Peter and his Children Visited by Three Flying Figures


A man and two children stand in the doorway of a small wooden structure. Hovering over the structure are three beings with fin-like wings on their backs. The furthest flying figure (in the background) carries a musical horn. A basket and a gardening hoe lean against the building, and tree branches frame the image.

Primary Works: 

The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man (London, 1783; first published in 1751)

Accession Number: 


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Alfred Drummond, a descendant of the artist; (Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd., London); purchased by William B. O'Neal, Charlottesville, VA, 1972-1994; gift to NGA, 1995. (Provenance notes, NGA)
In 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge described The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, which this image illustrates, as “a work of uncommon beauty, and yet Stothard's illustrations have added beauties to it. If it were not for a certain tendency to affectation, scarcely any praise could be too high for Stothard's designs” (Coxhead 69).
This image is an illustration for Robert Paltock’s book, The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man. The scene is not taken directly from the text, but portrays Peter, his children, and three of the flying men he encounters on his journey (Paltock 8).
The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man, for which this image was created as an illustration, was first published in 1751. New editions were published in 1783, 1812, and 1816 (Paltock viii).
Clement's Inn

Robert Paltock lived and wrote in Clement’s Inn, London ("Life of Thomas Stothard").
Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins was first published in 1751. The illustrations in the later editions include six engravings from Stothard’s watercolors (Coxhead 69).
The depiction in this image of figures that are simultaneously ordinary (human-looking) and strange (with wings) evokes the Romantic interest in the probability or improbability of undiscovered life forms, as well as in the real-life relevance or applicability of myth.
Stothard spent a good deal of his career illustrating works of literature, and some of the greatest engravers of his day reproduced his work. The simple, austere lines of the image almost hide the strangeness of the winged figures. Their presence is an example of the “uncanny”—“a class of frightening which leads us back to what is known and long familiar” (Freud 220). Despite their unsettling wings, these creatures are almost ordinary. They are also reminiscent of angels, but their wings are spiny rather than feathered. Their presence could refer to the ongoing debate in the Romantic era concerning the existence of miracles in myth, history, and even the present. As new scientific discoveries and an increasing interest in cataloguing and labeling the diversity of life emerged during this period, many also began to question what sorts of life might exist undiscovered (Pascoe 49).
This image depicts a scene in Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins.
"Life of Thomas Stothard, R.A. with Personal Reminiscences. By BRAY, Anna Eliza (1790-1883)." ABAA Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. ABAA. Web. 19 Mar. 2009.

Coxhead, A. C. Thomas Stothard, R.A.; an Illustrated Monograph. London: A.H. Bullen, 1906. Internet Archive. Web. 1 Apr. 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. XVII. London: Hogarth P, 1955. 218-52. Print.

Paltock, Robert. The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins. Vol. I. London: Hanson and Co., 1884. Internet Archive. Web. 19 Mar. 2009.

Pascoe, Judith. The Hummingbird Cabinet: a Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006. Print.

Stothard, Thomas. "Peter and His Children Visited by Three Flying Figures." c.1783. National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art. Web. 19 Mar. 2009.
Thomas Stothard (artist), British, 1755 – 1834, Peter and His Children Visited by Three Flying Figures, c. 1783, pen and gray ink with gray wash over graphite on wove paper, overall: 11.3 x 6.9 cm (4 7/16 x 2 11/16 in.), Gift of William B. O'Neal, 1995.52.171