A Lioness with a Heron
(James Ward)


James Ward’s long career as an engraver and painter extended from the advent of the Industrial Revolution across the peak of British romantic art until well into the Victorian era. He was generally acknowledged as the greatest animal painter working in the first quarter of the 19th Century, though he also painted landscapes, portraits, genre scenes, and history paintings. He was born in 1769 (the year the Royal Academy was established) the youngest child of a London warehouse manager, who drank. Like his elder brothers, Ward was sent to Merchant Taylors School, but the financial upheavals of the American Revolution cut short his education before he had barely achieved basic literacy. Consequently, Ward’s intellect was marked throughout his life by the eccentric intensity of an autodidact coupled with his own innate affinity for the supernatural.

In a turn of fate, which effectively marks the beginning of his career, at the age of twelve Ward was working to support his family as a bottle washer, but ill health compelled his parents to take him out of the factory and have him indentured to John Raphael Smith (1752-1812), an established engraver. He was subsequently apprenticed to his brother William and to George Morland and under both men finalised his formal artistic education.

As an artist working in Regency Britain, Ward could not have avoided the influence of George Stubbs, the greatest animal painter of the preceding generation. One of Ward’s earliest exotic compositions, A Lion and a Tiger Fighting (1797, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) immediately evokes Stubbs iconic compositions of a horse being attacked by a lion. In both the 1797 and the present picture Ward captured an emotional and visceral sense of the animals struggle through a tightly arranged almost heraldic interplay of forms set against a spare elemental background with only a few touches of foliage to place the scene in nature. This northern formula is typical of animal subjects by Rubens and Frans Snyder and this Rubensian influence is particularly apparent in how Ward places the recumbent lioness turned in profile to roar in surprise at an unseen foe, her fur and the feathers of her prey, the dying heron painted wet-in-wet in vigorously tactile brushwork. In some areas, such as the upper left field, Ward even appears to have used his fingers.

This particular subject is relatively rare in Ward’s art, most of his animal subjects having been horses, or cows. But as the 1797 painting and later leonine examples of the 1840s show, Ward was consistently fascinated by wild and exotic animals and the present work represents not only a flash of triumph amongst the setbacks of this period in Ward’s career (in which he had misguidedly committed his efforts to the fiasco of his failed Waterloo Allegory) but it also illustrates an important development in the depiction of animals in British art. Ward’s equal emphasis on accuracy in approach to both the animals’ physical form and its atavistic reaction to its unseen foe, transforms the work from the natural history subjects recognizable form of previous generations into what is effectively a new artistic model, one that demands an emotional response.

The fact that Ward clearly understood just how he was breaking with established visual tradition in this particular work is borne out by the following excerpt from a letter dated 11th April 1848 in which he wrote: ‘…the world knows nothing of what I can do in that way but from Mr. Earle’s picture.’.

Lioness with a Heron exemplifies the most purely Romantic aspects of Ward’s art and this painting exerted a strong influence on contemporary artists, both in England and France. For example, Delacroix would certainly have seen Ward’s dramatic landscapes when he travelled to London in 1817, and similar landscapes subsequently emerge in many of his most celebrated paintings, as well as those by Théodore Géricault, who himself, was probably influenced by Ward’s Rubensian approach to animal form.

In the present work Ward’s was also clearly indebted to the veterinary science that is the foundation of the greatest zoological works of the previous century, most especially the work of Jacques-Laurent Agasse. However, in this painting Ward managed to also encapsulate his own generation’s nascent understanding of animal psychology, specifically the theories of anatomist Sir Charles Bell, who had written a treatise on expression for the use of artists in 1806. Bell, along with Ward and other artists such as B. R. Haydon and Sir Edwin Landseer, sought to depict the members of the animal kingdom according to the synergy between their form and their instructive responses, rather than attempting to articulate animal power by suggesting human emotions, often leading to anthropomorphism. Indeed, Ward made a number of drawings studying the anatomy of animals, and some of lions in particular. Two drawings of a lion (or lioness), shown écorché, which date to circa 1801-2, and thus predating Bell’s treatise, demonstrate the depth of Ward’s study of the animal and its musculature.

Lioness with a Heron beautifully illustrates this development of man’s understanding of animal psychology and how this in turn influenced mankind’s concept of his own place in the natural order – arguably the greatest intellectual advance of the first half of the 19th Century. Like much of Ward’s best work, it is bold and thrilling in composition as much as in handling. Moreover, in this painting Ward has conveyed a true scientist’s respect and awe for nature without overlooking the scene’s inherent emotional potential thus anticipates the greatest animal subjects of Géricault and Edwin Landseer.

Find citation in ***
C. Bell, “Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting. …, 1806.
Courtauld Institute, London.

110 x 145 cm (43 ¼ x 57 in)
Oil on canvas

Acquired directly from the artist by Mr Earle;
Collection of Hugh Robert Hughes at Kimmel Park, Abergele, Wales (by 1885);
Coll. J. Staats Forbes (by 1894); his sale, Christie’s, 2 June 1916, lot 164; where acquired by Mr Buck;
Anon. sale, Robinson Fisher & Harding, London, 8 October 1925, lot 174;
With John Nicholson Gallery, New York (by 1959);
Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico.


C. Reginald Grundy, James Ward R. A.; His Life and Works, London, 1909, no. 566, p. 48, illus. fig. 10.
J. S. Held, “The New Museum in Ponce”, in The Art Quarterly, XXVII, 1964, pp. 26 and 37, fig. 17.
J. S. Held, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Fundación Luis A. Ferré, Catalogue I, Paintings of the European and American Schools, Ponce, 1965, pp. 192-193.
O. Beckett, The Life and Works of James Ward: The Forgotten Genius, Margate, 1995, p. 197, no. 186.


London, Royal Academy, Old Master’s Exhibition, 1885, no. 58 (when lent by H. R. Hughes).
London, Guildhall, 1894, no. 86 (when lent by J. S. Forbes).
Bristol, City Art Gallery, Animals in Art, 1908, no. 160.
Detroit and Philadelphia, Romantic Art in

Where is It?
Acquired from The Matthiesen Gallery by a European Collector
Historical Period
Romanticism - 1810-1870
Price band
Sold or not available