The majority of English and Welsh churches and their churchyards selected by Benjamin Williams Leader as subjects for painting can be located today. After the success of the artist's 1863 Academy exhibit, A Welsh Churchyard (no. 440), depicting the church of St Michael and all Angels at Betws-y-Coed, which was purchased by William E. Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader chose to depict a church close to his birth place and home in Worcestershire for the following year's Academy exhibition.
The present picture is that 1864 Royal Academy exhibit, and, allowing for artistic license, has been identified as the medieval perpendicular church of St John the Baptist at Claines, northern Worcester. A photograph (fig. 1) shows the church as it is today following its enlargement and restoration by Sir Aston Webb in the second half of the 19th century.
Two small pencil sketches for the painting are known; both depict Claines church and are in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
English Country Churchyard, Autumn is representative of Leader's early period, when he was developing his distinctive and independent style; a style that made him one of the most popular Victorian landscape artists of his time.
Leader constantly reiterated that his aim was to 'copy nature and its effects'. In this scene he has captured, on canvas, the effects of Nature on a fine autumn day; the low sun casting shafts of light across a rural churchyard. Careful attention has been paid to the details throughout the composition, without detracting from the harmony and balance of its entiriety. For example the neglected tombs, nestling amid the last flowers of summer, and the brambles and docks, are being invaded by lichen and ivy. The carved stone details, which characterise Claines church, are represented by the perpendicular windows with their ogees and tracery and the pinnacles and carved quatrefoils above. Even these have not escaped the erosion of time. The overall effect is one of comtemplative stillness; with past, present and future seemingly at peace with each other.
To see this painting today, which has not been on public display since 1864, is perhaps to experience the same sentiments as Tom Taylor, the art critic of the Times. In his review of the 1864 Royal Academy Exhibition, Taylor wrote: '"English Country Churchyard, Autumn" suggests both in the lines of composition and colour the spirit of quiet and peace which should brood over tombland and with a sky, in particular, admirably true to Nature'.
Leader portrayed the church again in The Silent Restfulness of Eve (1898).
We are grateful to Ruth Wood for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.