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The Plough

The Plough
signed and dated 'G. CLAUSEN.1893' (lower left)
pencil and watercolour, heightened with touches of bodycolour and with scratching out on paper laid down on board
13 x 22 in. (33 x 55.5 cm.)
with The Goupil Gallery, London, by 1894.
Private Collection.
with William Rivett, Gainsborough Gallery, London.
St James’s Gazette, 23 April 1894, p. 15.
London, Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, 1894, no. 209, illustrated fig. 17.

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Lot Essay

A pale disc hangs in the sky above the horizon; fanning furrows direct the eye across a field, recently ploughed; and before us in George Clausen’s sparkling watercolour is the ancient implement that has scratched and scored the landscape into productivity. The labourer and his workhorses have gone, and at a time when ‘solemn stillness’ holds the air, echoes of Gray’s Elegy … are unmistakable. [1]

Although he had forsaken the strict documentary Naturalism of Bastien-Lepage by the start of 1894, George Clausen remained deeply committed to rural subject matter. Living at Widdington in Essex, some 50 miles from London, he was surrounded by an open arable landscape, worked by local families, whose crops helped to support the ever-expanding metropolis. The land itself was elemental and an abandoned plough symbolized good husbandry and nature’s bounty, just as the discarded harrow had for Jean-François Millet. [2]

Ten years earlier Clausen had sketched his first ploughing scenes, and in 1884 used the motif for the design of his ex libris label (fig. 1). [3]

It was only in 1889 that he completed the monumental Ploughing (Aberdeen Art Gallery) in which a ploughboy with his ‘wand’ leads the horses, plough and aged ploughman across a field in Berkshire on a grey day in early spring. [4] This large work had recently been sold in 1893, and it may have prompted a return to the subject in the much admired Turning the Plough (unlocated), his principal Royal Academy exhibit of the following year. Its completion overlaps with the present watercolour and the reworking of a powerful image that for ten years had remained dormant. [5]

After the completion of the current watercolour, the motif, isolated and abandoned, was something that merited further investigation in an oil version sold in these Rooms, 8 March 1990, lot 48 and an uncatalogued etching.[6]

These flames were rekindled by the present watercolour. It caught the eye of one critic when exhibited in London, in that a ‘mere field and abandoned plough’ was sufficient to inspire the artist ‘as foreground to his delicately observed moonrise’.[7]

We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for this catalogue entry.

[1] Both George and Agnes Mary Clausen were poetry lovers, and both contributed illustrations and verses to Robert Ellice Mack’s popular volumes of nature poetry between 1886 and 1890. They would have been familiar with Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, (1751).

[2] An undated note in Clausen’s accounts, early in 1894, indicates that the ‘Plough drawing (evening with rising moon, plough in foreground)’ had been sold by D. C. Thomson, manager of the Goupil Gallery, the artist’s London dealer, for £45. We can assume therefore that when the present work was shown in the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours’ exhibition later in the year, that it was not for sale. Millet’s Plain of Chailly with Plough and Harrow, 1862 is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

[3] Clausen’s first ploughing scenes are found in a sketchbook circa1884, Royal Academy of Arts, London. For fig.1, see Martin Hopkinson, Ex Libris, The Art of Bookplates, 2011, (British Museum Press), p. 17. This appears as no. 2 in F. Gibson, ‘The Etchings and Lithographs of George Clausen RA’, in Campbell Dodgson CBE, ed., Print Collector’s Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, July 1921, p. 212.

[4] Kenneth McConkey, George Clausen and the Picture of English Rural Life, 2012, Edinburgh, pp. 90-91 (illustrated).

[5] McConkey, 2012, pp. 108-111.

[6] ‘Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, Summer Exhibition’, St James’s Gazette, 23 April 1894, p. 15.

[7] Ibid., pp. 110-111. The oil version of The Plough, originally in the collection of Clausen’s neighbour, the painter, Mark Fisher, was sold Christie's, 8 March 1990, lot 48. A further chalk study, lightly worked on brown paper, can be found in the Royal Academy Collection. The Plough 1894 (etching), although autograph, is one of several prints not included in Gibson, 1921.

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