William Shayer Senior (Southampton 1787 - Shirley 1879)

Drinks at the Crown Inn

oil on canvas
50.8 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in)

In this typical example of William Shayer Senior’s work, a small group of figures are congregated outside of a rural inn, relaxing in the soft English sunlight. Several men, clustered around a small wooden table, are engaged in cheerful conversation and they are waited upon by the two women. A further figure is mounted on a grey horse, ready to embark on his journey as soon as their conversation has finished. Standing apart from the group is a young boy with his donkey and a dog, and perhaps it is he who has delivered the rabbit and pheasant which lie on the ground. The Crown Inn itself is presented as part of a rustic idyll, as the charming wooden and stone structure emerges from the overhanging trees and branches, as if to emphasise how integral to rural England this type of wayside inn is. In contrast to the crowded, slightly cramped foreground, the dusty road leads our eye straight back into the painting, where the expanses of sky and countryside can be seen opening up in the background. As an idealised representation of rural life, Drinks at the Crown Inn can be seen as part of a long tradition of rustic genre scenes in British painting, and Shayer was a significant figure in that tradition.

Although Shayer explored a range of rural themes in his work, some of his best work depicted the exteriors of inns. Drinks at the Crown Inn, is comparable to one of Shayer’s best works on this subject, Outside the Crown Inn. (Private Collection) Although depicted from opposite viewpoints, it is possible that the two paintings depict the same inn, although it should be noted that topographical accuracy was not a major concern for Shayer, ‘the subject not requiring it unless painted to commission’. In both works the inn dominates the foreground, whilst a road runs back into the work, adding depth to the paintings. The same type of amiable peasants recur in both work, such as the old man sitting with his pipe, the more demur barmaid, and the younger man upon a grey horse. Both works show Shayer at his best, as he conveys charming rural simplicity.

Although he travelled around England in the early part of his career, Shayer spent the majority of his life in his native Southampton and it was his depictions of the life and landscape of Hampshire, for which he was best known. His work falls broadly into two categories; coastal scenes based around the lives of fishermen, and rustic genre scenes such as the present work. Apart from inn scenes, Shayer explored many other aspects of village life, such as harvesting, milking or dragging timber. He was a prolific artist, exhibiting over 400 works between 1825 and 1870, and he continued the tradition of rural genre scene that had been practised in British painting by artists such as Francis Wheatley (1747-1801), Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817) and George Morland (1763-1804). Examples of his work are in most of the major British museums and galleries, and as Brian Stewart and Mervyn Cutten say ‘If not unrivalled, William Shayer is, at his best, unsurpassed as a painter of the rural life of his period’.¹

1 Stewart, B. & Cutten, M., The Shayer Family of Painters (F. Lewis, London, 1981), p. 30.