The Village Buffoon
, oil on canvas, 1816
© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Self-portrait of William Mulready RA
, chalk and white paint on paper, April 1840
© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Seated male nude
, chalks on paper, mid 1850s
© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Standing female nude
, chalks on paper, 26th June 1858
© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Standing male nude
, chalks on paper, February 1859
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Artist of the Month - May 2010
William Mulready RA (1786-1863)
William Mulready was born in Co. Clare, Ireland but spent most of his life in the Bayswater area of London. A gifted artist from an early age he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1800. Unlike his friend David Wilkie, RA, Mulready rarely looked to literary sources for subject-matter. His scenes of cottage life, youthful romance and childhood were mainly imaginative compositions drawn from observations in his (then) rural Kensington neighbourhood. Mulready was also inspired by the naturalism of 17th century Dutch artists such as Adriaen van Ostade and Pieter de Hooch.
When Mulready presented his Diploma work, The Village Buffoon  to the Royal Academy, David Wilkie (already an Academician), was called upon to explain the painting's subject. He said that it showed 'An old Man soliciting a Mother for Her Daughter who was shewn unwilling to consent to such a disproportionate match'
The scene is set outside a cottage where the 'Village Buffoon', a grotesque elderly man, attempts to woo a young girl. She shrinks from his attentions into the shadows of the cottage wall. By contrast her sister stares at this unorthodox suitor in innocent awe, while her mother sits upright as though preparing to chase him off. His silver tipped cane, spats and shiny shoes indicate that some new-found wealth has given him the vain confidence to make his approach.
In the manner of de Hooch, Mulready often set his compositions in narrow lanes which framed the main narrative. These lanes typically open up to reveal further compartments of figures and incident. 'The Village Buffoon' includes a distant figure standing before a high wall, a motif common to Mulready's work. The wall is based on one which encircled Kensington Gardens.
During his studies at the Royal Academy Schools Mulready's talent for depicting the human figure earned him a reputation as one of the best student draughtsmen of his day. Throughout his career he retained great enthusiasm for the life class, declaring that he drew every day of his life 'as if for a prize'.
This Self-portrait , dating from the 1840s was drawn at a time when Mulready was developing a new technique for figure drawing, using red and black chalks to produce subtle but highly detailed studies. The Victorian art critic F. G. Stephens described this method at length, stating that Mulready drew the outline in charcoal, then with red chalk which he also rubbed across the whole figure to produce pink flesh tones. The artist would then work in broad areas of light and shade before finally applying black Italian chalk to create greyish tints and to add emphasis to the darkest areas as can be seen in this drawing of a seated nude, .
Mulready was one of the most popular teachers of the Academy's life class. Describing his teaching practise, he wrote; 'after setting the model in a position for the students...I then sit down amongst them and draw, as they do, from the model, taking a position in which I can see what is going on... I think it is beneficial to the students for the Visitor [teacher] not only to say, 'Go in such a direction,' but to go in that direction himself.' The drawing of Standing female nude , is inscribed "Royal Academy" indicating that it was drawn on one of these occasions.
Standing male nude , is inscribed "Kensington Life Academy". This was not an art school but a drawing club for professional artists which took place at the Kensington studio of the animal painter Richard Ansdell. There, Mulready drew the figure alongside William Powell Frith, Augustus Leopold Egg, William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton and others. In a letter dated 1858 Mulready mentioned that their arrangement was to draw 'three nights a week for three successive weeks, then four nights a week for two successive weeks.'
Mulready's later life drawings were so highly regarded that they were exhibited as a group in the 1850s and 60s. The influential critic John Ruskin denounced them as 'vulgar' and Holman Hunt, complained that they showed a 'taste for Dresden China prettiness'. Queen Victoria, however, was 'delighted' by the studies and even bought one for the Royal Collection. Shortly after Mulready's death, the Royal Academy also acquired a small group of his life drawings to be displayed in the Life School 'feeling assured that they could not place before the Students...finer examples to guide them in their study'.