This work is the first of a pair of paintings (see GAC 13339). It shows the body of a young man being lifted from a river. On the banks of a river the man’s wife and children huddle together in despair and disbelief at the sight of the catastrophe. The scene directly relates to the second painting, titled 'His Subsequent Resuscitation by Dr William Hawes', which shows the recovered man sitting up in bed with his jubilant family around him and Dr William Hawes M.D. (1736-1808) by his side. Dr Hawes was known for his ability to resuscitate people who had apparently died from drowning and other causes of asphyxia. In 1774, Hawes and London surgeon Dr Thomas Cogan (1736-1818) agreed to bring 15 friends each to the Chapter Coffee House in London to form a society especially for the purpose of resuscitating the drowned. At the meeting The Humane Society was formed and Hawes became the Society’s Registrar. The inaugural meeting was held on 17 April 1774.
The date when these paintings were commissioned from the artist Robert Smirke by The Humane Society is not known. They were presented to Benjamin Hawes, the son of Dr William Hawes, by the Society in 1787, the year the Society received its Royal Charter. The paintings were also engraved that year by Robert Pollard (1755-1838). Benjamin Hawes was chairman of The Royal Humane Society from 1820 to 1860.
Robert Smirke was born in Wigton, Carlisle. He was brought to London by his father in 1766 and apprenticed to a coach painter named Bromley. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1772 and exhibited at the Academy from 1786 to 1800, in 1805 and in 1815. He became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1791 and a full Royal Academician two years later. Smirke specialised in unusually small scale scenes from literary or theatrical subjects, and his works are often humorous. His radical and revolutionary opinions led George III to bar his appointment as Keeper of the Royal Academy in 1804. The artist died at the age of 92 at his home in Osnaburgh Terrace, near Regent's Park, London.
Collection of the Royal Humane Society; by whom presented to Dr. Benjamin Hawes (son of the sitter) in 1787; by family descent to Captain A. B. Hawes; collection of 'Hawes'; by whom sold through Christie's, London, on 25 February 1949 (Lot 123; with GAC 13339), for £31.10.0; from which sale purchased by 'Browne'; with Colnaghi, London; from whom purchased by the Department of the Environment in July 1977
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