(London, 1820–1896)


The Argument


Pencil and watercolor on paper

23 ½ x 18 ½ inches (59.6 x 47 cm)

Signed and inscribed on a label on the verso:
“No. 1/The Argument/W. Cave Thomas/203 Camden Rd/NW”


Christie’s, London, 6 November 1995, lot 88.

Private Collection, London.

This impressive watercolor is a mature work by the little-known Victorian painter William Cave Thomas. The son of a frame maker and gilder, Thomas studied at the Royal Academy in the 1830s and in 1840 travelled to Munich, where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to England in 1843 and achieved modest success as an artist, art instructor, and writer in the nation’s capital. Thomas exhibited widely in London, most notably at the Royal Academy between 1843-1862 and at the Exhibition at Westminster Hall in 1845, where he won a £400 prize for a cartoon of an Allegory of Justice, which ultimately resulted in the fresco of the subject to adorn the House of Lords (in situ).[i] In addition to working as the Master of the North London School for Drawing and Modelling in Camden, Thomas was a prolific writer, penning articles, pamphlets, and treatises on the arts, including: “The Influences Which Tend to Retard Progress of the Fine Arts” in the Builder (1848), Pre-Raphaelitism Tested by the Principles of Christianity: An Introduction to Christian Idealism (1860), and Mural or Monumental Decoration: Its Aims and Methods (1869).

Thomas’s period of study in Germany, where he came into contact with Peter von Cornelius (1783-1867) and Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869), played a crucial role in his stylistic development. His paintings have often been likened to those of the German painters known as the Nazarenes that he encountered in Munich. Despite the hints of “Germanism” detected in his works—including the hard lines and the prevalence of religious subjects—Thomas’s oeuvre should be viewed within the context of the main artistic movement of his day in England: Pre-Raphaelitism. Thomas was an associate of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)—one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—and of Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), with whom he shared a studio in the 1840s. Although he is generally considered a fringe member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, possibly as a result of the rarity of his works, Thomas was a frequent contributor to the contemporary discourse on art and art education of his day and is also credited with giving the Pre-Raphaelite periodical The Germ its name.[ii]

The present work depicts a bearded man dressed in a lavish red velvet costume. A label on the reverse of the frame written in the artist’s hand records the title of the work as The Argument. This typically enigmatic title provides a key to understanding the subject of this genre painting. Closely-cropped and looking out of the work with a penetrating stare, the figure appears as if in conversation with the viewer. That the bearded man is shown engaging in discourse with the viewer is also suggested by his spirited hand gestures. The same dynamic between painted figure and viewer is suggested in Thomas’s Eliezer Offering the Earring and Bracelets to Rebekah (Private collection). Here, the figure of Eliezer is similarly shown bust-length and peering out of the painting. The viewer implicitly takes on the role of Rebekah, who is being offered the jewelry that Eliezer holds in his right hand. Thomas frequently worked from literary and religious sources when designing his pictures, but no source text has yet been identified for The Argument. The coarse beard and the fur hat—which resembles a Cossack hat—provide an indication that the figure may have been inspired by a trip that Thomas undertook to St. Petersburg in Russia in the 1850s.[iii]

William Cave Thomas,  Eliezer Offering the Earring and Bracelets to Rebekah

The label on the reverse of this highly finished watercolor provides some further information as to its dating and history. Thomas’s handwritten note describes the painting as “No. 1,” which suggests that it was shown as the first work in an exhibition. However, this exhibition has not yet been identified. This label also records the artist’s address in North West London: 203 Camden Road. Thomas moved his residence to this address around 1871, and therefore this watercolor is a relatively late work by the artist.[iv]

[i] Frederick Knight Hunt, The Book of Art: Cartoons, Frescoes, Sculpture, and Decorative Art, as Applied to the New Houses of Parliament and to Buildings in General, London, 1846, pp. 169, 175-176; and The Houses of Parliament. A Description of the Houses of Lords and Commons in the New Palace of Westminster, 1850, p. 27, no. 4.

[ii] Paola Spinozzi and Elisa Bizzotto, The Germ: Origins and Progenies of Pre-Raphaelite Interart Aesthetics, Oxford, 2015, p. 22.

[iii] Virginia Surtees, The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, New Haven, 1981, p. 88.

[iv] William Cave Thomas, “Ornament: Form and Colour—Music Without Words,” Journal of the Society of Arts, vol. 19, 17 March 1871, p. 353. He was still living at this address in 1873, see: “Minor Topics of the Month,” The Art Journal, vol. 35, 1873, p. 350.