We learn from his biographer, J. Saxon Mills, that far from basking in the success of The Last Muster, (1875, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Hubert von Herkomer was 'rather depressed' and uncertain about the direction his work should take (J. Saxon Mills, The Life and Letters of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, C.V.O., R.A.: A Study in Struggle and Success, London, 1923, p. 95, ff). A leading illustrator for The Graphic and other periodicals he provided images of London's poor as well as pictures of rural life in Germany and France during and after the Franco-Prussian War, for a popular readership. He also contributed to a long-running Graphic series, 'Heads of the People', which set out to represent heroically, a broad selection of lower-class British types.
However, the 'planned triumph' of The Last Muster at the Royal Academy apparently left him in a quandary (for a modern reassessment of Herkomer's strategy in securing success at the Academy see Lee M. Edwards, Herkomer, A Victorian Artist, Aldershot and Brookfield, 1999, pp. 67-74). Unwilling to be typecast, he returned to his Bavarian roots in Der Bittgang: Peasants praying for a successful harvest, (1877, Parc Howard Museum and Art Gallery, Llanelli). During these crucial years, Herkomer was also exhibiting with growing success at the Institute of Painters in Water-colour. More radical than the 'old' Royal Society of Painters in Water-colour, the Institute accepted six works by him in its winter exhibition, 1877, two of which, probably the smaller examples, were entitled Study. Variously described as 'highly artistic' and 'one of the best works here', these are likely to be labourer portrait heads or half-lengths and while there is no evidence to support the identification of the present work with those exhibited, it is not impossible that it began life simply labelled, Study (The Athenaeum, 15 December 1877, p. 778. Herkomer's other four works were A Peasant, A Hunter, Study of an Old Woman and A Moment of Suspense. Only the last of these works, clearly a narrative, was adversely criticized by The Athenaeum).
Certainly the more sensitive, bucolic strand of rustic subject matter emerged principally in Herkomer's watercolours. Early examples in this vein, such as Choosing (The Cabbage Patch), (1868, Watford Museum) reveal a style dependent upon fellow illustrators Fred Walker (1884-1935) and George John Pinwell (1842-1875). But by the late seventies he had progressed to the greater objectivity apparent in The Boy and the Apple Blossoms (The Idler), (1877, MacKelvie Trust Collection, Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand).
The present watercolour can be related to the work in Auckland, since the boy's coat and hat are similar. With great spontaneity the painter places his subject - cutting the rectangle with the sleeve of the boy's jacket on the right and echoing the downward tilt of his hat in the line of hedgerow in the background. The extraordinary freshness of the work, its breadth and delicacy, sharpened by judicious use of 'scratching out', reveal Herkomer's mastery. Here was the forerunner of the rural naturalism that was to emerge in the 1880s with George Clausen's generation (see lot 93) and his impact upon British social realism, even in works of this scale, was immense.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.