the artist, who never married, lived for most of his life with his mother, his sisters Fanny and Mary (before she married Marks in January 1864) and his brother John in one household in St. Petersburgh Place, Bayswater, London, from 1863 until his death. He had an affectionate relationship with his mother and often called her ‘the Missus’ in letters to his siblings. They often stayed at a cottage in Cookham, Berkshire, which belonged to his mother and where he went on long rambles during the summer.

Our Village (Cookham), print after a watercolour by the artist (Source: Wikipedia)

The artist did not travel extensively abroad, because – so his brother-in-law writes – he often suffered from homesickness when away from his family and homeland. However, he went to Paris in 1863 and 1867, to Venice in 1868 and to Algiers in 1873. The latter voyage was conducted specifically in the hope of improving his health (Walker suffered from tuberculosis). He also enjoyed spending time in the Scottish Highlands, staying at friends’ homes and going salmon fishing. It was during a trip in the Highlands, that he finally succumbed to his illness. He died at St. Fillans, Perthshire, on the 4th June 1875 – not two weeks after his 35th birthday. His sister Fanny* had been informed about his worsening condition and had managed to travel and be at his bedside when he died. He was buried at Cookham where his mother and youngest brother had already been laid to rest. John had already died at only 22 in 1868 from the same disease, as had his mother in 1874. Fanny, who was very affected by the many deaths in her family (brother Henry, too, had died unexpectedly in 1866), died only a year later in 1876 at Marks’s house and was also buried at Cookham.

The obituaries were full of praise and sympathetic to the tragedy of a promising career that had been cut short.

The Pall Mall Gazette wrote that “[…] it may be safely said that for some years past he has stood in the very front of English artists.” Expanding on his work, they explained that “Mr Walker had a stronger hold on reality than almost any of his contemporaries could boast. All his invention, whether in colour or design, was in truth the direct result of a fresh and profound study in a field that seemed to have been already well trodden.”

The Times announced on the day of his funeral: “Today will be laid in the secluded churchyard of Cookham, by the side of his mother and one of his brothers, Frederick Walker, A.R.A., a young painter of rare genius, cut off prematurely in the springtime of his powers.”

Walker’s friends and admirers were deeply saddened by his early death. Fellow Royal Academician and sculptor Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) created a medallion portrait that was placed in Cookham church. It was, as the artist’s brother-in-law called it, “a labour of love”. A memorial exhibition was also organised in 1876 at the Deschamps Gallery in New Bond Street, London, at which almost all works he had created throughout his career were brought together, and which received very positive feedback by its audience.

*Another source says that Mary was at Walker’s bedside, but reading Marks’s account of the artist’s death, I would conclude that it was Fanny.

Love in Death

The Lost Path, 1863, oil on canvas ©The Makins Collection, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (Source:
Love in Death (The Lost Path), Good Words, 1862, PL4670

The Lost Path was a reworking of an earlier illustration he had designed for Dora Greenwell’s poem Love in Death, published in the March issue of Good Words in 1862. Although it was hung up high in the North Room of the Royal Academy in 1863 – Walker was still a young, unknown artist after all, and more established painters’ works would be placed more prominently – it received favourable reviews and was sold for £90. According to Marks, Walker forwarded the cheque, that he had received for the painting straight to his mother with the words: “[…] and the reason I send it to you, dear, is that you should break into it as soon as you like.”

The image shows a mother with her infant in a snowstorm at night. Marks explains that the stand-in for the young woman is the artist’s younger sister Mary. Apparently, salt was used as a substitute for snow as there was none to be had in March when the picture was painted. The scene is based on a true event that took place in Canada just before Christmas 1821. Lucy Goodell Blake and her husband Harrison had visited relatives and got lost in the snow in the Green Mountains, Vermont, on their way home. Harrison was discovered alive the next morning, but Lucy had not survived the freezing cold, although her husband had given her his overcoat to keep warm. She was only 28-years old. Lucy had the couple’s baby Rebecca with her; she was found a little distance from her mother’s body, wrapped-up in her father’s coat and miraculously alive.

Greenwell was not the only one who commemorated the tragic incident in words; the American writer Seba Smith (1792-1868) had already composed a ballad called The Mother perishing in a Snowstorm in 1843.

The Vagrants

Frederick Walker, The Vagrants, 1868, Tate (N01209), digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
The Vagrants, Once a Week N. S. vol. 1, 1866, PL4722

The Vagrants is another engraving that the artist reworked into an oil painting and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1868. The engraving had been published in Once a Week in January 1866. A letter to his sister Mary at the beginning of that month reveals that he was undecided whether he should call it Vagrants or Wanderers. In fact, he called it Wanderers throughout his January correspondence:

January 17 – “…I have decided upon doing, as quickly as possible, an oil picture (small) of the ‘Wanderers,’ a thing I did at the beginning of the year for Once a Week. I have forgetting how stunning a subject it is, and indeed could not lay my hand on the book containing my proofs, &c., but I found it this morning, and I find there is a little mine of wealth as far as subject is concerned […]”

His sister Polly (‘Poll’) was the model for the young standing woman, and the background is based on the area around Beddington. The painting was shown at the RA in 1868. As in Refreshment, there are variations in the painting compared to the engraving. Whereas in the oil painting a young, rather pathetic looking, boy clings to his older sister, who is staring pensively at the smouldering fire, the black and white images shows a young girl standing next to and looking at her mother and a boy busying himself at the back of the cart. 

Walker also created a smaller ink drawing of the scene for the 1870 winter exhibition of the Old Water Colour Society and a watercolour of the standing woman, which was shown in public for the first time at the memorial show in 1876.


The Summer Woods

The Summer Woods, Good Words, 1862, PL4672
Frederick Walker, Refreshment, 1864, Tate (N02687), digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

This illustration was first created for William Forsyth’s poem The Summer Woods which was published in Good Words in 1862. Walker painted a watercolour showing the same scene only a short while later. He changed a few details such as the patterns of the dresses. The fresh colours of the watercolour match the cheerful tone of the poem. However, the painter called the painting Refreshment rather than The Summer Woods, possibly to let the image speak for itself, independent of the poem. It was one of the first works he exhibited with the Old Water Colour Society. It was shown at their 1864 summer exhibition.


Karen Westendorf

(Curatorial & Technical Assistant)



For a full list of Frederick Walker’s works in the School of Art collection:

Huxtable, Sally-Anne.”Order and Disarray: Two Watercolours by Frederick Walker.” Life, Legend and Landscape – Victorian Drawings & Watercolours, edited by Joanna Selbourne, The Courtauld Gallery, 2011, pp. 32-35.

Marks, John George. Life and Letters of Frederick Walker, A.R.A.. Macmillan, 1896. (available online: 

Phillips, Claude. Frederick Walker and his Works. Seeley, 1894. (available online:;view=1up;seq=206…-a0366459565

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