In 1904, having painted in the hill villages of Provence for two years, Henry Herbert La Thangue ventured into neighbouring Liguria.1 For him, the beautiful coastline of northern Italy between Genoa and La Spézia, had all the assets of the French Riviera, but few of its tourists. At a time when British and American visitors flocked to Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice in Thomas Cook's democratised version of the Grand Tour, this beautiful corner of Italy remained to some extent untouched. Praised by poets from Shelley to d'Annunzio, Liguria attracted romantics and those, like La Thangue, of a solitary disposition.2 Dickens, arriving in Genoa in the 1840s, found it 'a bewildering phantasmagoria, with all the inconsistency of a dream'.3 The tiny Ligurian fishing villages - those of Cinqueterre - clinging to steep hillsides that sloped into the sea, tested the traveller. Roads in Liguria were unmade at the turn of the 20th Century, and walking, or riding in a donkey cart along tracks known as sentieri, one passed through ancient vineyards and crumbling settlements bleached by the Mediterranean sun. As Goethe discovered at the end of the 18th Century, vines along northern Italy were grown on trellises, and when he arrived in a town, he found women fruit-sellers using 'round flat-bottomed baskets' to display their produce.4 Life on the land had changed very little in the intervening century, even though the Austro-Hungarian Empire had contracted and a unified Italy had emerged. Peasants in this hilly country were often encountered preparing, packing and sometimes selling produce, at the roadside.
Ligurian Grapes forms part of a monumental sequence which began around 1905 with a picture of an orange seller, possibly painted on the same coastal road (Selling Oranges in Liguria, 1905, sold in these Rooms, 23 November 1993, lot 24). The series continued with Ligurian Flowers, 1908 (Blackburn Art Gallery) and led eventually to La Thangue's Royal Academy Diploma picture, Violets for Perfume, 1914 (Royal Academy of Arts, London). However, within the series, Making Ligurian Lace (Fig. 1) provides the strongest echoes of the present work, since it shows the same young woman, working with her companion, this time with her back to the sun. The pictures were shown together at the 1907 Academy and were regarded by critics almost as companion pieces.5 All four of La Thangue's submissions that year were regarded as particularly strong. This was the last Academy dominated by Sargent's portraits and The Illustrated News went so far as to declare that 'Burlington House is saved from a Sargentine despotism principally by Mr Clausen and Mr La Thangue'.6
We learn from a letter written to the keeper of Blackburn Art Gallery that La Thangue returned regularly to these coastal villages and that his model for the Ligurian pictures was 'exceptionally nice and posed well'.7 He greatly enjoyed the dilapidated old houses and their gardens, pergolas and trellises later became subjects in themselves.
During Edwardian summers La Thangue went back to painting scenes of rural life near his home in Graffham, Sussex. However these were gradually overtaken by paintings of grape and flower harvest on the Riviera exploring the rich colours and textures of warmer climes. Matched with pictures of the frontier forts and mountain passes, these coastal views formed the core of his solo exhibition which was lavishly praised by Walter Sickert at the Leicester Galleries in 1914.8 Nevertheless, although La Thangue responded to the atmospheric landscapes of Liguria, he was essentially a figure painter for whom the chance encounter on a country road provided the essential stimulus. Rudolf Dircks, writing in The Art Journal on the present picture, praised him as a 'lyricist of the sun', who was 'particularly happy in his Ligurian Grapes,
'...a simply composed picture of a girl seated on a bench pruning a bunch of grapes, in which sunlight and shadow, brilliant as ever, seem to serve more the expression of a simple artistic purpose than an idiosyncrasy.'9
In his youth, as leader of what was pejoratively dubbed the 'Square Brush School', La Thangue had often been described as dogmatic if not idiosyncratic. By the time he discovered Liguria, his early proselytising had gone and a 'simple artistic purpose' had emerged. This involved a Ligurian girl, sitting on a stone bench, with her back to the hills and the sea, baskets or bowls at her feet. Unity is achieved through the careful observation of the fall of sunlight, and in this romantic setting, the activity - trimming a bunch of grapes - takes on Virgilian significance. At the same time the painter revitalises the visual heritage of earlier Victorian painters like Henry Woods who ventured from Chioggia to Capri in order to paint sentimental pictures of vine pergolas and pretty peasants. Critics of the day were certain that if La Thangue had sacrificed the wistful grey tones of his earlier work, his hot palette of 1907 contained no clawing sentiment. Nevertheless, as the seeds of popular tourism were scattered over wider terrains in the 1920s, and with expert tunnelling through mountain passes, the railway reached La Spézia, even he recognised that 'his Liguria' had been no more than an interlude. Writing in 1929 a few months before his death, La Thangue felt compelled to note, 'all of these regions have been spoilt by the war and still more perhaps by peace'.10
1 Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue 1859-1929, 1978 (Oldham Art Gallery), p. 41.
2 Philippe Julian, d'Annunzio, 1972 (Pall Mall), p. 165 ff. See also Martin Garrett, Traveller's Literary Companion to Italy, 1998, pp. 79-88.
3 Charles Dickens, Hard Times and Pictures from Italy, n.d., [c. 1890] (Chapman and Hall ed.), p. 189.
4 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Letters from Italy, (Penguin Classics, 1995 ed.), p. 3.
5 See for instance Anon, 'A Forecast of the Royal Academy - II', The Graphic, 13 April 1907, p. 548.
6 Anon, 'The Royal Academy', The Illustrated London News, 11 May 1907, p. 722.
7 K. McConkey, op. cit., 1978, p. 44.
8 Ibid, pp. 13-14.
9 Rudolf Dircks, 'Royal Academy Exhibition, 1907', The Art Journal, 1907, p. 206.
10 K. McConkey, 1978, p. 44.