Europeans & Americans Abroad; Philadelphia Collection 73; September 2004
William Bromley III
(English, c. 1835–1888)
May Day in the Park
Oil on canvas, 42 1/8 × 72 5/8 inches
Signed at lower right: “W Bromley”

May Day in the Park is impressive not only for its size, but also for the complexity of its composition and the number of figures participating in a scene that typifies nineteenth-century English country life, just the sort of subject for which the artist is best known. Trained by his grandfather, an engraver, Bromley exhibited extensively in his native London, including at the Royal Academy from 1844 to 1870, at the British Institute from 1835 to 1870, and at the Suffolk Street Galleries, where he showed 187 paintings. He was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and the New Watercolour Society.

On one large canvas the artist captures the Victorian ideal of rural English life—a paternalistic system based on the traditions of land held in established families for generations represented by a once-fortified house (here an Elizabethan manor house, c. 1558–1603, that has not yet been identified) with an adjoining parish church surrounded by barns, farmlands, and small houses and cottages for the farmers and villagers. The clothing in the painting suggests that the artist intended to depict life in the late eighteenth century. The composition is symmetrical: on one side presides the squire with his family, balanced by two maidens who jump a rope supported by their swains. The squire’s young wife holds an infant on her lap, while her eldest son, the heir to the manor, leans nonchalantly against her, dressed as a perfect miniature of his father. The squire’s mother, the dowager, is seated to his right; she wears black, probably in mourning for her husband, the old squire. The man seated between the squire and his mother, who is also dressed in black, is probably the vicar of the church at the left side of the painting, beyond which a broad expanse of water, dotted with white sails, can be seen. If this man is indeed a clergyman of the Church of England, he could be the younger brother of the old squire, who has the “living” of the parish. These three generations of one family—the squire, his mother, and his son—represent the three ages of man. The villagers, a few courting couples among them, and many children still too young to read, accept benevolence in the form of cakes, ale, cider, and Testaments or prayer books. A Maypole (banned during the Puritan interregnum, 1642–60) in the middle distance links the foreground mating ritual to England’s pre-Christian past. Bromley has cast the timeless values of English country life as an allegory of spring, fertility, and burgeoning life.

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