Before us a boy is wielding a stick to beat the branches of an apple tree. He is clad in old trousers and a white shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. He ducks his head to avoid the falling fruit that lands all around him on the grassy floor of the orchard. Under the distant trees, others are collecting and loading baskets of fruit onto a cart. It is a scene that might take place on any sunny October day in the Home Counties at the turn of the twentieth century. It contains no Biblical overtones, no symbolism, no classical allusions to nature's reward for good husbandry - just the sense that this is a task to be performed swiftly and economically, within its allotted time in the rural calendar. After picking, the fruit will be taken to a chawling machine to be milled into a juicy pulp or 'pomace', before passing to the press where, interleaved with muslin and straw, it will produce the juice from which cider can be fermented.1 The vigorous 'shaking down' represented in Henry Herbert La Thangue's Royal Academy exhibit of 1909 starts the cycle.
La Thangue, who had gained noteriety for his youthful radicalism, was no stranger to this subject. He was renowned for his naturalistic treatment of sunlight and shade, developed from early 'plein air'studies under the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage. By 1909, thirty years into his career, he remained a critical topic of discussion among younger painters. Having exhibited In the Dauphiné, the most important picture at the first New English Art Club exhibition of 1886, he went on to take up the cause of Academy reform.2 His importance was recognized when in 1896, The Man with the Scythe, (Tate Britain), was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for what was then referred to as the National Gallery of British Art.3 In the Edwardian years his influence on younger artists was profound, as Alfred Munnings recalled, 'At that time it was La Thangue who showed the beauties of sunlight; and his way of life was to keep on with his subjects at hand, there at Graffham, day by day, through the seasons. No better pictures of country life, painted in the open air, were being done then ... His pictures of picking cider-apples or purple damsons, of gleaners in twilight or of a cider-press, were like no others in the Academy in those years; and when we talked of artists and their work, one would exclaim, "But what about La Thangue?" which started us off afresh'.4
Orchards had been a significant setting for La Thangue since the 1880s.5 In 1893 In the Orchard, (Bradford Art Galleries and Museums), one of his finest impressionistic pictures, represented his wife conversing with an unidentified friend under the apple trees.6 It was however in 1898 that the painter turned seriously to the depiction of the cider-making process in the striking Sussex Cider Press (1898, Private Collection).7 Fieldworkers, at this point, were still paid partly in cider and it was not unknown for them to refuse a wage increase if it meant the reduction of this allowance. Presses too were part of the communal inheritance, being fitted with wheels and dragged from village to village, in a ritual that often lasted up until Christmas.
Having recently moved to Haylands at Graffham on Lavington Down, La Thangue was acutely aware of the rituals and processes that punctuated the labourers' annual round of activities. After harvest, when the fruit had ripened it was necessary for all hands - including sons and daughters - to attend to the stripping of the trees. This essentially is the stage represented in the present work. The same boy first appeared in Cider Apples (1899, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney),shown at the Royal Academy in 1899.
Thereafter he was seen winding a chawling mill in Milling Cider Apples (1905, Milling Cider Apples), loading a donkey cart in A Sussex Orchard (1905, Private Collection), and pushing a barrow in A Sussex Autumn (1907, Toi o Tamaki, Auckland Art Gallery, Mackelvie Trust collection). He was such a familiar face by 1909, that Laurence Binyon noted, 'his rustic figures shaking down apples are admirably painted, but we always seem to have seen them before'.8 However from La Thangue's point of view, this was less important than the sense that with the present picture, representation of the entire chain of fruit harvesting and processing was complete.
This picture of a boy energetically prodding an apple tree is perhaps the most dramatic in the series. La Thangue never shrank from representing figures in movement. At one point his gleaners in action were likened to the stop-frame effects achieved with a kinetescope.9 He was a careful student in this regard, observing the significant instant within the action. In order to complete his task, the boy cannot wait for the moment when Newton's apple will fall to the ground naturally, shaken by the breeze. Country life did not afford such speculative luxuries. In this instance, the boy's violent prodding breaks the stillness and to emphasise the instant, the painter freezes falling apples in mid-air. Significantly only the veteran critic, Marion H Spielmann picked up on this aspect of the picture, '... we have brilliant essays in light and illumination such as we see in Mr La Thangue's ... Shaking down Cider Apples (in which the apples are really falling)'.10
However, even with this final flourish, the painter was unwilling to relinquish his subject and ten years later in 1919, he returned to it in an elegiac mood with In the Orchards, Haylands, Graffham (1919, Private Collection).11
Here, a girl struggling with a heavy basket has replaced the boy, but the skilful management of light, seen so powerfully in Shaking down Cider Apples, remains. A painter renowned for his integrity, La Thangue was devoted to the 'beauties of sunlight' and while he studied the orchard activities of an English autumn, it was this ever moving light and shade that gave unity to his pictures and encouraged his artist followers to argue once more the case for Impressionism. 'One would exclaim, "But what about La Thangue?" which started us off afresh'.
1 For accounts of cider-making see Charles Kightly, Country Voices, Life and Lore in Farm and Village, 1984, (Thames and Hudson), pp. 201-4.
2 Sold Christie's 26 November 2003; see also Kenneth McConkey, The New English, A History of the New English Art Club, 2006 (Royal Academy Publications), pp. 32-3. 3Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1978 (exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art gallery), pp. 12, 32-3.
4 Sir Alfred Munnings, KCVO, An Artist's Life, vol 1, 1951 (Museum Press), p. 97.
5 In 1888, in Resting after the Game (Private Collection), he had for instance painted his wife's portrait, en plein air under the apple trees.
6 McConkey, 1978, pp. 28-9.
7 Sold Christie's, 9 June 2004.
8 Laurence Binyon, 'The Academy Again', The Saturday Review, 22 May 1909, p. 655
9 A reviewer in The Speaker (1 May 1897, p. 686) had for instance likened La Thangue's pictures of dramatic figure movement to 'one of a series of images in a kinetescope'. For a discussion of the filmic aspects of La Thangue's work see Kenneth McConkey, Memory and Desire, British and Irish Painting at the turn of the Twentieth Century, 2002 (Ashgate), pp. 143-5. 10 M. H. Spielmann FSA, 'Royal Academy Pictures of 1909: Second Notice', The Graphic, 15 May 1909, p. 650.