Admired and collected by Van Gogh and described by Millais as “the greatest artist of the century”, Frederick Walker is today a largely forgotten figure, his career being cut short by his early death in 1875 at the age of 35.
Glancing at the works illustrated reveals what appear to be standard Victorian paintings. Some are narrative, but all are, as the title suggests, idealised. Bucolic charm pervades every page.
There were six artists in Walker’s group: himself, George John Pinwell, John William North, Cecil Gordon Lawson, Robert Walker Macbeth and George Hemming Mason. All except Mason were coeval and most died young. The book is a series of studies that major on each in turn, but which relate them at the same time to the group as a whole. They were a group of friends with a common aim rather than a specific movement and there are certainly no major technical or artistic innovations. They were no iconoclasts or mould-breakers.
That said, there are stylistic links and it is clear that ideas were exchanged. The use of figures is consistent and there is a luminosity to the works that, while common in other Victorian painting, becomes particularly noticeable here.
The Idyllists didn’t change the world, nor did they want to. A monograph on them is more of a footnote rather than a major contribution to art history. Nevertheless, this first study of the group is worthwhile and gives them attention they otherwise would not get. It’s a service to them and, I would argue, to art history as well.
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