Fred Walker was born in 1840 the son of a London jeweller. His education was rudimentary (as was that of North and Pinwell) and this later led to the group being denounced as 'The Grammar School Boys.' He attended day schools and amused himself making models and machines. He had no second language and there are few references to literature in his letters, although a remnant of his poetry does survive in the Witt Archive. On leaving school, Walker started out as an architect's apprentice. At the age of 16 or 17, he began to make sketching trips to the British Museum, where he drew from ancient marbles. He attended evening classes at Leigh's Art School and then followed a brief period at the Royal Academy Schools. In 1858, he was apprenticed to Josiah Whymper, the noted wood engraver, where he worked on a part time basis for two years. Here he first met North and Pinwell who were both employed on similar terms.
During his time at Whymper's studio Walker became associated with "The Langham" a group of artists and amateurs. This group met regularly in the evening to complete artistic 'challenges;' a subject chosen and sketches completed within two hours. Many of the sketches made by Walker at the "Langham" survived to be reproduced in J G Mark's 'Life and Letters of Frederick Walker.' Even in those early sketches can be traced the distinctive Walker style that came to be so much admired in his lifetime and such an influence on both Macbeth and Herkomer in later years.
From 1860 his illustrations appeared frequently in the pages of 'Once a Week,' 'Good Words,' and in the Cornhill Magazine. He never found it easy, drawing to order and often struggled with his commissions. In his finest black and white work, Walker is among the very best of the brilliant illustrators of the 1860s. He was, in the words of the Pall Mall Gazette Art
Critic, J Comyns Carr, able to "reveal some secret beauty that escapes ordinary observation." On the other hand, on occasion some of his black and white work can be rather mechanical and dull. At the end of 1860, Walker was approached, through the publisher George Smith, to redraw illustrations from Thackeray's own sketches for "The Adventures of Phillip" which was about to be serialised in The Cornhill Magazine. Walker met Thackeray and won the commission by executing a neat sketch of the Author shaving. 'Phillip' began to appear in January 1861 but Walker could not bear to merely copy Thackeray's sketches and bravely refused to go on unless he was given freedom to interpret the subjects in his own way. Thackeray accepted Walker's demands and the two were soon on friendly terms - the young man becoming a frequent visitor to Thackeray's home. The commission was a great success for Walker and in the same year, he completed 49 drawings
for 'Once a Week' as well as others for the Dalziel Brothers.
By the end of 1864 Walker was feeling constrained by the industry of book illustration and determined to give it up for good (although he continued to illustrate the work of Thackeray's daughter until 1870 - some of the best black and white work he ever produced).
In 1862, Walker executed his first important watercolour 'Strange Faces.' In her monograph, Clementina Black points to the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites in the detail of the carpet, clothes and wallpaper, which she describes as hideously monotonous. The model for the central female figure is Walker's elder sister, Fanny. In 1863 appeared the more assured 'Philip in Church;' Millais advised Walker during the production of the work and caused the younger man to cut out the head of Philip and reposition it. Ruskin denounced Walker for betraying his genius, for over experimentation and
for refusing to learn from absolute masters - criticism that today sounds like the very highest commendation. Walker was also criticised for his reliance on body colour. Despite the criticism the painting was awarded a medal at the Paris Exhibition and won the admiration of William Hunt. Walker's mother and brother appear in the background. This picture, along with two earlier works, was submitted to the Old Watercolour Society in January 1864, the year of his unanimous election. To the Society's summer exhibition, Walker sent a new work 'Spring.' This is regarded as one of Walker's finest works in watercolour and brought its creator immediate acclaim.
Walker's first serious effort in oil 'The Lost Path' had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. The subject - a woman carrying a baby in a snowstorm - may be viewed today in the social realism genre to be followed by Herkomer and others in later years.
There followed in 1866 'Wayfarers' with its exquisite landscape background. Wayfarers was not well received when it first appeared but this was nothing compared to the critical furore that surrounded 'The Bathers' which appeared at the Academy the following year.
In 1868, Walker made his first visit to Somerset to work along side John William North, staying with him in lodgings at Halsway Manor near Crowcombe on the edge of the Quantock hills. North had been visiting Somerset for several years and had already explored the area with his friends George Pinwell and Edmund Whymper. Walker was inspired by the timeless landscape of West Somerset and set to work, producing one of his most famous oil paintings 'The Plough' and other notable works - 'The Old Gate' and 'Mushroom Gatherers.' Walker did not confine himself to Somerset and spent time at Torquay, Salisbury, Cookham and in Scotland where he worked on a number of important works. Over
the next four years appeared some of Walker's finest paintings, including: 'At the Bar' (with posthumous repainting by Macbeth) 'The Well Sinkers,' 'The Harbour of Refuge,' 'The Right of Way.' 'Our Village,' 'A Fishmongers Shop,' 'The Street Cookham.'
In the winter of 1873 Walker and North visited Algiers in a bid to improve Walker's failing health. This proved unsuccessful and in 1874, there followed a long period of illness that did much to restrict his work. In November, his mother died and Walker slumped into a deep depression. He made a further visit to Somerset to work with his friend North, whose support and advice he so much valued but the signs were not good. In December, North sent for the local doctor who found infection of the lungs. Walker returned to London where his health improved enough to plan a trip to Scotland in the early summer of 1875. There, while strolling by the loch at St Fillan's Water he was seized
with a haemorrhage. Fred Walker died two weeks later on 4th June 1875 at the age of 35.
Walker was a complex character. Shy, reticent and sensitive; he was reluctant, or perhaps unable, to talk about his art with others. He was highly-strung and acutely sensitive to criticism and often laboured for years over his works in search of a means of expressing his aim. This inner torture and slow method led to lingering whispers of laziness - a virtual crime in Victorian England and an assertion that seems at odds with reality. On the other hand, Walker could be high spirited and fun-loving, qualities that inspired fierce loyalty in his friends.
Walker was friendly with a number of influential Victorian painters, including Millais who painted Walker's beloved cat Eel-eye in his work 'Flood.' Walker's close relationship with J W North and the work they produced together in Somerset was very influential in the latter half
of the C19 and came to be known later as the Idyllist style. It is a difficult description, often uncomfortably applied to a disparate group of artists. Walker, Pinwell and North shared much in common. They emerged as illustrators during the 1860s and featured rural and rustic scenes painted in the open air. There are pre-Raphaelite influences but they are, on the whole, less academically historical than the earlier Brotherhood. For Walker (and indeed Pinwell too) the human aspect of his work was particularly important and his sensitive handling of figures in rural situations is characteristic. There is usually a human narrative in his work that reflects his early training for book illustration. In this respect, he is set apart from North, whose figures are frequently subordinate to the landscape in which they are set or completely absent.
The Idyllists painted from nature, out of doors. In the best of their work
Walker, Pinwell and North have a hypnotic or ethereal quality that is undiminished by the passage of time. In North's paintings of the later C19 this expression was developed, to create some of the most remarkable and deeply spiritual landscapes ever committed to canvass. Walker did not live long and we will never know what he may have achieved had he been spared. However, what he did leave is absolute proof of his genius.