In 1901 Clausen was at the height of his powers. Four pictures at the Royal Academy in that year indicate the range and strength of his work. The Golden Barn (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), his third important barn interior, was widely praised for its Rembrandtesque tonalities. Sons of the Soil (Private Collection), showing a group of field workers in a resplendent Essex landscape near Widdington, was also highly regarded by his critics. Of the two remaining smaller works, A Gleaner, a single figure study, remains unlocated, while The Spreading Tree reveals the painter moving away from his accustomed subjects and adopting a more experimental mood.1
This was a risky strategy. The intensely conservative and normally belligerent Athenaeum found 'discord' in the present work and ruminated that 'very few artists have discovered a satisfactory harmony [for]...early summer foliage in sunlight'.2 However, such opinions were not universally shared and some realized that the importance of works such as The Spreading Tree lay in the painter's growing fascination for low early morning or late afternoon sunlight in spring or autumn. The back-lighting which this gives, and the momentary afterglow as the sun goes down, were time-limited effects that required careful observation of local colour, if shady foreground patches of field and tree were not to appear dull and uninteresting. Testing his observational power by noting figures placed in such a setting deepened a challenge that he was to take up in subsequent years in works such as Dusk, 1903 (Laing Art Gallery) and The Gleaners Returning, 1908. Critics quickly got the message. In the first of these, the trees had a 'rare and delicate beauty' while in the latter, 'one of the finest of those problems of light', the evening sunlight casts long shadows across the road, almost submerging the figures.3
These battles began with The Spreading Tree. When interviewed in 1905 Clausen declared that its effects represented his most important challenge.
'The more a man studies Nature out of doors the more he sees how evanescent is the play of light...Look for instance at that pile of canvases against the wall, all commenced in the open air, and unfinished because of the changing conditions.'4
Back in 1889, as he was first experimenting with pastel, he began to move away from the tonalities of Bastien-Lepage. The effect of bright colour and strong directional drawing first seen in pastel began to infiltrate his oil painting, producing effects popularly associated with French Impressionism, to the dismay of some writers. As The Athenaeum clung to its Victorian values, progressive voices such as D.S. MacColl spoke up for the 'clear-struck and decisive' touch of the brush seen in works such as present canvas and trailed in Clausen's pastels.5
The girls in The Spreading Tree are likely to be the painter's two attractive teenage daughters, Meg and Kitty.6 From other portraits, such as Kitty, c. 1897 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and Apple Blossom, 1899 (formerly Fine Art Society, London), we know that the girls had long reddish hair which they frequently left untied. Such was the attraction of the ensemble that Percy Bate wrote requesting The Spreading Tree for the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, between 4 February and 2 May 1902.7 Specific requests of this kind were unusual, but may be explained in the present instance because the picture would sit well among the works of the more radical Scottish painters whose work Clausen had done much to promote.8
Probably painted in the fields near Clausen's home at Widdington, near Newport in Essex, where he had been living for eleven years, the surrounding oaks and sycamores in The Spreading Tree became emblematic.9 In the previous year he had shown Under the Tree, a lost work which may anticipate the present canvas, and in a sensitive analysis of tree forms in one of his lectures to Academy students he could almost be describing the processes which made the present work:
'It is not so very difficult to copy a tree, but to paint it and make it live...is a thing few can do well...How often, when we set about painting a tree...we lose, even in looking at it, the charm that attracted us! We get confused, I suppose, with the infinity of detail...We miss it somehow. One often sees trees painted that look cut out at the edges, like trees on the stage...but if we look at the tree as a whole - as a great dome, spreading up and into the sky, with light shining on it and through it - if we realize this, we can get a little nearer to our tree.'10
Like the field-worker, the stocky English oak expressed stability and healthy growth. Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, two months before the painting was sent to the Academy, and Britain remained in national mourning. Although the new century had begun, spring in that year was a new dawn, and these daughters of Albion in the shade of The Spreading Tree carried the promise of a new generation.
1 Clausen's account book indicates that the picture was dispatched to the Academy through the agent, Buck, on 5 April 1901, with an asking price of £150. The picture was then sent to the Manchester Autumn Exhibition on 29 July.
2 Anon, 'The Royal Academy (Second Notice)', The Athenaeum, 18 May 1901, p. 636.
3 For further consideration of this work see Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen RA, 1852-1944, 1980 (exhibition catalogue, Bradford and Tyne and Wear Museums), pp. 74-7, 81-2.
4 Anon, 'Painters of Light: An Interview with George Clausen ARA', Black and White, 8 July 1905, p. 42.
5 The Saturday Review, 15 November 1902, p. 611.
6 There was a note of envy in Charles Ricketts' diary entry a few years later when he dined with Clausen and discovered 'five grown-up children, all of them good-looking and happy'; Cecil Lewis ed., Self-Portrait, Letters and Journals of Charles Ricketts, 1939, (Peter Davies), p. 127. Margaret Mary Clausen (Meg, 1884-1946) and her sister, Katherine Frances ('Kit' or 'Kitty', 1886-1936), both became art students and both featured extensively in Clausen's work.
7 Clausen replied on 27 September 1901.
8 Clausen persuaded Sir Coutts Lindsay to feature the work of the Glasgow Boys in the last Grosvenor Gallery exhibition of 1890, thereby greatly boosting their careers. On 5 March 1902 Clausen replied again to a letter from Bate indicating that he would accept an offer of £100 for the picture. No further reference is made to the transaction and while it must be assumed that the sale was not completed, it has not been possible to determine whether Bate was acting on his own behalf or that of a Scottish collector. Bate wrote criticism on the Glasgow Boys and is known today as author of The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters, 1899 (George Bell and Sons).
9 The analogy between well-rooted trees and the national character was common parlance during the Edwardian period.
10 George Clausen, Royal Academy Lectures on Painting, 1913, (Methuen and Co.), p. 101.