[Harris Museum and Art Galley Preston: © the artist's estate. Photo credit: Bridgeman Images]
Walter Percy Day (1878-1965) was a Luton-born artist who achieved the distinction of having a painting hung at the Royal Academy in May 1919 that attracted national attention.
Though in itself a subject of quiet domesticity, said the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph (May 13th, 1919), the painting was suggested to the artist by the Armistice, and bears the title 'The Eleventh Hour, the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month 1918'.
Mr Day himself explains the genesis of his painting in this way: “I was at home in Luton, when the Armistice Day excitement drew me out into the streets. Impressed as perhaps never before with all that those rejoicings meant, I, who had lost a brother in the war, went home and tried to imagine how a British mother who had suffered long agony, would welcome the hour of peace.
“My wife and child sat for the picture, the latter, unconsciously, being asleep. The story is in the mother's eyes and in the letter lying on the bed. The mother is praying that, for her little one's sake, daddy may soon come home, and I intended thus to symbolise the blending of pain and thankfulness that the good news brought into thousands of homes.”
Mr Day has been approached (it is stated) by the Preston Art Gallery with a view to the purchase of the picture. [The picture was bought for £200 and is still in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Lancs.]
The following edition of the Saturday Telegraph (May 17th) reported on reaction to Percy Day's painting in the national Press with the opinions of visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition, its 151st and the eighth in which Percy had exhibited.
The Daily News had said: “Mr Percy Day will interest many by his painting – a mother with a letter in her hand, bending over a sleeping child. It is the nearest approach to a problem picture in the rooms, and very tidily done.”
A Daily Chronicle representative wrote: Women are especially interested in this small picture. It shows a woman kneeling at the bedside of her baby, and all kinds of fancied interpretations were given it by the women visitors.
'I think it's armistice day, and the woman has just heard her husband is killed,' one woman suggested. 'Oh, no!' her friend retorted. 'I don't think so. I should say the woman realises that her little baby is going to have a father after all, and she is giving thanks that now her husband will be spared.'
Here is the real joy of the Academy, wrote the Daily Chronicle, that of so many of the pictures you can make what you will. They are like great symphonies of music, suggesting a different story to all who hear.
Chatting later with a Daily News representative, Mr Day said that the above latter suggestion was exactly what he meant by his theme. He and his family had had previous experience of war, for during troubles in Tripoli they had had to leave at short notice.
He added that he had exhibited at London many times, and this was the eighth time he had been hung on the line. The price marked for his picture was £200 without the copyright [terms accepted by the Preston museum]. He had also been invited to send the picture to the important Liverpool exhibition in the autumn.
Walter Percy Day, born on September 19th, 1878, was the only son of specialist bag maker Eli and his wife Lucy. He had a younger sister, Lilian Gertrude. The 'brother' he referred to was his brother-in-law, William Henry Parsons, who married Lilian in 1911, after lodging at 102 Crawley Road, Luton, with the Day family. William is buried in the family grave at Luton's General Cemetery.
Percy, who as a gifted teenage painter, had won a scholarship to the Royal Academy School of Art, where in 1903 he gained a silver medal as first prize for “the painting of a head from life”. He was later apprenticed to his cousin, Luton photographer William J. Roberts, before moving to Tunisia in 1907. There he married Ada Chandler, his childhood sweetheart from Luton, in a ceremony at the British Consulate in Tunis on November 20th, 1907, with a blessing at St George's Church in Tunis the following day.
Due to political unrest the couple, with son Arthur George (born 1909), returned to Luton, where second son, Thomas Sidney was born in 1912, and was presumably the child in the Royal Academy painting. The couple were living at 40 Rothesay Road during and just after at the end of the war, Percy having been rejected for enlistment early in the conflict on medical grounds, although its was reported in The Luton News that a Tribunal in Luton in August 1918 held him liable to serve on September 16th. He was then aged 39 and listed as an artist photographer.
Percy was still living in Tunisia when his painting entitled “The Bay of Tunis” (shown above) was presented to Luton Libraries Committee by brewer Mr J. W. Green, for hanging in the newly opened Carnegie Library. Green had purchase it at the seventh annual Luton, Dunstable and South Beds Fine Arts and Crafts Society exhibition held at the Waller Street Baths. Day had already presented his portrait of Andrew Carnegie to the town.
The following year, a further two of Percy Day's Tunis paintings were shown at the Royal Academy exhibition.
Back in Luton, Percy Day included pictures in the tenth annual exhibition of the Luton, Dunstable and South Beds Fine Arts and Crafts Society at the Plait Hall in October 1913. A few months previously Percy Day had consented to act as secretary of an Art Union created by the Society.
In 1914 Percy gave Lutonians an opportunity to view at a Park Square studio three pictures intended for exhibition at that year's Royal Academy exhibition. The pictures were entitled 'The Shadows,' 'Stray Pleasures' and 'Our baby'.
During the stay in Luton, Mrs Day advertised in 1916 to offer French lessons, while in 1919 Percy advertised drawing and painting classes he was offering and stating that he was prepared to visit schools in the district.
In the early 1920s Percy Day found a new outlet for his talents in creating special effects images for the film industry and went to work on movies by the likes of Alexander Korda. In 1948 he was awarded the OBE for services to British cinema. After moving with his family to the United States, he died in hospital in Los Angeles in May 1965.
Wardown House Museum also have other paintings by Percy Day, including the above picture of a young ballerina, entitled 'Winifred D. Foster' that is now displayed in the drawing room at Wardown. The picture is likely to have been of Winfred Daisy Foster, born on Christmas Day, 1904, and daughter of tailor Laurence Anthony and dressmaker Edith Annie, of 64 Wellington Street, Luton. Perhaps her mother made the dress she is wearing.
Winnie was later listed as a shop assistant and was residing in Strathmore Avenue. She died in February 1980, the year the painting was donated to Wardown Museum.