Gypsies on the Heath

Thomas Barker (also called Thomas Barker of Bath), English, 1769 - 1847

Made in England, Europe

c. 1810-1815

Oil on canvas

30 x 41 3/8 inches (76.2 x 105.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of John G. Johnson for the W. P. Wilstach Collection, 1903

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  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Thomas Barker is perhaps best known for his scenes of gypsy life. The inventory of Sir Robert Cockburn's collection (1931) records a drawing of gypsies dated as early as 1786, with at least three other gypsy subjects. 1 In 1793, Harington singled out Gypsies Traveling (49 1/4 x 40 1/4'', Bath, Holburne of Menstrie Museum) for special praise,2and in the 1799 exhibition of Barker's work four pictures had gypsy themes. He also exhibited gypsy subjects at the British Institution in 1815, 1821, 1829, and 1830.

    The catalogue of the John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia (1892), dates Gypsies on the Heath to 1815, presumably because at the exhibition in 1815 at the British Institution, number 55 was entitled Traveling Gypsies. But that canvas measured forty-five by fifty-seven inches, and so cannot be identical with Gypsies on the Heath. Nevertheless, a date of c. 1810-15 would be acceptable for Gypsies on the Heath; it might be compared stylistically to Barker's Lansdown Fair near Bath of 1812 (1812, oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 40 3/4" {75.6 x 103.5 cm}, London, Victoria and Albert Museum) in which the same coarse and broad painting, the creamy pigment, and rather murky colors occur. But so little is known about the chronology of Barker's work that any date assigned to this painting must be treated with caution. A picture entitled A Sunday Morning, with Gypsies Traveling was exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1827 (no. 15) and then again in 1832 (no. 183), from the collection of Patrick T. Jackson, who owned at least four other works by Barker of Bath.3 Patrick Jackson's pictures descended to his wife and son, Edward, each of whom lent pictures by Barker with gypsy themes to the Boston Athenaeum in 1850, 1852, and finally in 1869. It may be that Gypsies on the Heath was originally Jackson's picture, but since the printed catalogues of the Athenaeum give no dimensions, this is guesswork. In Philadelphia the dealers Shaw and Scarlett specialized in paintings by Barker of Bath, exhibiting his work sixteen times between 1822 and 1850. Thus it is possible that this picture came to Johnson from Jackson by way of Shaw and Scarlett, but no proof in the form of exhibition labels or inscriptions on the painting exists.

    The picture itself is not typical of the picturesque gypsy scenes popularized by Morland (1763-1804) or Shayer (1781-1879); here the landscape is barren, the weather harsh. The homeless, barefoot gypsies walk away from a collapsed hovel or debris left by their camp on the right toward the desolation on the left. Nowhere does Barker idealize or sentimentalize his subject; nowhere does he allow us to grasp an easy reference to such traditional subjects as the flight into Egypt. The situation of the young girl turning to look out at the spectators is realistically observed; we can imagine such a woman having to carry an infant in her arms, a baby on her back, while a toddler walks at her side. The toothless old grandmother, with her scraggly hair and smoking clay pipe can scarcely have been an image for a patron to contemplate with pleasure in the comfort of his drawing room. Surely Barker aimed to suggest qualities not usually treated at this date in English painting: resignation, defeat, isolation.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), p.11-12.

    1. Files on the paintings, "Copy of the Catalogue in the Possession of Sir Robert Cockburn Bart. of Pictures by Thomas Barker and Other Members of the Barker family,"1931, Holburne of Menstrie Museum, Bath.
    2. Edward Harington. A Schizzo on the Genius of Man: In Which, Among Various Subjects, the Merit of Mr. Thomas Barker, the Celebrated Young Painter of Bath, Is Particularly Considered, and His Pictures Reviewed. Bath, 1793, p. 167.
    3. Pointed out by Francis James Dallett. "The Barkers of Bath in America." Antiques, vol. 93, no. 5 (May 1968), pp. 652-55. See also Robert F. Perkins, Jr., and William J. Gavin III, The Boston Athenaeum Art Exhibition Index, 1827-1874 (Boston, 1980), pp. 16, 207.

    LITERATURE: Catalogue of a Collection of Paintings Belonging to John G. Johnson (Philadelphia, 1892), no. 273 (as "Gipsies on the March" painted in 1815); Catalogue of the W. P. Wilstach Collection, Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. Edited by Carol H. Beck. Philadelphia, 1904, no. 13; Catalogue of the W.P. Wilstach Collection, Memorial Hall. Philadelphia, 1922, p. 5, no. 11; Francis James Dallett. "The Barkers of Bath in America." Antiques, vol. 93, no. 5 (May 1968), p. 654.