In April or May 1892 La Thangue set to work under the apple trees by his house, near Bosham in West Sussex. The sheep, which up to now, had been grazing in the orchard were beginning to shed their matted winter wool and for a local girl, this valuable product was worth collecting. A willow wand and wicker basket was all that was needed for the task. The trees which were bare in March, had just come into leaf, but apple blossom had yet to arrive. On a sunny day at this time of year a hammock might be slung between the trees because his wife and one of her friends found this a congenial place to sit and wind wool. These activities are well described in two pictures which La Thangue exhibited the following year. Gathering Wool, the more important of the two was exhibited at the Royal Academy, while In the Orchard was shown at the New Gallery in Regent Street.
La Thangue had moved from Norfolk to Sussex in 1890 on the advice of his friend, James Charles, with the thought that this area might provide a greater range of rural and coastal subject matter. For the Academy exhibitions of 1891 and 1892 he had painted a large harbour scene showing an itinerant preacher and his audience, entitled A Mission to Seamen (Castle Museum, Nottingham), and a group of ship-wrecked mariners in After the Gale (unlocated). But at the same time he realized that with the Newlyn School in the ascendancy, he must switch to rural subjects closer to home - 'to render', as James Stanley Little put it, 'pictorially attractive incidents at his door'. The works of 1893 were thus of a different order. They provided the opportunity to reconsider issues that had been present in his work since his return from France a decade ago.
As a student La Thangue was fired with innovative ideas derived from Paris. Exhibitions should be open to all, and art should be 'democratic'; it should address the ordinary, the here-and-now; it should be naturalistic. This was the message coming from painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, the hero of the Salon. When for instance, he painted Au temps des vendanges, Lepage's grape-picker with her baskets slung over her arms was striding boldly towards him, while calling back to other harvesters. Despite the fact that it was accurately observed and presented in full naturalistic detail, there was no assemblage, no special occasion, and the painter was not setting out deliberately to impress. La Thangue's close associate, George Clausen insisted that 'all his [Bastien-Lepage's] personages are placed before us with out the appearance of artifice, as they live; and without comment... on the author's part'. Little made exactly the same point about La Thangue. Returning to the nearby orchard to observe a single figure gathering wool was thus a radical and reductive departure.
There are of course important differences between Bastien-Lepage's peasants and his fieldworkers of the nineties. Painting had moved on in the years since La Thangue had attempted to introduce 'universal suffrage' to the nascent New English Art Club. There was a growing consciousness of Impressionism which seemed to amplify the precepts of Naturalism. Painting en plein air was not confined to grey days when the weather conditions were stable. One could also be less dogmatic on questions to do with the handling of paint. Working under a canopy of foliage in an orchard on a sunny day posed special problems, for even with a good model, leaves rustled and shadows moved randomly across the form. La Thangue had to address these fugitive effects. In any case, he wanted to give the impression that his wool gatherer was actually on the move. Her centre of gravity was shifting from one foot to the other as she reached forward to spear a tuft of wool.
During these years La Thangue employed an unidentified local girl, pictured sitting by a duckpond holding a stick or gathering mushrooms in the open fields. However his most ambitious painting of the girl was undoubtedly as a wool gatherer in an orchard. Once established in his mind this setting proved to be most fruitful, leading from Cuckoo Lambs, 1893 (unlocated) to The March Month, 1903, and on to a glowing sequence of cider harvest pictures which, apart from the later Provençal and Ligurian canvases, functioned almost as signature pieces.
Long before these were painted, it was obvious to George Thomson, writing in 1896, that 'to a very large extent the history of the naturalistic movement in England is the history of Mr H.H. La Thangue'. By that date the objectives had changed and 'the glory of sunlight, the envelope of the atmosphere, the verisimilitude only attainable with the model amidst ... habitual surroundings' were the aspirations that preceded any nascent sympathy with the life of the toilers in the fields'.