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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858-60, oil on canvas, 25 x 35 inches (Tate Britain, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Woman: So we're looking at William Dyce's Pegwell Bay Kent, a recollection of October 5th, 1858. Man: It must be a very specific date. There is actually even a comet up in the sky in the center, which probably was a specific event at that moment. Woman: Visible on a particular date in 1858. Man: That notion of the particular, of the specific, seems critical throughout the whole canvas. Woman: He's painting the cliffs there so carefully and specifically and really everything in the painting from the objects in the foreground through the stone in the background is painted very carefully. Obviously William Dyce has been influenced by the pre-Raphaelite movement. Man: But there is a kind of specificity and a kind of intricate detail that speaks to it, although the colors are much more subdued, and the subject is a more standard image of the seacoast of the resort, right? Woman: Yeah, although we don't see a kind of modern life seen of vacationing on the resort in a simple way. I think we have a much more mysterious and disconcerting image of figures who seem strangely isolated from one another across the foreground. A child who looks out and two women who are separately engaged in collecting seashells. These are all, I think, members of the artist's family. Then the woman on the right who heads in yet another direction with some figures that are also kind of isolated, strewn across the background and it's obviously late in the day. It's low tide and the figures are very small in relationship to the landscape. There is a clear sense I think of human being smallness in relationship to nature or awe and wonder at nature. Man: I think that makes sense, especially with the comet right? And the grand cliffs, and the distance of the vista. And in a way, the artist is also using color. I mean even though the women and the boy are dressed in relatively subdued colors, those are still among the brightest colors in the canvas. They do stand out as something different and apart, not only from each other but from the landscape. Woman: That's true. The landscape exists really apart from them in a kind of timelessness. Man: He seems to be interested in details that seem almost scientific. The strata of the cliffs seem to be particularly carefully rendered, as if he had been studying geology. Woman: Yeah and I think there is some sense that Dyce was interested in geology and just the enormous interest at this time in nature and science, and amateur science. Man: I think about the women collecting sea shells. They're being collected for their beauty but also as scientific specimens. Woman: I said there is a sense of timelessness. There is also a sense of the measuring of time by the strata on the cliffs, by the sun going down. There is a sense of the passage of time. I mean this almost reads to me as a Memento Mori in a way. Maybe reminder of death is too strong. I feel like I have been on holiday with my family in places just like this doing similar activities and so it becomes very poignant I think about Dyce himself, the artist on this day with his child, with his family, in this place that removes one from one's everyday life and puts one in touch with something that is more mysterious, whether that mystery is in science and nature, or whether the mystery is in God. Man: I think that's exactly right because we have the sense of the specific day, the specific moment, but we also have a sense of the eternal here, of the way in which this scene is encapsulated within as much grander scene of the solar system of the universe. Woman: And so our lives here in the year 2010 are in some ways not so different from William Dice's in 1858. We still go on holiday. We go to places like this. We live in a modern industrial, urban world that we escape from to places like this, that take us someplace else. (piano music)