When he encountered Edward Stott's On a Summer Afternoon, at the New English Art Club in the spring of 1892, there was no doubt in George Moore's mind that this was 'probably the most entirely satisfactory picture in the Exhibition'. Moore was particularly enamoured with Stott's observation of sunlight breaking through the branches and falling on the white flesh of the boys sitting on the grass. The entire scene was enveloped in 'the silvery bloom of the atmosphere'. 'It would be difficult', he declared, 'to praise this part of the picture too highly...The painting of the body is that fluid, limpid execution which we admire in the Dutch masters. The figure is in and not out of the atmosphere ... The painter has achieved something which I have often seen attempted, but hardly seen achieved before ...' (Speaker, 16 April 1892, p. 467).
The picture had all of the ingredients of what Moore was later to describe as visual 'enchantment'. Its action occurs in a spatial envelope which, for Moore was one of the defining characteristics of Impressionism. It created a total effect, in which there were no discordant parts. The painter had gone for colour harmony rather than the literal aspects of form and space and it was evident that Stott had arrived at his own synthesis of these elements. The work in question was not an exposition of theories or practices borrowed from elsewhere.
In his canvases of the early nineties, Stott was to develop his own approach to Impressionist practice. He was to insist upon its deeply personal aspects. The year following the exhibition of On a Summer Afternoon, he defined it as, 'a combined impression of the artist's feeling - colour and form with the char[ac]ter of the subject, whether light or delicate; or strong and powerful; in short a recording of the impression on the painter's nature' (Art Journal, April 1893, p. 104). The 'painter's nature' thus responded to the scene before his eyes, interpreting it as 'delicate' or 'powerful' and painting accordingly.
It was clear, however, that up to 1892, Stott's work had passed through a series of familiar stages. He had gone to Paris where he studied under Alexandre Cabanel; he was influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Millet; he exhibited at the Salons of 1883 and 1884; on his return, he showed at the first New English Art Club exhibition in 1886 and continued showing regularly with the club up to 1895, by which time he was also exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the New Gallery. In the mid-eighties, before he settled at Amberley, he travelled through the home counties with Walter Osborne, painting scenes of village life. It was only after his arrival in Amberley in 1887, however, that Stott began to digest his student experiences. Although a ruined castle and medieval church contributed to the 'dreamy, old-world' character of the village, he resisted the temptations of its topography. By contrast he was drawn to the nearby water meadows and orchards for simple scenes of goose girls, plough horses, and cattle being driven to pasture.
Stott's first successful treatment of the bathers subject appeared at the Royal Academy in 1890 and was purchased by the Bradford collector, John Maddocks. The theme had been made popular by Alexander Harrison's En Arcadie, 1886 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and by William Stott of Oldham's A Summer's Day, 1887 (fig. 1, Manchester). These exercises in plein-air naturalism were quickly overhauled by Philip Wilson Steer's A Summer's Evening, 1888 (Private Collection) a work depicting three female bathers, which in its embrace of Impressionist theory would have greatly appealed to the young Stott. Having achieved his own success with The Bathers, throughout the nineties, Stott returned to the subject, with the present work, of 1892, and Noonday - Boys Bathing, 1895 (fig. 2, Manchester). As is clear from the comparison of On a Summer Afternoon with the Manchester canvas, Stott reserved his more radical pictures for the club, and in later works his colour, partly as a result of working from pastel studies, became more subdued and tonal.
By the mid-nineties, when the heat had begun to go out of the disputes over Impressionism, writers on art observed other qualities in the work of its British protagonists. There was for instance a renewed insistence on absorption in the English countryside, which one critic referred to as 'landscape-land'. Painters like La Thangue, and Clausen were restlessly looking for picturesque rural retreats in which the ideals of self-sufficiency, social stability and well-rooted work practices were evident. For Stott, Amberley provided the basis for a rural idyll, of comparable intensity to that which Samuel Palmer wove around the village of Shoreham. Visiting the painter in 1895, James Stanley Little referred to this 'singularly beautiful' setting around which the river Arun winds. The meadows were flecked with flowers and occasionally the river burst its banks and 'floods the rich grazing grounds by which it is bordered' ('On the Work of Edward Stott,' Studio, VI, 1896, p. 78), providing the pools in which children bathe and plough-horses drink.
The sense of submersion in rural life which Little and other critics stressed, effectively obscured the Impressionist character of his work. Little claimed for instance that 'enough has been said of Mr Stott's method to demonstrate that to call him an Impressionist, as he is generally called, is something of a misnomer' (p. 80). Little was the first to comment upon the completeness of Stott's world view. Works like On a Summer Afternoon appealed to senses other than the visual. He declared,
Apart from the exacting demand such a place as this makes upon the painter's skill, he is confounded by the obtrusion upon his senses of many aspects of the beautiful which no skill will enable him to interpret. The scent of flowers, the hum of insects, the murmur of brooks fascinate while they paralyse him, since they are all factors outside of the sense of vision, and all elements which his picture must suggest though it cannot interpret (p. 79).
Later writers like A.C.R. Carter, Lawrence Housman and Marion Hepworth Dixon repeated this critique with even greater intensity. Carter for instance lays great emphasis upon Stott's 'close communion with nature' and his 'rare gift for visual selection'. He may even have been thinking of the present picture when he recalled 'the noonday sun ... piercing the shady canopy of a pool' which had been 'watched and remembered for many a long day' ('Edward Stott and his Work', Art Journal, 1899, p. 295). For him, Stott's was no 'snapshot' view of the countryside.
Housman took his cue for his own interpretation of the 'deep knowledge and intimacy' expressed in Stott's work. While the snapshot view was 'disjointed, momentary and fragmentary', the Amberley canvases stressed the 'synthetic, the allusive, the reminiscent'. Memory was central to Stott's absorption in nature in that it was,
... a hiving process: its honey clings to the mind and cannot be got rid of; and association, however periously akin to that literary interest ... is inevitable as long as man carries his eyes in his head, and not in some way isolated and apart from the rest of his senses
('Mr Edward Stott, Painter of the field and of the twilight', Magazine of Art, 1900, p. 532).
On the basis of these contemporary explanations, we can justifiably claim that On a Summer Afternoon, sets out to evoke the countryside, rather than naturalistically describe it. It is the product of an accumulation of experiences, forged in the studio in such a way as to give the impression of a single, significant one. What it portrays is not a particular afternoon in a specific space, so much as the summoning of many afternoons, and the sunlight which falls tenderly on the innocent bathing rustics is refracted through memory.
We are grateful to Kenneth McConkey for his help in preparing this entry.