The buffet, Swindon station signed and dated 'G.E. Hicks/1863' (lower right) oil on panel 20 x 30.5 cm. (8 x 12 in.)
Provenance: M. Newman, Ltd., London; Private collection, UK.
Having commissioned William Powell Frith RA (1819-1909) with the acclaimed Railway Station in 1860, depicting Paddington train station, Louis Victor Flatow (1820-1867) emerged as one of the most visionary art dealers of Victorian London. He maintained this role until his sudden death, seven years later, his only rival during this period being Ernest Gambart (1814-1902), whose entrepreneurial sense had attracted many of the leading Pre-Raphaelite artists. Through their informed and ambitious commercial approach, Flatow and Gambart aimed to offer their Victorian public new artistic trends, in response to the great changes of modern times. Art was now striving for a new aesthetic, to suit contemporary shifting tastes.
It is perhaps in this light that Louis Victor Flatow appears to have been particularly interested in the work of George Elgar Hicks. Having exhibited at the Royal Academy paintings of religious and genre subjects since 1848, Hicks had first made his mark in 1855, with Haymaking (RA,268). Encouragement from the critics led Hicks to choose similar subjects for his following works; Gleaning (RA 1856,566) and Osier Whitening (RA 1857, 409). While the former remained in the attractive realm of small genre paintings, the later presented the narrative through groups of figures arranged across a horizontal canvas. Two years latter, Hicks achieved his greatest success at the Royal Academy with Dividend Day at the Bank of England (RA 1859, 519), where he applied his compositional formula to a contemporary urban subject.
With this painting, Hicks gained the attention of the most competitive picture-dealers in the capital. While his Dividend Day at the Bank of England (RA 1859, 519) was purchased by Henry Wallis, owner of the French Gallery, The General Post Office. One Minute to 6 (RA 1860, 367) and Billingsgate Fish Market (RA 1861, 511) were acquired by William Vokins of Great Portland Street. Louis Victor Flatow had also noted Hicks recent rise to fame and, in 1861, he approached Hicks with a commission for a large railway picture. The present oil panel, entitled Swindon Station, is the only known study, version and final work related to this commission.
The following year, Flatow exhibited in his own gallery Friths spectacular Railway Station, which the dealer had himself commissioned from the artist in 1860. Flatow made a fortune from the exhibition rights and ensuing subscription list for the engraving. It appears that the immense success of Friths Railway Station may have undermined public opinion upon praising let alone accepting - another painting on the same subject matter. In the catalogue entry written on our present painting for the exhibition George Elgar Hicks held in 1983, the author Rosamond Allwood rightly suggests that : the Railways waiting room at Swindon station [by Hicks, and re-titled by the artist: Swindon Station], stood little chance of success with a public eager for novelty, so soon after Friths painting. He [Flatow] therefore commissioned Hicks to paint Changing Homes instead perhaps inspired by the bridal group Frith included in The Railway Station. Hicks's Swindon Station is also recorded in the artists personal Notebooks, consisting of three manuscript books listing the titles, dates and purchasers of most of his paintings. For the year 1862, Hicks noted down: Changing Homes: This picture was coms. By Flatou [Flatow] in lieu of Railway waiting room[ie.Swindon Station]. In 1863, another entry reads: Swindon Station. This was the original sketch for the Railway waiting room, but wh. had been altered not to interfere with Changing homes&c.(see 1861). Hicks also indicated that: Mr Flatou payed 50 gs for the oil sketch in 1863. Further down, the Notebooks inform us of a Copy (enlarged) of Swindon Station. Mr. Wallis had purchased the sketch and copyright which Flatou had bought of me and which had been altered from the original design. He coms. me to make a copy rather larger for £100 and this he exhibited at his Winter exhibition of 63/4.
Swindon Station is Hicks's fifth painting of both modern and urban subjects. The scene is certainly inspired from Friths Railway Station. The proximity of style and subject between the two artists led a critic in the Art Journal in 1863 to comment that Mr. Hicks is a disciple of the Frith school. He glides smoothly over the surface of society; he depicts character with a point seasoned often by satire; and for execution no man is more brilliant. The setting of Swindon Station suggests specific knowledge of the building itself. It would appear that Hicks travelled on the Great Western Rail to the Wiltshire County town in order to take precise views of the station designed by the great Victorian architect, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) in 1842. Hicks sets his scene of Swindon Station in one of the two refreshment rooms located on the ground floor of one of the two two-storey blocks linked by a covered footpath and forming the station. A contemporary description explains how arabesques decorated the walls and ceilings of each room. Columns divided each of the floor spaces into two parts; passengers could purchase refreshments from an oval counter and sit in the area designated for their travelling class. In his painting, Hicks has filled the interior space of this refreshment room with an array of passengers, grouped along the horizontal panel in the now familiar compositional formula for this period. While each group is engrossed in its own activity and conversation, the bridal pair in the centre-foreground certainly appear to transcend in a most private manner this public gathering. Together with the widowed character seated just behind, this group seems to emerge directly from Hicks's painting of Changing Homes which Flatow had commissioned from the artist in the previous year, instead of Swindon Station, as we mentioned above. The pair truly embodies the Victorian image of the tall and handsome new groom caringly leading his young bride through a chaotic interval on the voyage to their honeymoon destination. Around them, Hicks has displayed a range of expressions, poses and costumes to delight the viewer. As the whereabouts of any larger version of this painting or any other - remain unknown to this day, the present oil panel becomes the only record of what could have certainly been another Royal Academy exhibit. However, if the timing of such a public exhibition would not have ensured the lucrative return that Louis Victor Flatow had in mind, the painting at least gives the modern viewer a window on Victorian times, taste and talent.