A boatman rows back to the distant jetty, having left three itinerant field workers to trudge up the shore with their belongings. The girl carrying a bundle and wearing a tattered apron leads a harvester with a scythe and cast iron cooking pot, while a woman pushing a barrow loaded with their belongings completes the trio of Travelling Harvesters. Presently they will arrive at the edge of tomorrow's field and pitch camp. The pot, suspended over an open fire, will provide a simple meal and the weary child will fall asleep against a corn stook (fig. 1).
When he visited Henry Herbert La Thangue's studio on the peninsula between the villages of Bosham and Itchenor near Chichester, in the late summer of 1896, George Thomson noted that the present picture, the major Royal Academy exhibit of 1897, was already in progress. Its companion, The Harvesters' Supper, would await the Academy of 1898. Although migration of labouring men to cities continued, and gang labour disappeared in the home counties with the rise of agricultural unions, the rural economy depended upon skilled reapers at harvest time. Thomson observed that mechanisation had not yet destroyed manual labour in this remote corner of 'sleepy Sussex', and
'... the travelling harvester with his scythe on his shoulder and his little stock of household gods [sic] is even now taking form upon the painter's latest canvas.'1
La Thangue and he discussed the phases of the labourer's year, the variety of tasks he was given and his appearance, noting for instance, that his clothes came from the local town and were now no longer hand-made. As they talked, the cycle of ploughing and sowing in spring, hay harvest in June, and cereal harvest in mid-September was complete. Although as a result of gang legislation, women were no longer exploited, during cereal harvests they and older children were called into service, binding the corn into sheaves and setting up 'stooks' to aid the drying process.2 By the 1890s, farmers were constantly debating the introduction of mechanical reapers and binders which, although faster, were unreliable and unsuitable for tougher cereals like barley.3 The labourers' skills were therefore under threat. Having been hired for a season only, when the year came to an end at what was known as Old Michaelmas (11 October), they would be obliged to move on and 'the roads were 'thicks' with 'dicky carts''.4 All this accurate observation of contemporary conditions made the painter's rural record 'of permanent historic value' for Thomson.5
La Thangue merited this special attention because at the previous Royal Academy exhibition in May 1896, his The Man with the Scythe was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest. At this point Henry Tate's gallery on Millbank, intended to house his collection and the pictures purchased for the nation by the bequest, was nearing completion. As the leading exponent of what Thomson referred to as 'Naturalism in Art', La Thangue's place was assured and there was curiosity about what he would do next. Looking closely at this picture in progress, the writer might also have noted that Travelling Harvesers is a restatement of a familiar compositional type in the artist's work. Back in 1886, in The Return of the Reapers, 1886 (fig. 2), La Thangue had shown a similar group of harvesters advancing towards the spectator - a girl in the foreground followed by a labourer carrying a scythe.6
In the days when rural naturalism was the subject of much theoretical discussion, this plein air painting, with its broad, flat, square-shaped brushstrokes, is almost an academic exercise in deploying new, controversial methods. La Thangue was to be dubbed the leader of the 'square brush school'.7 Nevertheless the interest in bringing figures forward in space to create a sense of real life encounter, continued in works such as Nightfall in the Dauphiné, 1892 (unlocated) and The Woodman, 1894, (Private Collection) before being reprised in the most significant work of the sequence, The Travelling Harvesters.
If it marks the return to a significant compositional concept, the present work also indicates a move away from the abject pathos of La Thangue's previous two Academy exhibits. In 1895, in The Last Furrow (Oldham Art Gallery) for instance, he painted an aged fieldworker slumped over his plough, while in the equally sombre, The Man with the Scythe, an old reaper passes the garden gate at the moment when a young mother tends to her ailing daughter. Coming a year later The Travelling Harvesters contained, according to The Times, no 'touching underplot'. It noted that,
'This year we have no such secondary meaning, we have 'a man with a scythe' again... [however] the subject is simple, even ordinary but the story is so well told, the figures stand so well on their feet, and above all the light is so true, that this is quite one of the noteworthy successes of the year.'
If story-telling was absent from the work, symbolism was not, and it would be naïve to assume that La Thangue was not fully aware of the connotations of men with scythes. He might well have picked up on the poor press coverage of John Everett Millais' unsubtle Death the Reaper, 1895, (fig. 3) a picture of a black-draped angel with a scythe, shown at the New Gallery.
This compared with works by Jean-François Millet, Jules Breton, Alphonse Legros and Léon Lhermitte in which the simple agricultural tool acquired a rich meaning as a symbol of mortality.8 La Thangue would have seen works by these artists, either in the real or in reproduction. He would have known of the fables of La Fontaine, and as a student, is likely to have read Alfred Sensier's elegiac 'life' of Millet in which the French painter recalled sitting under a tree, observing the approach of an aged peasant and reflecting that,
'The unexpected and always surprising way in which this figure strikes you, instantly reminds you of the common and melancholy lot of humanity - weariness.'9
This is the effect La Thangue hoped to convey in the fading light of a late summer evening. Circumstantial details - the ragged apron, the cart, the boatman and the distant cottages dilute the effect of death the reaper and bring George Heming Mason's plaintive Harvest Moon, 1872 (fig. 4) to a new generation - a generation tampered by Lhermitte and Jules Bastien-Lepage. As a student in Paris, he would have seen Lhermitte's heroic La Paie de Moissonneurs (Paying the Harvesters), 1882, La Moisson, 1883 and La Fenaison, 1887 - works which swept away the flimsy British swains of the Idyllic' School of Mason and Fred Walker.10 Close study of La Moisson was made more possible after it was acquired by Isaac Smith, one of La Thangue's leading Bradford patrons.11 It was necessary a dozen years later to draw together French prose with British poetry.
