Ernest Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933)
Ernest Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933)

Children dancing around a tree

Ernest Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933)
Children dancing around a tree
signed and dated 'E A Hornel/91' (lower right)
oil on canvas
33¼ x 46 in. (84.5 x 116.8 cm.)
with Whitford and Hughes, London, 1985, no. 18.
The Glasgow Evening News, 12 January 1893.
The Glasgow Herald, 25 February 1893.
'The Royal Scottish Academy', The Glasgow Herald, 3 March 1893, p. 9.
J.L. Caw, 'A Phase of Scottish Art', The Art Journal, 1894, p. 75.
J.L. Caw, in D. Croal Thomson (ed.), Fifty Years of Art, 1849-1899, 1900, p. 325.
J.L. Caw, Scottish Painting, 1620-1908, 1908 (Kingsmead reprint, 1975), p. 402.
B. Smith, Hornel,The Life and Work of Edward Atkinson Hornel, Edinburgh, 1997, pp. 78 (illus in col), 81.
B. Smith, Hornel, The Life and Work of Edward Atkinson Hornel, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 96, 100.
Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, 1893, no. 296.
Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, The Fine Art Society, Edward Atkinson Hornel, 1864-1933, 1982, no. 10.
London, Whitford and Hughes, Moments et Folies de la Femme Fatale, 1985, no. 18.

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Lot Essay

In the wake of his controversial collaborations with George Henry in the production of two large paintings, The Druids, Bringing in the Mistletoe and The Star in the East (both Glasgow Museums), Hornel embarked upon an equally ambitious picture that was to be exclusively his own. Entitled Springtime it would show a group of children dancing in front of their playmates, with the dancers on the right and the spectators sitting under trees on the left. The picture was dispatched to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1893 in the wake of the scandal that attached to a companion painting, Summer, (1891-2, Liverpool Museums, Walker Art Gallery) shown at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition the previous year. The announcement that this latter work was to be acquired by the city's Walker Art Gallery had been greeted with dismay in the local press and accompanied by abusive comments in the meeting of the city council. It was, said The Liverpool Echo, a 'landscape sampler such as our great grandmothers were wont to work in their long winter evenings'. The city council asked its sub-committee to think again when one alderman compared their acquisition of pictures to that of 'cattle in the parish pound'. To its great credit, the sub-committee stuck to its guns and the purchase was ultimately approved (K. McConkey, 'The Glasgow Boys in the 1890s', in R. Billcliffe et al, Pioneering Painters, The Glasgow Boys, 2010 (exh. cat., Glasgow Museums), pp. 105-6; also Smith, 2010, pp. 85-101).

What was so extraordinary about Hornel's work? As is clear from the present canvas, Hornel was making unusual demands of his audience. When we compare his picture with the more orthodox Naturalism of James Guthrie's In the Orchard, 1885-6 (1885-6, Private Collection), it is obvious that space and surface detail in the latter have been transformed into a decorative marquetry in Hornel. The Liverpool papers were not essentially wrong in comparing his canvas to patchwork.

However, there was more depth to Hornel's orchard ensemble than meets the eye. As a young artist at Kirkcudbright in Galloway, who may have watched Guthrie struggle with his orchard picture, he became fascinated by the degree to which figures moving through deep foliage apparently shifted in and out of space. Bastien-Lepage made instruction on this point one of the central tenets of Naturalism. Standing in the woods with one of his acolytes he observed that, 'things animate and inanimate mingle with the background which seems to come forward' (A. Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and his Art, 1892 (T. Fisher Unwin), p. 73). He also noted that the eye, drawn naturally to a face, would often isolate this for special attention. He described his own Mendiant, on one occasion as 'un être sans corps' - literally, 'a being without a body', a face that hovered above the physical frame that supported it. Hornel was entranced by the idea that his figures, partially obscured in woodland were indeed beings without bodies - in other words, spiritual presences. This coincided with the popular beliefs in 'brownies' and sprites who inhabited such places in Celtic mythology. The effect was one he hoped to develop in the left hand section of Springtime showing children sitting among trees.

