The present picture depicts passengers gathered at a jetty waiting for the ferry which will convey them across a highland burn or lake. Two young women on their way back from a highland market with empty baskets and a newly purchased goat are deep in conversation with each other whilst the sharp eyes of a young gillie scans the water for the arrival of the ferry. His two placid ponies gaze warily at the glassy surface of the water, their hooves unfamiliar with the precarious feel of the wooden planks beneath. The scene is enclosed by the awesome majesty of highland peaks bathed in sunshine.
Herring painted Scottish subjects occasionally in the middle years of his career, and perhaps most frequently from about 1850. In the ‘General List of Paintings’ that forms and appendix to Oliver Beckett’s J. F. Herring & Sons (1981), the first recognizably Scottish subject is that entitled Highland Scene, and dated 1834. Herring’s next Scottish subject appears to be a work entitled In the Highlands (Richard Green Gallery) showing a gillie and a boy with deerhounds and a sportsman taking aim. This work may date from the late 1840s or early 1850s. Another subject entitled The Hunter’s Return (private collection, New York) and showing a barefoot girl and a gillie with a white pony and a dead stag – was apparently dated 1851. These works, along with The Halt (Sold in these rooms, 28 August 2003, lot 1049, for £523,650) represent the majority if not the totality of Herring’s Scottish subjects.
It is clear that Herring turned to Scottish subjects in response to the great fashion for the highlands that occurred in the middle years of the nineteenth century. A vital spur to this fascination with the landscape and history of Scotland was the writing of Sir Walter Scott, who for decades after his death in 1832 retained a vast popular readership throughout the English-speaking world. Although Scott’s closest familiarity was with the Borders, nonetheless many of his novels and plays had highland settings, and in addition his antiquarian and archaeological works encouraged a wider interest in the region. In 1822 George IV made his momentous visit tio Edinburgh and was greeted with tumultuous enthusiasm. Tartan was worn both by the king and by his subjects, according to a new and elaborate style. New clan tartans were designed and it is said that forty extra looms were set up at the cloth-works at Wilson in Bannockburn to meet the demand.
It is possible that Waiting for the Ferry was painted as a collaboration between Herring and Thomas Faed, who is known to have painted the figures in a similar picture entitled Barnie Leave the Girls Alone (York City Art Gallery) c.1854. The white horse in both Barnie Leave the Girls Alone and Waiting for the Ferry appears to be the same animal and drawn from the same studies. The human figures in both pictures are also similar. Faed also painted his own version of Waiting for the Ferry (private collection, Scotland) a picture which although different in composition shares similar elements. The pie-bald goat that appears in Herring’s Waiting for the Ferry also appears in another picture, Stable Mates (Sotheby’s New York, 5 December 2005, lot 102) which occupied Herring during the early work upon the painting in 1852. The white horse that appears in this painting may be the same as that used by Herring for Waiting for the Ferry and Barnie Leave the Girls Alone and probably another Highland subject from 1854 The Gamekeeper’s Shack in the Highlands (Sotheby’s, 9 July 1998, lot 144).
Waiting for the Ferry is an idyllic image of an everyday scene in the life of the people who lived and worked in the highlands amongst the animals upon which their livelihood was based. It is an important painting in Herring’s oeuvre which combines the interaction of human and animal figures amid an awesome landscape. The rediscovery of this painting reiterates the assertion that Herring was far more than simply a painter of racehorses and farmyards and that his work made a significant contribution to the unfolding image of the Highlands in the mid nineteenth century when Scotland was the focus of royal patronage and artistic enthusiasm.
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