Commissioned in 1858, this painting is a version of one in the Tate Gallery dating from 1852. George Heming Mason was the grandson of Miles Mason, the potter. He was born at Fenton Park in Staffordshire, brought up at Wetley Abbey, near Leek, and articled to a surgeon in Birmingham. But in 1843 he left for Rome, and, with no artistic training beyond some knowledge of the work of David Cox, launched into a career as an artist. By the early 1850s he had met Arnold Böcklin and two artists who were to have a profound impact on his development, Frederic Leighton and Giovanni Costa. Leighton he idolised and was later to find a great source of moral and financial support. Costa allowed him to paint with him in the Roman campagna, and inbued with his own strong sense of poetic landscape.
In 1858 Mason inherited Wetley Abbey, the family home, and returned to England to marry. His style inevitably changed as he adapted to painting the English countryside, although he retained his interest in evoking mood, particularly in a series of idyllic subjects comparable to those of his friend Fred Walker. He seems to have been well aware of the Barbizon painters, and certainly kept in touch with Costa. Like the landscapes of Leighton, Blake Richmond, Walter Crane and George Howard, his work is generally seen in the context of the Etruscan School, although this was not officially founded by Costa until 1883, eleven years after Mason's death.
The present picture belongs to Mason's early Roman period, and is typical in subject matter and in the crystalline clarity of the forms, seen either in strong sunlight or deep shadow. In addition to being influenced by Costa, he seems to have been impressed at this date by such French artists as Hébert, Decamps and Jules Breton, whose work he saw at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. Other examples of this period were included in the Mason Exhibition held at the Fine Art Society, London, in 1982. Among them were his Roman masterpiece, Ploughing in the Campagna (fig. 1), and the Tate version of the present picture (no. 27, illustrated in catalogue). This differs in a number of details. The buildings, the skyline, the foreground, the distant figures and the group of resting oxen, all show minor variations, while the tall tree at upper right is omitted.
Research has yet to show if Edgar Flower, who commissioned the picture, was related to Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea, who was drawn by Frederick Sandys and owned Burne-Jones's Golden Stairs (Tate Gallery). For the Sandys portrait, see lot 174, fig. 1.