Accompanied by a fine impression on India paper with the engraved word ‘Proof’. First issue lettered proofs of this nature are of far superior quality to the normal lettered print impressions which lack the word 'Proof' and which have been re-printed from the plate up to the present day.
The present watercolour is Stothard’s final version of his most famous picture, begun in the last of year of his life and left partially completed at his death in 1834. The Pilgrimage to Canterbury was one of the triumphs of early nineteenth-century history painting, exhibited all over Britain in 1807, admired by the public and critics alike and transformed into a best-selling engraving. Walter Scott endorsed it as ‘executed with the genius and spirit of a master, and all the rigid attention to costume that could be expected of the most severe antiquary’. In addition to the original large oil (Tate Britain), Stothard was commissioned to make three copies in oil for admirers (including the poet Samuel Rogers) and he also made several watercolour reductions, including the present example. While being three times smaller than the original, Stothard has successfully condensed, even intensified, the multiple details of the Pilgrims’ expressions and costume in pen and ink, in a manner typical of his later works. Heightened with white, the final colouring of the Pilgrims and their horses has been left only partially completed, allowing an intense scrutiny of the elderly Stothard’s disciplined line.
The original composition of Canterbury Pilgrims was commissioned by the engraver Robert Cromek in 1806. The painting was first exhibited at Cromek’s house in London, then shown throughout England and Scotland, drawing large crowds at the admission price of one shilling per person and by May 1807 he could claim that three thousand people had seen and praised it. Cromek commissioned Louis Schiavonetti to engrave Thomas Stothard’s composition, but when Schiavonetti died in 1810 he had completed only the etched state of the plate. The plate was finally completed by James Heath and was published on 1st October 1817 and was also enormously popular. It captured the contemporary appeal for Chaucer’s work and the range of social and character types it celebrated. The highly energetic frieze-like composition acted as a compendium of Chaucer’s characters. Its popularity involved Stothard in a bitter controversy with his friend, William Blake. In brief, Blake claimed that Cromek commissioned from him a painting illustrating Chaucer’s story of the pilgrimage to Canterbury and after seeing his fresco sketch, Cromek withdrew the commission. According to Blake, Cromek then proceeded to commission from Stothard a similar painting based on what he had seen in Blake’s sketch.
Most contemporary evidence, in particular accounts by John Thomas Smith in Nollekens and His Times and by Allan Cunningham in his Lives of Eminent British Painters support the view that Stothard was the true originator of both this concept and its design. Both of these authors assert that Blake visited Stothard while the latter was working on his Chaucer design and stole the concept from Stothard. If true, it would seem that Blake then rushed to finish his engraving of the subject by 1810, ahead of plate after Stothard’s painting – a view which would fit with Blake’s continuing precarious financial predicament. Recent evidence suggests that Blake’s plate was in fact a blatant plagiarism of Thomas Stothard’s work.
Though Stothard continued to be productive into the 1830s, the watermark of 1833 dates the picture to very close to the accident in which he was hit by a carriage in the autumn of that year, leading to his disablement and ultimate death in 1834. In its clarity and freshness the present watercolour is a magnificent miniature version of Stothard’s greatest work, a perfect distillation of a hugely popular subject and an early example of the power of mass-publicity and the print market, the two things which would power the London art market in the nineteenth century.