Perhaps the greatest of Scottish religious artists, William Dyce (1806–1864) also produced one of the most powerful meditations on the scientific advances of the nineteenth century. Painted at the same time as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was being published, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (c.1858-1860) reflects the growing 19th century interest and understanding of geology and fossils and the comprehension of the vast age of the earth before which the human lifespan appears insignificant.
At the same time he was producing stunning religious works: The Good Shepherd (1856) made Jesus a Scottish tender of sheep. The Man Of Sorrows (1860) and David in the Wilderness (1860) both place Biblical figures in a distinctly Scottish landscape. Pegwell Bay is also concerned with the relationship of figures to landscape, but in this case it is fossil hunters attempting to gather up the rocks. Inspired by a trip to Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate, it captures the artist’s family exploring the beach, while in the background other people work and play surrounded by symbols of the passage of time. The date is marked by the inclusion of Comet Donati, the brightest visitor of the century, which passed near the earth in early October 1858 on its 2000 year circuit.
Being a religious artist is all about looking into the past and trying to bring it up to the present, transporting religious truths into people’s lives today, but Pegwell Bay refers to several concepts of time. Throughout the 19th century there was increasing understanding of how fossils reflected biological organisms that had changed through time, even before Darwin had offered his famous explanation. In the 18th century scientists such as the Scot James Hutton realised the earth was far older than Biblical accounts and tried to explain how the many visible rock layers had formed over the earth’s surface. The painting indicates the subject of these inquiries. The cliffs with their clear stratification indicate geological time, and the fossils the people are gathering show the evolution of life. The sunset reflects the daily rotation of the earth about its axis. The comet in the sky indicates another form of time: since the early 18th century scientists were aware of the periodic nature of certain comets, returning in the case of Halley’s Comet every 75 years.
The painting, in common with Dyce’s religious work, shows a highly detailed classical style, in contrast to the Romanticism of a painter like Turner. Dyce’s close attention is not quite naturalistic, not a reflection of how we see things – painters such as Turner were greatly concerned with capturing impressions – but rather it functions as a sign that everything has been very closely observed, its outline carefully delineated and its position measured. He is not merely drawing: his works depend on clever painterly effects, for instance using a brush stroke to represent a blade of grass, capturing the edges in thicker paint where the brush pushes it away less so that the blade appears to stand out. His art is an attempt to recreate the ancient landscape as much as to depict it.
William Dyce was born in Aberdeen, the son of a lecturer in medicine. He followed his father initially, in medical and theological studies. Although the scientific side would manifest in Pegwell Bay, the religious came to the fore: he was deeply influenced by the Nazarenes, a group of German artists including Friedrich Overbeck and Franz Pforr who in the 1810s and 1820s sought to recapitulate the Christian art of the German Renaissance, reviving fresco painting and later significantly influencing British art including the Pre-Raphaelites.
In his life he produced a wide range of literary and mythical subjects. Francesca da Rimini (1837) captures Dante’s lovers, while the patriotic Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea, 1847, was a suitably nautical theme for Queen Victoria’s seaside residence Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; he painted scenes from Arthurian legend in 1948 following the fashion of the times. He was also a public servant: in 1837 (in perhaps the first of many such panics) he answered the government’s calls to improve the quality of British design as the first superintendant of the Government School of Design in London (now the Royal College of Art). He was also deeply involved in the decoration of the rebuilt Houses of Parliament from the 1840s, after the 1834 fire.
But despite his varied subject matter and multiple contributions to the British nation, his greatest achievements were firstly the religious works which place Biblical figures in a timeless, still-recognisable Scottish landscape, and secondly Pegwell Bay, which captures in its innocent-seeming figures on an English beach, a moment in time when the world was changing utterly.