Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce

Pegwell Bay, A Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce

My Daily Art Display for today is entitled Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858,  by the distinguished Scottish artist, William Dyce.   This painting, which he completed four years before his death, is often considered to be his greatest work of art.   The title of the painting itself is unusual but the specific date must have stuck in the mind of the artist, probably for astronomical reasons which I will talk about later.  This is a lovely painting and for me it brings back many happy childhood memories of my early years when my mother would whisk me away to the seaside for a week each summer and I would be content (or as content as a pre-teenage child can be) to simply potter about the rock pools with my bucket, spade and net.

William Dyce was born in Aberdeen in 1806.  He trained as a doctor before reading for the church.  However at the age of nineteen he decided to become an artist and studied at the Royal Academy in London.  In his twenties, he travelled to Rome.  Here he studied the works of the “Masters” such as Titian, Rembrandt and Poussin and became interested in the Nazarene Movement when he met one of the movements leading artists, Friedrich Overbeck.  The Nazarene Movement was a group of early 19th century German Romantic painters who aimed to revive honesty and spirituality in Christian art. The name Nazarene came from a term of derision used against them for their affectation of a biblical manner of clothing and hair style.

After his travels in Europe he returned home and was put in charge of the School of Design in Edinburgh.  At this time he was considered to be the city’s finest portraitist.  Later in 1838, he moved to London where he headed up the Government School of Design which in 1896 became known as the Royal College of Art.  Dyce left the school in 1843 to give himself time to concentrate on his own painting

The intricate painting today is a beautifully detailed seaside landscape of Pegwell Bay in Kent.  It resulted from a trip he and his family made in late 1858 to the well-liked holiday resort, which is close to the small Kent seaport of Ramsgate.  For a seaside painting it is interesting to note the lack of people on the beach but as this was in October, the cold weather probably kept people, other than these hardy folk, away from the shingle beach and cold sea breezes.  In the picture we see the artist himself in the extreme right middle-ground staring up at the cliffs.  Near to him we can just make out a man with his group of donkeys which were used to give children rides along the shore.  One of Dyce’s interests was geology and we presume he was taking great interest in the flint-encrusted strata and eroded faces of the chalk cliffs.  See how Dyce has meticulously recorded the detail of the rock formation of the cliffs.

Collecting fossils

Seemingly uninterested in geology, his wife, her two sisters and his son, wrapped up against the elements in the late autumn afternoon, amuse themselves searching for fossils in the foreground of the painting.  Pegwell Bay was famous for fossil hunting.  The sun was beginning to disappear and the temperature was dropping. 

Another of Dyce’s interest was astronomy and in this painting, albeit hard to detect in the late afternoon sky, there is the barely visible trail of Donati’s Comet streaking across the sky.  This comet was nearest the Earth around the time of this painting.

In some aspects this is not a seaside holiday painting of fun and happiness with people enjoying the sunshine and blue sea.  There is poignancy to this painting.  I need to know why everybody looks somewhat miserable as they hunt for their fossils.  Maybe it was the cold, as we can see them all well wrapped up in warm clothes.  It is as if they have been told “off you go, enjoy yourselves” and yet things were conspiring against them.  This is a somewhat downbeat painting.    The artist has used subdued colours in the depiction of the landscape which in a way makes the colour of the clothing worn by his family stand out more.