After his move to Graffham in West Sussex in 1898 Henry Herbert La Thangue turned away from the monumental themes such as The Man with the Scythe 1896 (Tate Britain) that had characterised his work earlier in the decade.1 He nevertheless continued his search for an ideal rural retreat and the mixed livestock and arable farming in the area suited his needs. Recording a complete catalogue of life in the fields - the harrow and the harvest, alongside animal husbandry and fruit growing - was to be his goal, and in this he emulated French artists such as Léon Lhermitte who set out in the 1880s to provide a full visual account of La vie rustique. Sheep husbandry had already attracted La Thangue's attention when, around 1889, he painted a be-smocked shearer posing by his flock.2
With his Academy exhibits at the turn of the century La Thangue redoubled his efforts in the search for authentic portrayal of seasonal activities in the countryside. He observed that the orchards near his house were often used as 'nurseries' at lambing time, which during March each year was in full swing. In The March Month, a farmer scatters turnips that serve as fodder, since the grass has not yet revived. H Rider Haggard, a 'gentleman-farmer', described in detail in a contemporary account, the process of fattening lambs for sale to local butchers, 'within a month or two of Easter'. He notes:
'The flock is being penned at night on the three-acre [field] with a view to improving the bottom of his young pasture which has grown somewhat thin. In the daytime they run out to one or other of the meadows, where root is thrown to them, and every night they are shut in a new fold on the three-acre and receive a ration of corn, hay and beet'.3
La Thangue's goal, shared with writers like Haggard and Hardy, was to stimulate a way of life that was widely perceived to be in decline. The process, initiated by industrialisation and the Repeal of the Corn Laws, had been accelerating since the bad harvests of the 1870s. The celebration of rural life was therefore of vital significance, and La Thangue's profound engagement with the world around him extended beyond the literal. It was not simply a matter of using field-labourers as a way of expressing emotional values, 'the sentiment of nature' contained in budding trees and spring lambs permeated the whole scene and its clues must be identified.4 The fruit trees in March are not yet in leaf although the early spring sunlight will bring them on. For the present the orchard, combining sunshine and shelter, is an ideal fold.
If La Thangue measured himself against the paysanneries of the Paris salon, he was not alone in portraying sheep husbandry. He would have recalled his ally, George Clausen's The Shepherdess (fig. 1) back in 1886.5 Shown in the first New English Art Club exhibition, at which La Thangue's In the Dauphiné was the most important canvas, Clausen's canvas also portrayed an orchard scene. In more recent times, on the walls of the Royal Academy in 1899 he would have seen the work of another former N.E.A.C. colleague, Edward Stott, who lived not far from him at Amberley. He also produced pictures of shepherds and sheepfolds, but favoured a romantic evening afterglow to the bright daylight of La Thangue's treatment. His young shepherd in The Penfold (fig. 2, Rochdale Art Gallery) is nevertheless at one remove from the romantic swains of William Henry Gore and Goerge Wetherbee, who were popular at the Academy.6 Where La Thangue's solid English yeoman turns his back and bends to his task, Stott's young shepherd almost adopts a plaintive look.
However by the time The March Month was exhibted La Thangue had already succumbed to the charms of Provence and in the second half of his career, the hill farms of the Mediterranean claimed more of his attention than British fields. Around 1900 he was supremely conscious of the distinguished lineage of the English pastoral, stretching back to Samuel Palmer. Nethertheless he continued to reject this bucolic repertoire in favour of an art closely allied with French Naturalism. Observation, the analysis of colour, form and figure movement led him to produce canvases which, like those of his mentor, Bastien-Lepage, were recreations of everyday activity in which documentary accuracy was stressed over and above sentimental effects and grand narrative. The March Month is one of the most interesting canvases in this new phase of La Thangue's work.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1. For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929, 1978, pp.
2. This work, entitled The Shepherd, (40 x 27 3/4 in) formerly with Peter Nahum, in addition to a man with hand-shears, shows a shepherd with his dog.
3. H. Rider Haggard, A Farmer's Year, 1899, (Cresset Library ed., 1987), p. 126. At Ditchingham in Norfolk, Haggard expected a yield of up to 75 lambs from a flock of 49 ewes by the end of March. His actual 'fall' was sixty-one. In those instances where a ewe produced a pair of lambs they would have to be kept for longer in order to 'meet the butcher's eye'.
4. For La Thangue on 'sentiment' see George Thomson, 'H.H. La Thangue and his Work', Studio, vol. IX, 1986, p. 177.
5. For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen, 1980 (Tyne and Wear and Bradford Museums), pp. 39-40.
6. Sir Peyton Skipwith introd., William Stott of Oldham and Edward Stott, 1976, (exhibition catalogue, Fine Art Society, London and Rochdale Art Gallery), no. 63.