At Bay signed and dated 'ARTHUR J. ELSLEY 1898' (lower left) oil on canvas 87 x 65cm (34 1/4 x 25 9/16in).
PROVENANCE: Sale, Christie's London, 15 June 1925, as 'Mistletoe'; bought Mason 55 guineas Private collection Canada
EXHIBITED: London, Royal Academy, 1899, no. 579, Gallery VII as 'At Bay'
LITERATURE: Black and White Handbook to the Royal Academy, 1899 Terry Parker, Golden Hours, The Paintings of Arthur J. Elsley 1860-1952. Shepton Beauchamp, pp. 42 and 64.
Arthur John Elsley, the son of a coachman, and talented amateur artist, entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1876 where he learnt his trade. In 1889 he joined the North London studio of established artist, and leading exponent of juvenile scenes, Fred Morgan (1847-1927). Morgan believed in the old adage every picture tells a story. Elsley turned his portraiture skills to story-telling and soon became as successful as his mentor. Following his marriage in 1893 Elsley set up studio at his home 28 Finchley Road, St. John's Wood, London. Despite the move, the same four local street children also appear in Morgan's works of this period.
At bay follows in the tradition of children playing on a gate by William Collins, RA entitled Happy as a King exhibited at the Royal Academy 1836. Elsley, while training at the Royal Academy Schools, would have studied the painting where it hung in the National Gallery. Rather than Collins's five bar gate Elsley uses a lych-gate. Childhood fun and merriment run throughout Elsley's work. Here the cheeky boy is jokingly encouraging the girls to kiss him under the mistletoe. The youngest girl and the boy feature in Elsley's Weatherbound (also 1898) sheltering from the falling snow, with a collie dog, in an improvised kennel made out of an empty barrel. Three of the children are seen walking, holding an umbrella, during snowfall, with an old man asking Any Room for Me? This was painted the previous year in 1897. In 1900, again in the snow, two of the girls, with the boy giving the smaller girl a pick-a-back ride while she directs them home This Way.
Elsley contracted measles as a youth which left him short-sighted. He always worked close to the canvas and paid careful attention to detail which is evident in the mistletoe, and the worn shoes. He worked rapidly completing at least five works in 1898. The artist always kept a ready supply of costumes for his young models in his studio dressing-up box
He painted nine snow-scenes, plus others depicting Christmas subjects. There was a lucrative market for them as they were eagerly sought for reproduction as calendars, or by popular magazines (like The Illustrated London News), for use as large presentation prints, given away with the special Christmas number of the magazine. Fierce competition for circulation depended on the quality and popularity of the print, and Elsley was the most popular reproduced artist of the period. The present lot was reproduced as a colour chromo-lithograph calendar re-named as Pay Toll.
We are grateful to Terry Parker for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.