"Fireworks at the Serpentine, London, January 16th 1861"

"Fireworks at the Serpentine, London, January 16th 1861"





English School

“Fireworks at the Serpentine, London, January 16th 1861”  

Oil on canvas, signed and dated and indistinctly signed, inscribed and dated on label on reverse

35.5 x 61 cms

14 x 24 inches

Overall framed size 49.5 x 75 cms

                                19½  x 29½ ins

John Wright Oakes was an interesting painter who was part of the Liverpool Pre-Raphaelite movement, producing landscapes in their own particular style. The largest concentration of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters evolved in Liverpool, largely as a consequence of Pre-Raphaelite paintings having been awarded prizes at the local Academy. These pictures had had a significant influence on many Lancashire artists and the consequence was that it spawned a group of fine landscape painters imbued with the Brotherhood's attention for detail and included such artists, apart from J W Oakes, as William Davis, Frederick Clive Newcombe, William J C Bond, John Henry Newton and Henry Mark Anthony. In 1862 William Michael Rossetti included Oakes in a list of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters with the aforementioned Davis together with John Brett, John William Inchbold and George Price Boyce

Oakes had been born at Sproston House, near Middlewich, Cheshire on 9th July 1820. This house had been in his family for several generations and he went to Liverpool for his education followed by his artistic training at the school attached to the Liverpool Mechanics' Institution under the instruction of John Bishop. He began exhibiting at the Liverpool Academy from 1839 and these early works were often still-lifes of fruit and it was from about 1843 that he made the significant change to landscape, painting them from nature.

He sent his first painting to be exhibited in London in 1847, to the British Institution, a work entitled "Nant Frangon" and a year later, "On the River Greta, Keswick" was his first exhibit at the Royal Academy. He continued to show his work at the R.A. and by the late 1850s, he was receiving favourable reviews of his these exhibits and John Ruskin's enthusiasm when writing in "Academy Notes", had established for him a reputation in the capital before he relocated there in 1859.

The move to London further augmented his standing and his paintings became much sought after. Besides his B.I. and R.A. exhibits, he was also showing at the Royal Society of British Artists, Portland Gallery and Dudley Gallery. His subject matter, although initially being predominantly of the Liverpool environs and Welsh mountain and coastal views, eventually was spread widely throughout Britain as well as parts of Switzerland. In London, he joined the private exhibiting society the Hogarth Club which was exclusively for those working in the Pre-Raphaelite discipline.

The enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelite paintings began to wane in the 1860s and Oakes adapted his style, rather in the way that Benjamin Williams Leader, John Brett, Sidney Richard Percy, John Mulcaster Carrick, John Samuel Raven and others had done, away from such an overtly detailed depiction of light and flora and fauna to a more naturalistic interpretation. In his Dictionary of British Landscape Painters, M H Grant writes of him: "His work was as beautiful as it was ubiquitous, whether inland or on the coast". Some examples of exhibited works include: "Hailstorm at the Devil's Bridge, Pass of St Gothard", "Dirty Weather on the East Coast", "The Reaper's Rest", "A Cornish Fishing Village, early Morning", "A Summer Morning - ' Fragrant and Fresh is the Scent of the Hay etc.'", "New Brighton Jetty", "Disturbed, a Plover rising from its Nest", "Lt. Colonel Charles Grove Edwards at the head of his Regiment marching into Crown St., Halifax" and "Morning at Angera, Lago Maggiore".

Throughout his career, J W Oakes exhibited 90 paintings at the Royal Academy, 28 at the British Institute, 11 at the Royal Society of British Artists as well as at Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and other venues. He was elected an Associate of the Liverpool Academy in 1847 and was that body's Secretary from 1853-55, an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1876 and Honorary Royal Scottish Academician in 1883. Despite only showing a small number of watercolours, he was made an Associate of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1874.

London had continued to be his residence since moving from Liverpool and he died at his home in Leam House, Kensington in 1887 and he was buried in Brompton Cemetery. His landscapes were naturalistic with a fine observation of the effect of light and atmospheric weather conditions. Occasionally he introduced Turneresque treatments to his light and sky. M H Grant also says of him: "Working sometimes on large canvases, these never, as is often the case with artists, lost the fine quality of his technique, a virtue acknowledged by the high prices obtained for his important pieces". In his obituary in the Magazine of Art, he was described as one of our most distinguished landscape painters.

His paintings are widely held in British public collections and include: The Victoria and Albert Museum, National Army Museum in London, the museums in Liverpool, Nottingham, Glasgow, Dundee, Manchester, Rochdale, Leicester, Ludlow, Norwich, Plymouth, Jersey, Reading, Kirklees and the Harris Museum, Laing Art Gallery, McClean Museum and Art Gallery and the Williamson Art Gallery.

We are grateful to Dr Pat Hardy of the Museum of London for help in cataloguing this painting.


