In 1914 Walter Sickert wrote appreciatively of Henry Herbert La Thangue's Provençal and Ligurian scenes. 'Take one of these pictures home', he declared,
...hang it in a room where you can see it at breakfast, or while you are dressing...Give it time to convey its message, and you will see how that message is remote from the din of aesthetic discussions of the moment...1
This oft-quoted endorsement, penned just before the outbreak of the Great War, came in the middle of a sustained period of exile in which the painter rejected what he saw as the despoiled landscapes of England for the idyllic sunlit slopes of the Lower Alps. La Thangue first visited southern France in 1883, travelling down the Paris Lyon/Mediterranée line to Donzère. Over the next three years he returned to the villages of the Rhône valley, painting the controversial In the Dauphiné for the first New English Art Club exhibition in 1886 (sold Christie's, 26 November 2003, lot 26, (£531,650), and offered as the subsequent lot in this sale). Thereafter rural scenes of Norfolk and Sussex dominated his work and it was only in the new century that he returned to the Midi, exhibiting his first Provençal canvases at the Royal Academy in 1901.
La Thangue's attraction to the area was not simply born of disillusionment. He was drawn to the lonely hillside farms and religious houses which characterised the Alpes Maritimes and which were described in Samuel Butler's Alps and Sanctuaries (1881).2 For him each was a social microcosm, bringing together the fecundity of nature with the ancient arts of cultivation. Following the success of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries and Sickert's review, he drew his repertoire almost principally from Provence, Liguria, Brescia and provinces of northern Italy. In the twenties he also ventured to the coastal regions of northern Spain and Andalusia, using his studio at Bormes-les-Mimosas as a base. His diploma picture shown at the Academy in 1914, Violets for Perfume (Royal Academy of Arts) set the tone of his future work. Throughout the twenties themes of flower gathering for the perfume factory at Grasse; of viticulture for the famed vin ordinaire; and of fruit picking - the traditional subsistence of the region's peasants - dominated his annual submissions to the summer exhibition.
La Thangue observed that much of the vine growing of Provence and Liguria was done on mature plants grown on frames or trellises constructed around a lattice work of hillside pathways, sometimes overlooking the sea. Trellised Vines, (fig 1, Oldham Art Gallery) illustrates the salient characteristic of southern France and northern Italy since the time of Virgil. Goethe in his Letters from Italy in 1786 commented upon the Alpine foothills, on which one would find 'long, low trellises' from which 'purple grapes hang gracefully'3. Trellises had the obvious advantage of lifting the fruit to head height enabling maize and other crops to be grown where possible around them. Trellises and pergolas provided useful shade in courtyards and over mountain paths when the grapes were being harvested. Such charming scenes often contained chalky cart tracks, courtyards and old lime-washed farm buildings or bastides, shining in the sunlight. In these groves the grapes were packed in wicker baskets for which the coastal town of Cassis was famous.4
While La Thangue inherited this Mediterranean pastoralism from Victorian painters who visited Naples, Capri and Sicily, his method of assembling the composition was uniquely modern. With bold fore-shortening of the boxes in the immediate foreground he leads the spectator's eye into the space of the picture in Packing Grapes. Across this rigid geometry, he throws a screen of colour cadences which bind together figures and setting. This was a familiar gambit seen in late works like Packing Cherries, circa 1924, (fig 2, Rochdale Art Gallery) and Packing Stocks, circa 1925-29 (Oldham Art Gallery) both of which contain young women filling baskets lined with parchment. A Provençal Hillside (RA 1928, untraced) and A Provençal Forecourt (RA 1929, untraced) similarly indicate young men and women who have forsaken traditional regional costume for modern, simpler clothes.5
Packing Grapes was exhibited posthumously in 1930 - the painter having died in the previous December. The anonymous writer of The Times obituary set the scene for its showing by baldly referring to La Thangue's characteristic manner of representing the peasants of Provence and Liguria, 'in dappled light and shade, with direct and forcible brushwork and a strongly personal note in the colour schemes'.6 It was left to fellow artists like George Clausen to lift this banal description to a level of La Thangue's true worth. For him what moved La Thangue was '...some simple motive of rural occupation enhanced by picturesque surrounding...[and containing] primarily the beauty of things in sunlight'.7 In Clausen's estimation he could be justly compared with the masters he always admired - especially Vermeer and Velazquez. And in the timeless quality of his work there was a persistent echo of Sickert's belief that 'such canvases contain a message that will speak to many generations to come and will certainly last us in pleasure, entertainment, stimulus, for the rest of our short lives'.8
However none of these eulogies quite touches the deep sensuality of La Thangue's late evocations of the hill farms and sanctuaries of Provence and Liguria. Descending into Italy from the mountains, in the 1880s, Vernon Lee discovered a country which 'belongs to no time, which will always exist...on that day among the roses of those Benedictine cloisters, the cool shadow of fig trees in the yards...heavy with romance, of wine-saturated oak and crumbling plaster;...I know with a little stab of joy that this is Italy'.9 The smell of ripening fruit mingled with the odour of crumbling plaster is precisely what the painter uniquely has captured in Packing Grapes.
1. Quoted from Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, H H La Thangue, 1978, exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery, p. 14.
2. Samuel Butler, Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, 1881 (Jonathan Cape, 1923 ed.). This was illustrated by La Thangue's fellow New English Art Club exhibitor, Charles Gogin. Although widely regarded as a literary pariah, Butler's volume, following the opening of the St Gothard Pass, was reissued as a second edition in 1913, and remained in print until the early twenties.
3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Letters from Italy, 1995, trans. W H Auden and Eliz Mayer. Penguin ed., p. 3.
4. Leslie Richardson, Things seen in Provence, 1925, Seeley, Service and Co., pp. 130-4.
5. As in the present work, La Thangue's women were frequently attired in white blouses and red headscarves tied at the nape of the neck while his male figures, like English field-workers, wore hats, waistcoats, patched trousers and stout boots.
5. 'Obituary - Mr La Thangue RA - A Painter of Rural Scenes', The Times, 23 December 1929, p. 12.
6. George Clausen, 'H H La Thangue RA', in Memorial Exhibition of the Works by the Late Henry Herbert La Thangue RA exhibition catalogue, Brighton Art Gallery, 1930, pp. 4-6.
7. George Clausen, 'H.H. La Thangue, RA', in Memorial Exhibition of the Works by the Late Henry Herbert La Thangue RA, exhibition catalogue, Brighton Art Gallery, 1930, pp. 4-6.
8. K. McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, 1978, p. 14.
9. Irene Cooper Wills, A Vernon Lee Anthology, 1929 (John Lane, The Bodley Head Ltd), pp. 9-10.
We are grateful to Kenneth McConkey for providing this catalogue entry.