Like many other painters of his generation, George Clausen was fascinated by the romantic idea of the human spirit soaring at the sound of the lark. Children in country areas were taught to read the sky, and the movement of birds was a vital clue to what might happen to untended crops of livestock. The theme preoccupied him in early treatments of farm boys dispatched to the fields with 'clappers' at seed time. It returned in the birdsongs of summer. Paintings from Winslow Homer in the United States to Jules Breton in France had tackled the subject which undoubtedly prompted one of his finest pastel studies simply entitled, Head of a Young Girl.
Clausen's use of pastel dates back to the early 1880s. In exquisite works such as Feeding Sheep, 1884 (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester) he discovered a medium for which he had a natural affinity.1 It enabled startling effects of colour and texture which were only fully explored in a sequence of drawings towards the end of the decade. By this time he had sourced the brown paper sketchbooks which provided an ideal support for the pastel medium. He may have been encouraged in this direction by the inauguration of annual pastel exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery where he had established a niche as a regular exhibitor. In the previous year his pastel of Little Rose (1889, private collection) won the plaudits of critics. This depicts a local child from Cookham Dean, named Rose Grimsdale, who had appeared for the first time as The Schoolgirl (1889, private collection) in an oil painting earlier in the year.
It is clear from the schoolgirl's profile that the model for the present pastel is also Rose, and Clausen's account book note on 8 October 1890 - that he had sent a 'Study of Head (Rose Grimsdale - looking up)' to the Pastel show at the Grosvenor Gallery priced at £25 - places the identification beyond doubt. Rose was to continue posing for the artist until his departure from Berkshire in 1891, as Brown Eyes (fig. 1) indicates.2 Indeed there are instances of his continued working on studies from Rose in the following year.3
Unlike earlier and later examples, the present pastel shows Rose 'looking up' into what we can assume was a warm cloudless sky. A tiny sketch of the girl facing to the right is contained in one of the Bristol sketchbooks (1890, Bristol City Art Gallery). The study may indeed be a first thought for his major work of 1893, Evening Song, a variation on the theme of bird song in the harvest fields.4
What is surprising about the present example is its vivid colouration and cross-hatching. The use of mauve and purple notes in Rose's thick red hair confirms the painter's awareness of Impressionism, and also suggests that he was familiar with recent scientific theories in the field of optics. We know that at this time Clausen was a keen student of the work of Degas - and indeed he owned a Degas fan design.5 At Grosvenor pastel exhibitons he would also have seen the work of European practitioners such as Albert Besnard, P.S. Krøyer, J-F Raffaelli and J-E Blanche.
At the inception of the Grosvenor Gallery's 'Society of British Pastellists', Sir Coutts Lindsay, its owner, had invited Clausen to become one of its council members and it was on the artist's recommendation that the painters of the Glasgow School had been shown in quantity as a special feature at the Grosvenor spring exhibition in 1890.6 However, by the autumn, Lindsay's debts were mounting and he had not recovered from the departure of former employees to establish the rival New Gallery, in 1888. With the opening of the pastel show, he was forced to announce the gallery's closure.7 Evidently unsold at the last Grosvenor exhibition, the picture of Rose Grimsdale, 'looking up', was returned to Clausen's dealer, Goupil and Co.
Two years later, in an undated note in late October or early November 1892, the artist records 'Words from Goupils that pastel of Rose (looking up) is sold to Mr Kenrick for £25'. William Kenrick PC (1831-1919) was a Liberal conservative MP for Birmingham North for fourteen years from 1885.8 He had served as Lord Mayor of the city in 1877 and was married to Mary, sister of the great reformer, Joseph Chamberlain. Kenrick, as Chairman of the Birmingham Museum and City Art Gallery Committee for twenty years from 1884, was one of its major donors. His home, a reconstructed farmhouse known as 'The Grove' was an Arts and Crafts gem which housed an important collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings and pottery by William de Morgan and fashionable 'blue and white' Nanking porcelain.9 Perhaps his most important gift to Birmingham, in 1892, was John Everett Millais' The Blind Girl of 1856. A few years later he led a group of business leaders in the purchase of a cache of Dante Gabriel Rossetti drawings. In 1908, grateful subscribers paid for his portrait by John Lavery and in return, Kenrick donated Lavery's Evening, Tangier, to the collection.
Kenrick's Clausen purchase may be significant in that it coincides with his donation of one of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces to Birmingham. Like Rose Grimsdale, Millais' Blind Girl also gazes skyward, albeit through sightless eyes. She too was mystically alive to a world where summer sunshine after rain brings out nature's richest colours which, as the present pastel indicates, sang to the artist alone.
1 See Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen RA, 1852-1944, 1980 (exhibition catalogue, Bradford and Tyne and Wear Museums), p. 40.
2 McConkey, 1980, pp. 63, 66-7.
3 See for instance, Young Girl, 1892, sold Christie's, London, 15 November 2007, lot 50 (entry by Kenneth McConkey).
4 Sold Christie's, New York, 22 October 1997 (entry by Kenneth McConkey).
5 In 1890 Clausen owned Degas' Fan: Dancers, 1879 (Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Mr and Mrs Hilding Lindberg).
6 'Art in December ', The Magazine of Art, 1890, p. ix.
7 Letter to The Times, 24 October 1890; see also The Art Journal, 1890, p. 381.
8 The Kenrick fortune came from the family iron foundary, established in West Bromwich in 1791 by Kenrick's grandfather, Archibald. This expanded in the early nineteenth-century under the management of Archibald's son, also called Archibald. By the late century, the Kenricks were well ensconced in Birmingham's political elite, Sir George Hamilton Kenrick, contributing to the building of Birmingham University and erecting the art school in West Bromwich.
9 'The Grove' was rebuilt by the Ruskinian architect, John Henry Chamberlain, with fine gothic panelled interiors - one of which was donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum when the house was demolished in 1963.