Towards the end of his career as Professor at the Slade School of Fine Art, Henry Tonks became a wry commentator on the follies of the art world, lampooning his heroic colleagues, Phillip Wilson Steer, Walter Sickert and Roger Fry. Although an admirer of the work of Degas, he never embraced the Post-Impressionists and like many of his younger contemporaries after the Great War, sought solace in the English countryside. Summer vacations in the 1920s were spent with his old friend and patron, the painter Walter James, Viscount Northbourne, at Northbourne Court, Bettshanger in Kent - 'that wonderful place'.1
His routine was simple,
'I live a pleasant life here. I paint morning and evening; in the morning by the stream, in the evening in the barn ... I talk 'the deeper meaning of things' with the Rector, who, I tell him, must be careful not to be too broadminded or he will have nothing left.'2
His afternoons and wet days in the old barn were passed in the company of two yokels, Jacques and Pilcher - 'simple men who have lived their lives in the country' and 'who astounded him by their powers of endurance as models.'3 Tonks evidently enjoyed their company since he referred to them as his 'Job's comforters'. The results of these endeavours were two canvases entitled A Conversation, the less finished of which is in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The finer version, A Conversation, Bettshanger Barn, in its use of the foreground rustic table and ale pot, confirms Tonk's indebtedness to the compositional strategies of works like Degas' l'Absinthe.
Yet Tonks' subject matter refers to the rural past rather than la vie moderne. This may reveal something of his later friendship with George Clausen, the great exponent of English rural life whose barn interiors had been a consistent feature of Royal Academy exhibitions in the Edwardian years.4 Like Clausen, Tonks believed fervently in the 'here and now' as the basis of poetry and his philosophical speculations informed the present work. 'Fry', he declared, 'has been continually trying to find the source of the Golden Egg, and of course he can't' - whereas,
'All great painters are objective, that is to say they express the spiritual side of their being by earthly means. They are in fact realists.'5
1 Letter to Aubrey Waterfield, dated 18 September 1929, Joseph Hone, The Life of Henry Tonks, 1939, (Heinemann), p. 230; quoted in Pyms Gallery, 1985, p. 72. Northbourne Court was the home of Lord Northbourne, Tonks' patron.
2 Hone, 1939, p. 210
3 Hone, 1939, p. 220. See also Pyms Gallery, 1985, p. 72, which illustrates a study from the University College London collection, for the figure on the right.
4 Tonks and Clausen had been co-authors of Elementary Propositions in Paintings and Drawing, commissioned by the Girls' Public Day School Trust.
5 Hone, 1939, pp.209-210, quoting from an undated letter, c. 1927, to Claude Philip Martin.