A Boy with a Tethered Calf
Oil on canvas 12 ½ x 17 5/8 in (31.8 x 44.8 cm)
Thomas Barker, who became known as ‘Barker of Bath’, learnt to paint by copying works by Dutch and Flemish painters and landscapes by Thomas Gainsborough who had lived and worked in Bath between 1758 and 1774. Barker and his family arrived there in 1780. Like the young Thomas Lawrence, who was also in the city in the 1780s, Barker was probably given some early tuition by William Hoare, the elder statesman of the Bath art world who is known to have given practical and financial help to young artists.
Allowing the warm brown ground to make the middle tone of this picture, this fluently-painted small oil shows Barker at his best, painting a simple rustic subject with unaffected honesty. The young boy, wearing a smock that is rather too large, and has the sleeves gathered up, is perhaps learning his trade as a cowman by taking charge of a calf. One of Barker’s most successful projects was a series of lithographs, published in 1813, Impressions of Rustic Figures after Nature. This set of Salvator Rosa-inspired drawings of country figures features several young boys, one of whom might be the same model as the one used for this oil. A date of around 1812-14 may be suggested for our picture which has a good deal in common with a similarly lively canvas of Sheep Shearing dateable to c. 1812 (Holburne Museum of Art, Bath, see Christiana Payne Toil and Plenty exhibition catalogue 1993 no. 9 pp. 89-90 and colour plate 6).
Despite the apparently straightforward nature of this painting there is, as Christiana Payne pointed out, a political dimension to Barker’s portrait-like depictions of farm labourers (Toil and Plenty nos 1, 2 pp. 80-81). Painted around the time of the French Revolution, they emphasise the virtuous and hardworking nature of the British rural poor.