Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walker, Frederick
WALKER, FREDERICK (1840–1875), painter, was born in London at 90 Great Titchfield Street on 26 May 1840. He was the fifth son and seventh child of William Henry Walker, and Ann (née Powell) his wife. He was the elder of twins. His father was a working jeweller with a small business. Frederick Walker's grandfather, William Walker, was an artist of some merit, and between 1782 and 1808 exhibited regularly with the Royal Academy and the British Institution. Two excellent portraits of himself and his wife are still extant. Frederick Walker is also believed to have inherited artistic ability from his mother, who was a woman of fine sensibilities, and at one time supplemented the family income by her skill in embroidery. William Henry Walker died about 1847, leaving eight surviving children. Frederick was for a time at a school in Cleveland Street, but such education as he had was chiefly received at the North London collegiate school in Camden Town. Relics from his schooldays show that the passion for drawing sprang up in him very early. His earliest endeavours to train himself in any systematic fashion seem to have consisted in copying prints in pen and ink.
In 1855 Walker was placed in an architect's office in Gower Street, where he remained until early in 1857. He then gave up architecture, became a student at the British Museum, and at James Mathews Leigh's academy in Newman Street. A few months later he began to think of the Royal Academy, to which he was admitted as a student in March 1858. In none of these schools, however, was he a very constant attendant. Late in 1858 he took a step which had a decisive influence on his career. He apprenticed himself to Josiah Wood Whymper, the wood engraver, whose atelier was at 20 Canterbury Place, Lambeth. There he worked steadily for two years, acquiring that knowledge of the wood-cutter's technique which afterwards enabled him profoundly to affect the progress of the art. He never confined himself to a single groove, however. During his apprenticeship to Whymper he devoted his spare time to painting, both in watercolour and oil, but entirely as a student. He trained himself in a way which seemed desultory to his friends, but it probably suited his idiosyncrasy.
In 1859 Walker joined the Artists' Society in Langham Chambers. From this time date the earliest attempts at original creation to which we can now point. His Langham sketches are numerous; they show a facility in composition and a felicity of accent not always to be discovered in his later work. By this time, too, he had become well known in professional circles as an illustrator and draughtsman for the wood engraver. Between the end of 1859 and the beginning of 1865 he did a mass of work of this kind, most of his drawings being ‘cut’ by Joseph Swain. These illustrations appeared in ‘Good Words,’ ‘Once a Week,’ ‘Everybody's Journal,’ the ‘Leisure Hour,’ and the ‘Cornhill Magazine,’ and show a constantly increasing sense of what this method of illustration requires. Walker's connection with the ‘Cornhill’ led to the most important friendship of his early years—that with Thackeray. He was employed by Swain to improve and adapt the novelist's own illustrations to his ‘Adventures of Philip,’ but, after a very few attempts in that direction, was asked by Thackeray to design the drawings ab initio, with nothing but the roughest of sketches to guide him. The result was excellent. The ‘Philip’ series ended in August 1862. During its progress Walker also produced a certain number of independent drawings mostly done on commission from the brothers Dalziel, which appeared in ‘Wayside Posies’ and ‘A Round of Days,’ published by Routledge. The most important of these drawings were ‘Charity,’ ‘The Shower,’ ‘The Mystery of the Bellows,’ ‘Winter,’ ‘Spring,’ ‘The Fishmonger,’ ‘Summer,’ ‘The Village School,’ ‘Autumn,’ and ‘The Bouquet.’ Six of them were afterwards repeated in colour. From the brothers Dalziel he also received his first commission of any importance, for a watercolour drawing—‘Strange Faces’—which dates from the end of 1862. After the conclusion of ‘Philip,’ Walker illustrated Miss Thackeray's ‘Story of Elizabeth’ in the ‘Cornhill,’ and made drawings, continually decreasing in number, for other periodicals. Thackeray's unfinished ‘Denis Duval’ was illustrated by him, but about 1865–6 he practically gave up illustration.
