The Rabbit Warren

PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

The Rabbit Warren (England, c.1858)

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Oil on canvas
Signed J. W. Oakes; inscribed on the return edge of the canvas July 19 to 28, 2 long, 2 ½, 5 ½, Sept, 14 ½, 28-5/4, 29-1, 30-1/2, Oct, 8-1/2, 9-1, 10-1/2, Nov?, 12-1, Dec ?, 5-1/4.


48.60cm high
63.80cm wide
(19.13 inches high)
(25.12 inches wide)
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Art Journal, 1858, page 170
Saturday Review, 15 May 1858, page 504
John Ruskin, Notes on some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy, number IV, 1858. Reprinted in: O T Cook & A D O Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, George Allen, London 1904, volume XIV, page 169

Exhibition History

London, Royal Academy, 1858, number 526
London, Royal Academy, 1888, number 944

Description / Expertise

This work is a quintessential Liverpool School painting in its sensitive atmospheric rendering of a very ordinary scene. The bisection of the canvas by an almost unbroken horizon line and the lack of ‘incident’ in the foreground are just two instances of the way in which it overturns Victorian conventions of landscape painting and attains real originality. Yet its sheer quality made it acceptable to its Victorian audience. This work was exhibited in the year Oakes resigned his membership of the Liverpool Academy. In 1859, the following year, he moved to London to pursue a successful career there. It is probable that the enthusiastic reception of this painting was a factor in his decision.

The work was probably painted in the Wirral, Oakes’s favourite painting ground in his Liverpool days. Marillier wrote:

His first nature studies were made along the sand dunes and flat beaches of the Wallasey Peninsula, where his constant preoccupation caused him to pass as a harmless lunatic. He made numerous sketches of such scenes with rabbit warrens, etc., and also of fruit and flowers.(1)

By the time Oakes painted The Warren he combined this intimate knowledge of nature with a Pre-Raphaelite technique. The inscriptions along the edge of the canvas are witness to the hours he spent at the scene painting it.

When The Warren was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Oakes received high praise from the critics of the most prestigious papers. The Athenaeum did not mention the work specifically but placed Oakes among the artists who ‘stand this year very high’.(2) The Art Journal stated: ‘The subject is sufficiently meagre - a mere sandy bank, broken and overgrown with speargrass and such weeds as find sustenance in sand: over this low crest we behold the sea, - and this is the story, but it is really made out with unimpeachable honesty’(3) and the Saturday Review wrote: ‘Mr. Oakes this year has as much gentleness as Mr. Creswick, with an incomparably closer and fuller aim after truth. ‘The Warren’ is singular as an example of a picture painted wholly in clear, pallid light. There is scarcely any body of shade in it... The sea - one knows not whether to call it rather grey-green or blue, vanishing into the white sky at the horizon line, is beautifully expressed.’(4) Even Ruskin, notoriously critical, found it 'exquisitely painted in the flowery centre'.(5) Although Oakes’s style changed, this work continued to represent his art at its best, and was included in the Academy Summer Exhibition following his death as a memorial tribute.

John Wright Oakes was a Liverpool School artist who moved to London and had considerable success there as a landscape painter. His works are to be found in several British public collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum.

Oakes exhibited at the Liverpool Academy from 1839, was elected Associate in 1847 (the year he began to exhibit in London) and acted as secretary between 1853 and 1855. By this time his landscapes were Pre-Raphaelite in style. In 1862 William Michael Rossetti included him with John William Inchbold, George Price Boyce, John Brett and William Davis in a list of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters.(6) In the late 1850’s Oakes’s Royal Academy exhibits received favourable reviews, including praise from Ruskin in Academy Notes. As a result Oakes moved to London in 1859, where he joined the private Pre-Raphaelite exhibiting society, the Hogarth Club. The Pre-Raphaelite style became unfashionable in the 1860’s and Oakes’s later works are closer in style to those of Benjamin Williams Leader or Vicat Cole.

Oakes was elected associate of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1874 although he only exhibited a handful of works there, and was made Associate of the Royal Academy in 1876 and honorary Royal Scottish Academician in 1883. His early works were painted in the Liverpool region, North Wales and Cheshire, but after 1860 he sought subjects further a field and painted throughout England, in Scotland, and made at least one visit to Switzerland. His obituary in the Magazine of Art,(7) described him as ‘one of our most distinguished landscape painters’. The fullest account of his art is in H.C. Marillier’s book on the Liverpool School, published in 1904.

1. H C Marillier, The Liverpool School of Painters, John Murray, London 1904, page 182
2. Athenaeum, number 1593, May 8th 1858, page 598
3. Art Journal, 1858, page 170
4. Saturday Review, 15 May 1858, page 504
5. John Ruskin, Notes on some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy, number IV, 1858.
6. In a critical notice reprinted in William Michael Rossetti, Fine Art Chiefly Contemporary (Macmillan, London, 1867) page 160
7. Magazine of Art, Chronicle of Art, August 1887, page xliii