What you see: Only a Shower, an 1884 painting by Charles Burton Barber. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $150,000 to $220,000.
The expert: Charles O’Brien, head of the 19th century paintings department at Bonhams.
Who was Charles Burton Barber? He was an English artist who studied at the Royal Academy. He was eventually a London-based artist who became a favorite of Queen Victoria from the 1870s onward.
How prolific was he? We don’t know how many pictures he painted. He doesn’t appear to have kept an account book. Given the meticulous detail of his exhibition pictures–he showed over 30 works at the Royal Academy–and the fact that he was only 49 when he died, I don’t think he was particularly prolific.
Where was he in his career when he painted this picture? He was probably at the top of his game. He was a well-known artist, and some of his best works were painted in the 1880s. A successful artist of this period would be a wealthy man.
Do we know how this Charles Burton Barber painting came to be? Did he paint it as a commission, or on spec [without a buyer in mind]? It was painted specifically for an exhibition, with an eye toward being sold. He was elected a member of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1883, and in 1884, he would have wanted to make an impression as a newly elected member. He wanted to put his best foot forward.
What do we know about how Charles Burton Barber worked? Would he have used reference photographs, or posed models in his studio? We don’t know whether he used photographs. To me, Only a Shower is a bit too stylized to be based on a photo. He probably used live models. There’s a very similar girl who seems to appear in many of his pictures. Whether the model is a member of his family, we’re not entirely sure. There’s a lot we don’t know. A lot is supposition.
So the girl pictured here might be his daughter? We know he had children, but we don’t know that he had a daughter. I think it’s quite likely she is [his daughter]. You don’t have to pay a daughter to model.
Are the dogs his? We don’t know. The dog in the foreground looks a bit like a collie that’s reminiscent of a dog that belonged to Queen Victoria. But it’s all supposition. I’m sure they would have been actual dogs, but where he saw them, we don’t know.
Is it typical for Charles Burton Barber paintings to have a narrative, as Only a Shower does? Completely. He wasn’t formulaic, but single figures and animals–usually girls and dogs–were very much his thing at the time. I’ve tried to work out how old she is in the painting. She’s got a very young face, but she [looks to be] mid- to late teens. I think Only a Shower is about a liaison with an admirer. There’s a letter on the table to the right, which was very often used in Victorian paintings to suggest a person who’s involved who can’t be seen. This is not just wanting a ride on a horse. It’s an assignation delayed by the weather. She’s upset because she’s not in the arms of her beau. That’s my reading of it. The flowers on the table might be a gift from him.
I admit I completely missed the letter on the table, and the flowers. I genuinely thought she was sad only because the weather cancelled her ride. Because we don’t have commentary from Charles Burton Barber, a lot of it is left to the imagination. Clues are left in the picture, and you cam make up what the story is about.
The lot notes quote Harry Furniss, the artist’s biographer, saying that Barber “discovered the fact that the public bought pictures of children and dogs.” Is that still true? Yes, absolutely. Within the 19th century market, subject matter is really important. Paintings featuring children and/or dogs are very popular, and always have been.
What is your favorite detail of this Charles Burton Barber painting? I like the head of the terrier. It’s fantastically well painted. Your eye is drawn to her face, and then the top right-hand corner, to the dog. It’s beautifully modeled, really alert and alive. For me, it’s the best part of the picture.
He really nails her body language–the despondent face, and the full-body slump. He was trained at the Royal Academy. He knew body forms. For me, it’s brought together by the incredible light and shade. It’s a remarkable painting, it really is.
He seems to impart attitudes to the dogs as well, particularly the grey one lurking near the window. Its sadness seems to reflect hers. Completely, absolutely. He worked with dogs for a long time, and understood how they empathize with humans, and he was able to paint in an extraordinary manner. It comes through in the composition. Other Victorian artists could paint as well as Charles Burton Barber, but they weren’t able to paint a narrative.
What is the Charles Burton Barber painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? It has better depth than the reproduction that appears in the catalog. The area around the top of the window, where the curtain is pulled back to one side, has a feeling of the outside that’s lacking in the reproduction.
How often do Charles Burton Barber paintings appear at auction? There have been about 70 sales in the last 35 years. Many have been watercolors or sketches. Pictures like this–exhibition pictures–don’t come up often. Only six or seven have been comparable to this in quality or importance.
What’s the world auction record for a Charles Burton Barber painting? It was £322,000 [roughly $396,000], set in 2007, not at Bonhams. It was called In Disgrace.
Why will this Charles Burton Barber painting stick in your memory? It’s a really, really, really top-class Victorian painting. Works of this quality don’t come around all the time. To me, it works because the narrative is strong, sentimental without being mawkish. And it’s a poignant subject, given what we’re living through right now–we’re in a ghastly lockdown, and this is a lockdown by nature. It will live in my mind simply because of the times we’re living in.
Images are courtesy of Bonhams.
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