The Pre-Raphaelites - Christopher Wood

Dictionary of Victorian Painters - Christopher Wood

Dictionary of British Landscape Painters - M H Grant

The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators 1800-1914 - Simon Houfe

Old and New London Vol. IV - Edward Walford



"Despite the thaw which converted the snow of the London streets into mud on Saturday and Sunday, and raised hope of warmer weather in the breasts of all but the most inveterate skaters, the frost has come back with all its old severity and the ornamental waters in the different parks have been as crowded as ever. The ice has obtained a greater stability and a much finer surface than it possessed last week We give on pages 58 and 63, as well as on the present page, illustrations taken by our artists of scenes on the ice in Regent's and St James's Parks, and on the Serpentine. The doings of one day are pretty similar to those of another, except that the fun waxes fiercer daily, and, as might be expected, some serious accidents have occurred. So, also, the scenes on one piece of ice are, with slight modifications, like those to be seen on all the others, though the Serpentine in Hyde Park certainly bears off the palm, both for general skating and for picturesqueness of detail. It had been intended to have a monster fair on these waters on Monday but this intention was abandoned in consequence of the rapid thaw that lasted for two days. Nevertheless, an immense number of amusement tents and marquees which were used for dancing were pitched upon the ice. There were likewise a great number of refreshment-tents, for the accommodation of the sliders and skaters. The spirit of the fair did not fairly commence until nine o'clock at night, when an extraordinary spectacle took place. Upwards of 6,000 persons, many with lighted links and on skates, took up their positions at the east end, and formed themselves into processions, being headed by a brass band. After going through several feats of skating, they turned back to about midway of the bridge leading to the Albert-gate and the Royal Humane Society's receiving-house, when some military manoeuvres were gone through in the shape of attack and defence. The first performance was a discharge of twenty-one maroons, after which a regular cannonading commenced from the south-side of the Serpentine which was carried out by chasserons being thrown alight across the river towards the north shore; these were followed by a continuous shower of rockets, Roman candles, and other description of fireworks which lasted for several hours. The defensive party kept up a smaller fire. The grand finale of the following day lasted from eight until nearly midnight and the scene that took place surpassed in brilliancy the performance of the previous night. The proceedings began with a procession, headed by a man bearing on his hat a large red lamp. On each shoulder was attached a similar lamp. There were lamps tied on each knee and on the ankle just above the skates. Following him there was an extraordinary procession - about three hundred persons skating. Several had printed papers stuck on their heads announcing that "Cambridge and Oxford Terms" had commenced that day. The scene was altogether of a most exciting character. The tents were again brilliantly lighted up and many quadrilles were performed upon the ice. There were also skittle matches and games of quoits."


This painting depicts a firework display held near the Serpentine on 16th January 1861 and the event was written up in an article in the Illustrated London News on 19th January. In the foreground to the left can be seen Royal Humane Society volunteers. This body had been founded by Drs. Goldsmith, Heberden, Towers and others in 1774 and its headquarters were in Trafalgar Square. "This Society, which is supported by voluntary contributions, publishes accounts of the most approved and effectual methods for recovering persons apparently drowned or dead; and suggests and provides suitable apparatus for, and bestows rewards on all who risk their lives in the preservation or restoration of human life." (Old and New London)

The concept of the Serpentine, which despite its name is fairly straight, was the idea of Queen Caroline, Consort to George II, in 1730. She thought that Hyde Park could be greatly improved by consolidating the several park pools and ponds, together with the River Westbourne, in to one sheet of water. It was to be part of an ornamental garden based round a proposed new royal palace. Work on the new waterway commenced in September 1730 and apparently the Queen was bearing the cost of £6,000 from her purse. However, it was discovered upon her death, that with Walpole's connivance and adroit accountancy, £20,000 had come from the King and the Royal Treasury.

Hyde Park had been a focal point for festivities for some time with a joyous event marking the coming of peace in 1814 and then after Waterloo, "….a mock naval engagement on the Serpentine River in Hyde Park was presented on the occasion. Boats

rigged as vessels of war were engaged in petty combat and one or two filled with combustibles were set on fire in order to act as fire-ships. First a couple of frigates engaged. Then the Battle of the Nile was imitated. Later at night the fireworks commenced. I was as close to them as anyone could well be placed. There was a painted a Castle externally made of cloth. This mock fort gave out a pretended cannonade, amid the smoke of which, the scene shifting, changed the whole into a brilliant temple, with transparent paintings, to represent a temple of Peace, quite in a theatrical way. This elicited shouts of admiration from the people." (Mr. Redding).

In the 19th century, the Serpentine would frequently freeze over, even to the extent that in 1814, a fair was held on the ice and in 1825 a Mr. Hunt drove a coach and four across it to win a bet. The frozen surface also attracted many skaters and due to the risk of injury or falling through the ice, the Royal Humane Society had a presence there. On the north side of the water, they erected a receiving house in 1834 and this replaced an earlier building of 1794 on the land which had been presented to the Society by George III. The design of the building, which had a classical edifice, was entrusted to Mr J Bunning and the Duke of Wellington laid the first stone. The Ionic entrance was surmounted by a sculpture depicting the obverse of the Society's medal, depicting a boy blowing on a torch which has almost gone out, together with the legend: "Lateat scintillula forsan", ("Perchance a spark may be concealed"). This building contained all the equipment needed for a rescue and resuscitation such as boats, ropes and ladders.

The Society's records reveal that in one 27 year period, it gave honorary awards for saving life to 5,557 people and during that period, 13,865,222 people had enjoyed the waters of the Serpentine, either through swimming or skating, watched over by the Society's officers. Of that huge number of visitors, 5,357 had been involved in accidents which were potentially life-threatening and nearly all were saved.


1820 - 1887


Oil on canvas




Signed and dated and indistinctly signed, inscribed and dated on label on reverse