This is George Spencer Watson's greatest work, the picture that secured his longed-for election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1923. It is a paen to the happy family life he enjoyed on the Isle of Purbeck, first at The Corner Cottage, Studland, and latterly at Dunshay Manor, Langton Maltravers, the house he acquired in 1923 once his professional success had been assured. It is a picture that encapsulates the preoccupations of the age: the quest for a simpler life after the horrors of the First World War, and a celebration of sun, sea and fresh air. The artist and his family are depicted walking across Studland Heath, the famous Old Harry Rocks being seen to the left of the picture. Classically composed, it is firmly in the tradition of the 'swagger' portrait, with antecedents stretching back to Van Dyck. And yet, as Leighton had urged Watson, whom he had encountered as a younger man, the artist has managed to paint in an idiom distinctively his own. Colour is block-like and unbroken, and the conception bold.
Spencer Watson was born in London and studied at The Merchant Taylor's School. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1889, showing early promise as a Landseer scholar and silver medallist. He established a career as a portraitist (A Lady in Black was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest in 1935) and also painted nudes (a good example is in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston). While his Times obituary noted 'reserve of feeling and purity of line' in his portraits, Exemplified in the following lot, this restraint is absent in his subject pictures where the obituarist noted 'he could become rather reckless when he let himself go'.
His finest works are portraits of his family and sketches of Dunshay. Here, the depth of his emotions are readily apparent. His wife, Hilda Gardiner (seen in a portrait recently acquired by Tate Britain), was a remarkable woman, a friend of Carl Jung, who established a reputation as a dancer in the manner of Isadora Duncan. She developed a form of mime - in which the Greek myths were relayed - and established a theatre in the barn at Dunshay. The family initially lived in London, first at 17 Melbury Road, and latterly at 20 Holland Park Road, and established many friendships in that literary and artistic milieu.
Their daughter Mary would later become a sculptor of great distinction, initially trained by John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth's first husband, who delighted in direct carving into the local Purbeck stone. A retrospective of her work was held at Salisbury Cathedral in 2004, and several of her pieces embellish the gardens at Dunshay, adding greatly to the spirit of the place.
This portrait, and the following two works have hung at Dunshay since they were painted. Spencer Watson's work rarely appears on the market and his talent deserves to be better known. Those examples that have appeared (for example in a sale of several works from Dunshay held at Christie's South Kensington, 26 October 1995, lots 88-113) have been eagerly received by a devoted band of interested collectors. In addition to Tate Britain, and The Harris Art Gallery Preston, examples of his work are held in museum collections in Bournemouth, Liverpool, Plymouth and the National Gallery of Canada.