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

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 25 x 35″ (Tate Britain, London)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re looking at William Dyce’s “Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:13] It must be a very specific date. There’s actually even a comet up in the sky in the center, which probably was a specific event at that moment.

Dr. Harris: [0:22] Visible on a particular date in 1858.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] That notion of the particular, of the specific, seems critical throughout the whole canvas.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] He’s painting the cliffs there so carefully and specifically, and really everything in the painting, from the objects in the foreground through the stone in the background, is painted very carefully. Obviously, William Dyce has been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] There is a kind of specificity and intricate detail that speaks to it, although those colors are much more subdued. The subject is a more standard image of the seacoast, of the resort, right?

Dr. Harris: [0:59] Yeah. Although we don’t see a modern life scene of vacationing on the resort, in a simple way we have a much more mysterious and disconcerting image of figures who seem strangely isolated from one another across the foreground — a child who looks out and two women who are separately engaged in collecting seashells. These are all members of the artist’s family, and then a woman on the right who heads in yet another direction, with some figures who are also isolated strewn across the background.

[1:32] It’s obviously late in the day, it’s low tide. The figures are very small in relationship to the landscape. There’s a clear sense of human beings’ smallness in relationship to nature, or awe and wonder at nature.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] That makes sense, especially with the comet, and those grand cliffs and the distance of the vista. In a way, the artist is also using color. Even though the women and the boy are dressed in relatively subdued colors, those are still among the brightest colors in the canvas. They do stand out as something different and apart, not only from each other but from the landscape.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] That’s true. The landscape exists apart from them in a kind of timelessness.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] He seems to be interested in details that seem almost scientific. The strata of the cliffs seem to be particularly carefully rendered, as if he had been studying geology.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] Yeah. I think there is some sense that Dyce was interested in geology, and just the enormous interest at this time in nature, and science, and amateur science.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] I think about the women collecting seashells. They’re being collected for their beauty, but also as scientific specimens.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] I said there’s a sense of timelessness, but there’s also a sense of the measuring of time by the strata on the cliffs, by the sun going down. There’s a sense of the passage of time. This almost reads to me as a memento mori in a way. Maybe reminder of death is too strong.

[3:07] I feel like I have been on holiday with my family in places just like this doing similar activities, and so it becomes very poignant.

[3:18] I think about Dyce himself, the artist, on this day with his child, with his family, in this place that removes one from one’s everyday life and puts one in touch with something that’s more mysterious, whether that mystery is in science and nature, or whether the mystery is in God.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] I think that’s exactly right, because we have the sense of the specific day, the specific moment, but we also have a sense of the eternal here, of the way in which this scene is encapsulated within this much grander scene of the solar system, of the universe.

Dr. Harris: [3:54] Our lives here in the year 2010 are in some ways not so different from William Dyce’s in 1858. We still go on holiday. We go to places like this. We live in a modern, industrial, urban world that we escape from to places like this that take us someplace else.

[4:15] [music]

A comet in the sky

William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 captures an historical moment with remarkable clarity. The painting shows the artist’s wife, his wife’s two sisters, and his son on a lonely stretch of beach near Ramsgate on the south coast of England. The day is particularly important as one can see Donati’s Comet in the sky. Discovered by Giovanni Donati on June 2, 1858, it was one of the brightest comets to appear during the 19th century. The comet had reached its perihelion, or the point where it is closest to the sun, just a few days prior to the date recorded in the painting.

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) 

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail

What is most incredible about the painting, however, is the minute attention to detail. A true Pre-Raphaelite in his approach, Dyce illustrated the intense “truth to nature” that characterizes much of the art of the period. This attention to detail had been championed by the critic John Ruskin in the first volume of his famous Modern Painters, published in 1843. In it, Ruskin advised artists to,

go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.

Many young artists of the day, including John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, were influenced by Ruskin’s ideas and worked to bring as much naturalistic detail as possible into their paintings.

Figures in the distance (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo:  Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Figures in the distance (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Art and science

The observations of nature exhibited by artists like Dyce were also present in another Victorian preoccupation, science, and in particular, the burgeoning study of geology. Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology in three volumes between 1830 and 1833, and the entire scientific community was interested in the controversial attempt to reconcile the implications of geological time with the Bible.

Figures and horses (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Figures and horses (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A little more than a year after the day captured in Dyce’s painting, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was published, opening a floodgate of debate over the issue of religion versus scientific observation. The geologically unstable cliffs along much of England’s south coast were (and still are) a paradise for those in search of fossils, including the famous fossil hunter Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis, who is credited with the discovery of the first plesiosaur skeleton. The preserved remnants of geological time evident in places like Pegwell Bay provided the Victorians with much to think about.

The light

In Dyce’s painting the angled light of the late afternoon setting sun emphasizes the striations in the towering cliffs above the shore. The detail delineates every variation in the rock. Pools of water, algae covered rocks and stretches of sand exposed by the low tide create opportunity for discovery at every turn. The figures are also extremely detailed. Two of the women in the foreground have their attention focused on collecting the shells left by the receding water, while the other woman and the child stare off in the distance.

Child in the foreground (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Child in the foreground (detail), William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858, 1858-60, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 88.9 cm (Tate Britain, London) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

William Dyce was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. After studying at the Royal Academy Schools in London and in Rome, Dyce became well known for his paintings, and between 1837 and 1843 was Superintendent of the Government School of Design. He later won a competition to complete fresco paintings for the newly rebuilt Houses of Parliament, a project that occupied him almost until his death. However, Dyce was also interested in intellectual and scientific pursuits, for example, writing a prize-winning essay on electro-magnetism in 1830.

Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent is a painting that evokes many time-honored themes. The variety of ages in the figures may represent the passage of time, while the setting sun and the autumnal chill in the air serve as a reminder of death.  However, this lonely stretch of beach is also a metaphor for many of the new issues that concerned the Victorians, such as the implications of scientific discovery. It is an image as timeless as the tide itself.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, "William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/dyce-pegwell-bay-kent/.