It was however, a problematic concept and the painting, although described in The Glasgow Evening News on 12 January 1893 and later dispatched to the Royal Scottish Academy, had apparently not survived. It showed, according to the reporter, 'a number of young country girls in wild, gleeful procession dancing by brightly-flowered bushes, with behind a landscape of uplands and hawthorn trees. In the foreground to the left is a tree with leaves outspread, and partly hidden by the foliage two or three more sedate-looking girls who watch their companions, so making a happy contrast' (quoted in Smith, op. cit., 2010, p. 98).

Hornel and Henry then set off for Japan on 16 February 1893. After his return in July 1894 Hornel must have caught up with the press disapproval of Springtime. The contrast between the two halves of the painting was not so happy and on at least two occasions The Glasgow Herald contrasted his 'decorative quality' with the 'tenderly expressed truth' of Guthrie and Lavery. The painter from Kirkcudbright 'subordinates draughtsmanship, atmosphere, everything to colour' (Smith, op. cit., 2010, p. 100, quoting The Glasgow Herald, 25 February 1893; see also The Glasgow Herald, 3 February 1893, p. 9). Hornel's case was taken up more sympathetically by the young James L. Caw. Writing in The Art Journal, Caw commented on the influences of the Japanese, Matthew Maris's 'mysticism' and the colour of Monticelli which he found in Hornel's work. 'A later picture by Mr Hornel, Springtime,' he noted, 'has similar faults and good qualities [to Summer]. In this larger canvas one may notice a want of agreement in the treatment of the figures and the landscape; for while the latter has been rendered with the flatness appropriate to decoration, the former are modeled as if in atmosphere. (J.L. Caw, 'A Phase of Scottish Art', The Art Journal, 1894, p. 75).

With hindsight Caw later modified his views on Springtime, nevertheless they, the critical reaction in 1893, and the painter's recent experience in Japan, led Hornel to look critically on the picture. It was the artist's biographer, Bill Smith, who realized that the painter had in fact salvaged the two discordant halves of Springtime and re-stretched them as separate paintings. He concludes that Hornel 'must have been unhappy with the composition because shortly afterwards he cut down the painting', essentially into two halves. The right side being retitled, The Dance of Spring (1891-5, Glasgow Museums), and 'the missing piece of canvas, which he may have reworked to some extent, is almost certainly the painting known as In an Orchard a brilliant mosaic of colour and pattern'. In 1908, Caw considered Springtime to have been 'animated by such vital and sincere delight in colour and by such a mastery of potent and intoxicating harmonies, that the sheer joy evoked by these qualities was enough to make one condone their obvious deficiencies of form and their remote relation to Nature'; see J.L. Caw, op. cit., 1908 (Kingsmead reprint, 1975), p. 402.

The only residual problem lies in the fact that in the early 1980s, the picture was mis-catalogued suggesting different dates for its exhibition at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. In 1982 for instance, 1893 is given, while in 1985 the picture was placed one year earlier. This would make it either In an Orchard, in 1892 (R.G.I.F.A., no. 373) or Children at Play in 1893 (R.G.I.F.A., no. 13). Both proposals are erroneous and leave us with the problem that a title applied to a smaller unlocated canvas shown in 1892 and priced at £40, has been adopted for the present work. The precise circumstances of this naming remain obscure and while it may have led to confusion, it is not inappropriate - even to the extent that the most prominent profile obviously echoes that in Guthrie's In the Orchard. The 1892 Glasgow exhibit may even be a sketch for the present pulsating pattern of figures under trees that was to become Hornel's signature motif.

There is no doubt however that the painter had made significant advances since the days when he looked to Guthrie for leadership. Hornel at first strongly disapproved of the Scottish Academy and was sceptical about Guthrie's motives when he was keen to join it. His close collaboration with Henry meant that he was familiar with Henry's smaller works such as Through the Woods, 1891 (private collection), but the embrace of Adolphe Monticelli's rich palette was exclusively his. It effectively provided a congenial escape route from the straightjacket of Naturalism and, in a few short years, went international in the decorative effects of l'art nouveau.

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