In 1863 he exhibited his first oil picture, ‘The Lost Path,’ at the Royal Academy. The same year he moved from Charles Street, Manchester Square, to No. 3 St. Petersburgh Place, Bayswater, which he occupied for the rest of his life. In 1863 he painted one of his most famous watercolours, ‘Philip in Church;’ and among smaller things, the ‘Young Patient,’ ‘The Shower,’ and ‘The Village School.’ He was greatly affected by Thackeray's death, which took place at Christmas. Six weeks later, on 8 Feb. 1864, he was unanimously elected an associate of the ‘Old Watercolour’ Society, his trial pieces being ‘Philip in Church,’ ‘Jane Eyre,’ and ‘Refreshment.’ At the ensuing exhibition he was represented by these three drawings and by ‘Spring.’ In 1864 he exhibited ‘Denis's Valet’ and ‘My Front Garden’ (called ‘Sketch’ in the Catalogue); in 1865 ‘Autumn,’ and in 1866 ‘The Bouquet,’ sending also various less important things—‘The Introduction,’ ‘The Sempstress,’ ‘The Spring of Life’—to the winter exhibitions. During these years he was unrepresented at the Royal Academy, but in 1866 his ‘Wayfarers’—on the whole perhaps the most successful of his oil pictures—was exhibited at Mr. Gambart's gallery. In 1867 he made his reappearance at the Royal Academy with the large oil picture of ‘Bathers,’ formerly owned by Sir Cuthbert Quilter, bart., which was followed in 1868 by ‘Vagrants,’ now in the National Gallery; in 1869 by ‘The Old Gate,’ which belonged to Mr. A. E. Street; and in 1870 by ‘The Plough,’ which was owned by the Marquis de Misa. In 1871—the year of his election as an A.R.A. and as an honorary member of the Belgian Watercolour Society—he sent ‘At the Bar’ to Burlington House; in 1872 ‘The Harbour of Refuge,’ and in 1875, the year of his death, ‘The Right of Way.’ His contributions to the Royal Academy were only seven in number. Between 1868 and his death he was represented by some twenty-two drawings at the ‘Old Watercolour’ Society's, including ‘Lilies,’ ‘The Gondola,’ ‘The First Swallow,’ ‘In a Perthshire Garden,’ ‘The Ferry,’ ‘Girl at the Stile,’ ‘The Housewife,’ ‘The Rainbow;’ watercolour versions of ‘Wayfarers,’ ‘The Harbour of Refuge,’ and ‘The Old Gate,’ and by the famous ‘Fishmonger's Shop.’ To the Dudley Gallery he sent a small sketch or replica, in oil, of ‘At the Bar,’ and the cartoon for a poster, ‘The Woman in White,’ which may be said to have started the fashion of artistic advertising in this country. Some of his better drawings—‘The Wet Day,’ for instance—were never exhibited during his life.
Apart from his art, Walker's life was uneventful. He was never married, and lived with his brother John—who died, however, in 1868—his sister Fanny, and his mother. He twice visited Paris—in 1863, with Philip Henry Calderon; and in 1867, the exhibition year, with W. C. Phillips. In 1868 he travelled to Venice by sea, seeing Genoa by the way; two years later he paid a second visit, and spent a fortnight among the canals with his friend William Quiller Orchardson. On this occasion he reached Venice by way of Munich, Innsbruck, and Verona. But his imperfect education had left him unprepared to enjoy or appreciate foreign places, and his letters are strangely deficient in allusions to anything connected with art. In December 1873 he visited Algiers to recruit his health. After his return his condition improved, and during the autumn and winter of 1874 and spring of 1875 he finished the drawing known as ‘The Rainbow,’ worked on a picture of ‘Mushroom Gatherers,’ which was never finished, and completed his last oil picture, ‘The Right of Way,’ now in the gallery at Melbourne. He died at St. Fillans, Perthshire, at the house of Mr. H. E. Watts, on 4 June 1875. His mother had died in the previous November, and his sister Fanny followed him in September 1876. All three were buried at Cookham, where a medallion by H. H. Armstead has been put up in the church to the painter's memory.
No record of Walker's life would be complete without a note on his friendships and on his curious love of certain sports. He was an enthusiastic fisherman, and at one time a bold rider to hounds. Among his close friends were Thackeray, Mrs. Richmond Ritchie, the Birket-Fosters, G. D. Leslie, Orchardson, Sir John Millais, Arthur Lewis, Sir W. Agnew, and especially J. W. North.
As to his art, few painters have been so sincere and personal as Walker. From first to last his one aim was to realise his own ideas and express his own emotions. Here and there an outside influence can be traced in his work, but the modifications it causes are accidental rather than essential. Echoes of the Elgin marbles can be recognised in a few over-graceful rustics; both Millais and Millet had an effect upon his manner; but the passion which informs his work is entirely his own. His sympathies were rather deep than wide, so that he succeeded better when he had but one thing to say than when he had two or three. His earlier designs, when both data and method were simple, have a unity, balance, and coherence scarcely to be found in his later and more ambitious conceptions. Less perhaps than the works of any other artist of equal importance do his pictures suggest theories and reasoned-out æsthetic preferences on the part of their creator. As a leader, his value lies in the emphasis with which he reasserts that sincerity is the antecedent condition for great art. He affords perhaps the most conspicuous modern instance of an artist reaching beauty and unity through an almost blind obedience to his own instincts and emotions. His art was so new and attractive that it was sure to attract a following; but its value was so personal that the school he founded could scarcely be more than a weakened reflection of the master.
Two of Walker's pictures are in the National Gallery, ‘Vagrants’ and the ‘Harbour of Refuge.’ The best portraits of him are a watercolour drawing, done by himself at the age of twenty-five, which belonged to Mr. J. G. Marks, Walker's biographer, and Armstead's medallion in Cookham church.
[Life and Letters of Frederick Walker, by J. G. Marks; Frederick Walker and his Works (Portfolio for June 1894), by Claude Phillips; An Artist's Holidays (Mag. of Art for September 1889), by J. C. Hodgson, R.A.; Essays on Art, by J. Comyns-Carr; Hist. of the Old Watercolour Soc. vol. ii., by J. L. Roget; Cat. of the exhibition of works of the late F. Walker, A.R.A. (preface by Tom Taylor); Catalogues of Royal Academy; private information.]