Winnowing is a fine example of Spencer Stanhope's unique style and working methods. Painted in Florence, where the artist lived from 1873 until his death, it depicts three Italian peasants separating chaff from grain. As the wheat is poured from the vessel which the central figure holds high above her head (to increase its velocity), wind passes through it and the chaff streams out sideways, leaving the golden grain to be raked in by her companions.
Spencer Stanhope's first honorary tutor was G.F. Watts, who, at the instigation of their mutual friend Dr. Henry Acland, allowed him to assist his murals and accompany him to Italy (1853) and Greece (1856-7). However it was the more forcefully charismatic Rossetti, a peripheral member of Watts's Holland Park circle, and Edward Burne-Jones, who became Spencer Stanhope's first artistic collaborators when they collectively contributed to the Morte d'Arthur murals at the Oxford Union. His friendship with Burne-Jones was particularly enduring; and their work does compare, with its accordant hues and figures contoured by the smallest degree of shadow, so that they seem both rounded and oddly weightless.
In 1873 Burne-Jones visited the artist at his new home, the Villa Nuti at Bellosguardo outside Florence. The move was to resolve Spencer Stanhope's mature style, in which the narrative elements of Pre-Raphaelitism are recast in an Aesthetic mould. His niece Evelyn de Morgan, and contemporaries Walter Crane and Joseph Southall, all took inspiration from Italian art - in particular that derived from Florence. The linear traditions that the city nurtured, from the elegant austerity of Fra' Angelico to the later flowering of Botticelli, shadow Spencer Stanhope's work.
Spencer Stanhope took this love of Florentine art still further, by developing his mural painting. During the 1870s he carried out schemes in the Marlborough College Chapel, and later at the Anglican Church in Florence. As a natural adjunct to this he began to experiment with tempera (egg-based pigment) as an alternative to oil, and the medium gives his most ambitious works a striking unanimity (a fine example is Love and the Maiden, sold at Christie's, London for £600,000 in 1997). In 1901 Spencer Stanhope helped found the Society of Painters in Tempera and in a review of the group's 1905 exhibition, the Studio praised his 'intensely rich and mellow colouring'.
Spencer Stanhope's oeuvre is particularly cohesive, as he replicated those effects achieved in tempera with watercolour and bodycolour, as in the present picture. In the distance we can see the Appenine mountains that Burne-Jones praised in his letters home. The picture is not only stylistically Italian, it is a paean to the simple life of hillside-dwellers. The stream of wheat that funnels from the tipped vessel resembles gold; and in their symbiotic grace the three peasants represent the purity and worth of their values, as perceived by the artist.
An important selection of works from the De Morgan Foundation, auctioned by Christie's London on 28 November 2001, included a series of oil paintings by Spencer Stanhope that compare to this in subject and style.