May, otherwise known as May Day, is a quintessential image of spring. The title is a topical one since the Academy summer exhibition always opens on the first Monday of May. It also alludes to the 'may' or hawthorn blossom, and the spring festival on the first day of the month. Morgan's composition, a sweeping landscape full of light and colour, contributes to the celebratory mood which we associate with the end of winter.
The picture may constitute Morgan's response to his estranged wife Alice Havers' Academy exhibits of 1878: June (no. 538) and September (no. 633). Tissot had also shown July - Specimen of a portrait at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878; month titles were in vogue.
Fred and Alice Morgan had rented Edmond's Farm, Gomshall, in Surrey, for many years and the artist remained in that area. Characteristically, May bears witness to its locality: the sandy ground is typical of that found in the vicinity of the nearby village of Shere.
Morgan excels in composing his figures so as to suggest their relation to each other. In May the women and children provide the natural focus, and they in turn concentrate upon the smallest child who sits ensconced in the flower cart. Fred's father and mentor, the artist John Morgan (1823-85), was also adept at setting figures within landscape.
The children are collecting flowers for the May Day celebrations. Victorian culture embraced the creed of flower symbolism. In Kate Greenaway's book The Language of Flowers (published the same year as May's exhibition), hawthorn represents 'hope'. The blossoms in the cart include bluebells, which signify 'constancy'.
Two years earlier Morgan had exhibited a small painting entitled Gathering May at Thomas McLean's Annual Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures (London, 1882, no. 78), which could have inspired this larger work. The theme of children at play in a rural setting is central to Morgan's oeuvre and his achievement as an artist. An apple gathering (1880), for example, showed a group in an orchard, collecting the fruit in an impromptu basin composed of a tablecloth (see Phillips, London, 19 June 2001, lot 29).
The garden writer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), also resident near Godalming, described the May day festivities: 'when all classes joined together to make a long day of happy holiday and reasonable revelry. For hundreds of years this happy spring festival had been kept, and its continuance went on til well into the 19th Century. The Maypole was raised, or probably stood, from year to year; it was decorated with wreaths and streamers of ribbon and was the centre of traditional dances. A May Queen was chosen and crowned; and sat in state near the Maypole in a bower of green branches. In the early morning the young people went maying and returned laden with branches of hawthorn blossom and with flowers in their hats. Then the whole day was given to feasting and dancing. This holiday and that of the Harvest Home were the chief days of rural rejoicing, other than the occurence of the yearly fairs of the towns and larger villages and the days connected with church festivals. There are modern attempts to revive the Maypole and its attendant festivities, but the thing does not ring true. It is created from without instead of being something spontaneous from within. The continuous chain of ancient tradition has been snapped and nothing can restore it.' (Gertrude Jekyll, Old English Household Life, London, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1925, pp. 125-6).
We are grateful to Terry Parker for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.