La Thangue's success in Travelling Harvesters was universally applauded, particularly for its 'sunset light', 'genuine sentiment', and truth 'in its homage to labour'.12 Even the normally hostile Athenaeum noted the absence of 'his usual slovenliness'.13 However, The Speaker would accept no implied slur;
'Mr La Thangue is the master of what he wants to do. A great impression of natural truth is given by his work. The world as it is, a place that is ever and always beautiful to him who understands...'14
Within a year of Travelling Harvesters, La Thangue was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. Its well-observed evening light was resumed in Nightfall, 1898 (fig. 5) and The Harvesters' Supper, and the theme was further explored in the extraordinary Love in the Harvest Field, (fig. 6) of 1899. Around these works, Gleaners, 1897, A Sussex Cider Press, (1898), Cutting Bracken, 1899, The Ploughboy, 1900 and Dawn, 1901, flesh out the most important series of 'historic' records of English field labour, celebrated in the novels of Thomas Hardy and Richard Jeffries.
Reflecting on this sequence in 1904, when the painter's attentions had turned to Provence and Liguria, James Standley Little recalled that 'one of his pictures, Travelling Harvesters represents a phase of agricultural life likely to become extinct'.15 In a country that had witnessed industrialisation and the rapid growth of new centres of population in the midlands and the north, La Thangue's harvesters were indeed, a dying breed. But there was no time for effete Virgilian elegies. Weary they may be, but the rude health of these survivors will starkly contrast with the weakling city conscripts recruited to fight the Boers and lead to debates about public health and 'the condition of England'.16 For Little, writing in the wake of the South African War, this single, monumental image lived on in the memory.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1 George Thomson, 'H H La Thangue and his Work', The Studio, vol. 9, no. 45, 1896, p. 176.
2 Charles Knightly, Country Voices, The Life and Lore of Farm and Village, 1984 (Thames and Hudson), pp. 123-5. 'Stooks' in earlier times, consisted of ten sheaves, one of which would be taken by the village parson as a tithe.
3 H Rider Haggard, A Farmer's Year, 1899 (Cresset Library ed., 1987), pp. 285, 294-5 explains the farmer's doubts. This text was based upon articles which appeared in Longman's magazine in 1898 and is concurrent with The Travelling Harvesters. Flora Thomson, Lark Rise to Candleford, 1968 ed., (World's End Classics), p. 44, indicates that mechanical reapers were considered as farmer's playthings at the period. Nevertheless a labourer with a scythe could mow an acre in a day, while a mechanical reaper, if it did not break down or fall into ruts, might do seven or eight acres. Scythes at the time of cereal harvest were fitted with 'creets', as shown in The Travelling Harvesters. 'Creets' were bows of metal or frameworks of willow wood which enabled the cut corn to stand against the uncut row so that it could be collected and tied into sheaves more easily.
4 Alun Howkins, 'In the Sweat of thy Face: The Labourer and Work', in GE Mingay ed., The Victorian Countryside, vol. 2, 1981, p. 512.
6 This work was painted for his Bradford patron, Herbert Mitchell; see Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929, 1978, (exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery), p. 21.
7 Morely Roberts, 'A Colony of Artists', The Scottish Arts Review, August 1889, p. 73.
8 Millet's Death and Woodcutter, (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek) was shown at the Salon of 1859; Legros' Death and Woodcutter, (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) was painted in 1878 after the first of a sequence of prints on the theme; and Lhermitte's Death and Woodcutter, (Musée Jean de la Fontaine, Chateau Thierry) was exhibited at the Salon of 1893. For a fuller account of this peasant symbolism see Kenneth McConkey, 'Dejection's Portrait: Naturalist Images of Woodcutters in Late Nineteenth Century Art', Arts Magazine, April 1986, pp. 81-7.
9 Alfred Sensier, J-F Millet, Peasant and Painter, 1881 (trans Helena de Kay, MacMillan), p. 93.
10 La Paie des Moissonneurs (Paying the Harvesters), 1882 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), La Moisson, 1883 (Washington University Gallery of Art, St Louis) and La Fenaison, 1887 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).
11 Smith purchased the picture from Arthur Tooth and Son in london in 1885. It remained in his collection until its sale at Christie's, 15 May, 1911, lot 86.
12 The Academy, 8 May 1897, p. 503; The Magazine of Art, 1897, p. 155-6; The Illustrated London News, 8 may 1897, p. 645.
13 The Athenaeum, 15 May 1897, p. 655, cast aspersions on the documentary authenticity of the work, noting 'we demur to the notion of a travelling harvester trudging with his womankind... a scythe is much too awkward an implement to be carried about the country in this fashion'. He ought remove the blade and tie it to the handle. It also thought the picture too large.
14 The Speaker, 8 May 1897, p. 518.
15 J Stanley Little, 'Henry Herbert la Thangue ARA', The magazine of Art 1904, p. 3. By 1904 mechanical harvesting equipment had improved and although it was not yet pervasive, it was clear that the labourer's way of life was dying. See David Morgan, 'The place of harvesters in nineteenth century village life', in Raphael Samuel ed., Village Life and Labour, 1975, (Routledge and Kegan Paul), pp. 27-72.
16 FG Masterman, The Condition of England, 1909, (1967, ed, Methuen and Co.)