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OCTAVIUS OAKLEY, O.W.S. (1800-1867)
  • OCTAVIUS OAKLEY, O.W.S. (1800-1867)


    Signed & dated l.l. O Oakley 1861

    Watercolour with bodycolour & pencil

    76 x 54.5 cm



    With Jeremy Maas, London;

    From whom bought in 1970 by David Daniels, U.S.A;

    By whose estate sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 29.10.2002, Lot 127;

    Private collection, FL, U.S.A.



    London, Society of Painters in Watercolours, Summer 1861, no. 182;

    New York, Emily Lowe Gallery, The Friends Present Victorian Art, (October - December 1972), no. 82;

    New Haven, Yale Centre for British Art, The Substance or the Shadow: Images of Victorian Womanhood, 1982, cat. no. 63



    ‘The Society of Painters in Water-Colours’ (exhib. review), The Art-Journal, no. 23 (June 1, 1861), p.174;

    Laurel Bradley, 'The Substance or the Shadow: Images of Victorian Womanhood at the Yale Centre for British Art', in Arts Magazine (U.S.A.), no.56 (June 1982), pp.125-129

    Pamela G. Nunn, Problem Pictures: Women and Men in Victorian Painting, Routledge (1995), p.11;

    Matthew Cohen, 'Framing the Woman Artist: Gender and Art in Howells and Sargent' (MA Thesis), William & Mary University (1995), p.10 (not repr.);

    Colin Cunningham, 'Gender and Design in the Victorian Period', in Gender and Art (ed. Gillian Perry), Yale (1999), p.157 (repr. pl.112)

    Elise Lawton Smith, Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body, Madison NJ (2002), p.88 (not repr.);

    Ian Neal, Representations of Reverie: Rossetti, Whistler, Clausen and the Psychologies of Consciousness (PhD Thesis), University of York (Nov. 2010), p.147 (repr., fig. 66);

    Debra N. Mancoff, Danger! Women Artists at Work, London (2012), repr. p.11

    John Finlay, 'Body/Politics: Women as Subject and Object in the History of Art' (online essay), The Scottish Gallery (Edinburgh), Aug. 2020, p.3 (not repr.)




    The present work is one that has been studied in an academic context on a remarkable number of occasions, almost always with an emphasis on a feminist reading of the painting's subject. What has not been considered by any writer thus far is the possibility of the sitter's being the artist's own daughter, Isabel Oakley (later Naftel). Isabel was a gifted and successful artist in her own right, who had begun to exhibit publicly four years before this painting was executed and would make her debut at the Royal Academy the following year. However one chooses to interpret the painting, and whether or not to consider it first and foremost in its socio-historical context, it is undoubtedly an important artwork for the study of women's representation and role in art history of this period. Excellent analyses from this perspective can be found in all of the texts cited in the literature above.



    Octavius Oakley was born into a large family in Bermondsey, the son of a wealthy wool merchant. It seems he was initially destined to become a doctor, as he was proposed to be apprenticed to a prominent London surgeon; however, with a crash in wool prices in 1815, Oakley went instead to Leeds to work for a cloth manufacturer and learn the ropes of the family business. 


    Oakley, like so many other artists, had altogether different ideas about what he wanted to do with his life: he showed artistic skill from early on, and despite his father’s distaste for this he continued to draw even once he had been dispatched to Leeds. He drew pencil likenesses of his acquaintances and, having been advised to do so by a lawyer friend, began to charge for portrait commissions. Before long, he had begun to make enough money from this that he left the wool trade to become a professional artist, picking up considerable skill in watercolour painting along the way. 


    Having moved to Derby in 1825, Oakley’s talents caught the eye of the Duke of Devonshire and he was invited to stay at Chatsworth, where he painted many of the guests and the Devonshires themselves. These new clients in turn invited him to stay, and one of them - the Earl of Shrewsbury - even offered to introduce him to several of the Courts of Europe; however, Oakley declined this offer, preferring the rustic charms of the English countryside and having begun to paint what would become his best known pieces: delicate watercolours of young Traveller women and children, which were enormously popular in mid-Victorian England. In spite of these leanings, he nevertheless continued to paint portraits of aristocratic and Royal sitters, including a critically-praised portrait of Prince George of Cambridge (previously with the Nonesuch Gallery). 


    Oakley exhibited a prodigious number of works during his lifetime, showing more than 250 paintings at the Royal Academy, Old Water-colour Society and various provincial exhibitions as well.



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