'Sun heat ... glistening on the hide of cattle' and bringing 'the glow of health' to the complexion of a country maid - these phrases were used to describe Henry La Thangue's principal canvas exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904, in which a young woman waters her Ayrshire calves in a Sussex farmyard.1 Where his Academy competitiors like Edward Stott would cast this peaceful scene in an Impressionist haze, emphasizing 'the poetry of the peasant', La Thangue is apparently more prosaic. Even in a warm evening light, his calves, hay stack and farm buildings are crisply painted and telling details such as chickens scurrying towards the fence are accurately observed.
He had treated this subject before. Around 1895, whilst living in Bosham, La Thangue painted a country woman feeing two calves in a work now known as The First Meal. Prior to this, in a picture of the late 1880s, he had shown a girl driving her cows to the meadow.2 Back then he was undoubtedly aware of the visual legacy of such subject matter. Beginning with Jean-François Millet's celebrated, Femme faisant paitre sa vache, 1859 (Musée de l'Ain, Bourg-en-Bresse), the theme had been taken up by French naturalists - most notably Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose Pauvre Fauvette 1881 (Glasgow City Art Gallery) was one of the most influential French paintings to be seen in Britain during the eighties.3 Bastien-Lepage dominated the Salon in Paris, and when La Thangue was a student, he and rustic naturalists such as Léon Lhermitte, Julien Dupré and Dagnan-Bouveret, were engaged in reworking Millet's themes with greater documentary accuracy. One of the most important works in this school - a painting of a woman carrying a metal pail of milk - was Alfred Philippe Roll's Manda Lametrie, Farmer's Wife (fig 1). Voted picture of the year by the Gazette des Beaux Arts, when it appeared at the Salon of 1888, it was re-exhibited the following year at the Exposition Universelle and subsequently widely reproduced.4 It forms a vital part of the group of pictures which gave inspiration to La Thangue's various treatments of the theme.5
Good husbandry dictated that calves were kept close to the farm buildings and fed either by hand, or on thin orchard grass - as in The First Meal. At this point in time, 'cow men' on British farms had not yet been converted to the advantages of imported Fresians.6 In the present case, the two Ayrshire calves are penned at the side of the rickyard, close to the farm buildings. Through this enclosure, a flock of chickens roams freely. A similar group of buildings is observed in the second, unrelated version of A Sussex Farm c. 1905 (fig 2).7 Although this upright canvas contains a gate and haystack, the configuration is dissimilar to that in the present work.8 The use of cattle on farms around Graffham, La Thangue's home after 1898, remained a consistent theme throughout the Edwardian years, as Stumping the Cow, (untraced) shown in the Academy in 1911 indicates. In later years he transposed the subject matter to his studio at Bormes-les-Mimosas in Provence, painting Going out with the Cows, c. 1920 (fig 3) and Out with the Cow in Provence, 1924 (untraced).9 By this time his work was an accepted feature of Academy exhibitions.
Back in 1904 La Thangue's technique continued to shock. He had recently developed a rugged method of applying paint, in which individual brush strokes were clearly visible. What was later dubbed by Walter Sickert as 'an opaque mosaic', characteristic of the best modern painting, was so recognizable that according to The Academy, it 'draws one to all he does'.10 Praising A Sussex Farm, The Athenaeum commented that:
'... more than ever before, he has overcome his tendency to blackness and leaden tones in the shadows... [and] he has got a surprising glow of colour, a suffusion of sunlit air.'11
It was however The Speaker which made some of the most perceptive comments. In this canvas, La Thangue was:
'perhaps in his most characteristic vein as the painter of sun heat, the apostle of outdoor life; sunshine warms the high-horizoned landscape vigorously, glistens on the hide of the cattle, brings the glow of health to a country maid's skin...'12
The association of 'sun heat' with 'health' was frequently made in the early years of the century, when living conditions in British cities was a persistent cause of concern. A hundred years of gradual demographic change had led to the depopulation of the countryside and the erosion of Britain's agricultural strength. This was perceived to have weakened the national stock, as the high number of unfit recruits for the Boer War had recently illustrated. Polluted cities trailed squalor and disease in their wake.
That 'health' should be so evident in La Thangue's country women is an optimistic sign. His work throughout these years spotlights her place at the centre of the rural economy. A Sussex Farm anticipates the comments of perceptive social recorders like George Bourne who viewed country women in 'unromantic terms'. Writing about neighbouring Surrey in 1912, Bourne noted that 'amongst the labouring folk a woman is not seen through the medium of any cherished theories; she is merely an individual woman, a man's comrade...' Such women, he noted, 'expect to be treated as equals. If a cottage woman found that a cottage man was raising his hat to her, she would be aflame with indignation...'13 Whilst she lacked artificial refinements, the cosmetics and fashionable clothes of her suburban sister, she kept the home fire burning when her husband was off at war.
Painting the controversial In the Dauphiné, (sold Christie's 26 November 2003, lot 26) for the first New English Art Club exhibition back in 1886, La Thangue had observed that, whether in English or French fields, men and women consistently worked together as harvesters, furze cutters and gleaners. There were few things that a woman could not do alone, and in Sussex farms she was a diligent worker. Clad in cool white garments common at the period, this particular woman is seen in Feeding Chickens, c. 1904 (Private Collection), The Errant Hen, 1904 (unlocated), and is likely to have posed for works such as Tucking the Rick, 1902 (Private Collection) and A Sussex Orchard, 1905 (unlocated).14 Unlike George Clausen's rustics, she has not been identified by name, but her place, her role, her dedication, and her health and vigour is assured.
1 Speaker, 11 June 1904, p. 247.
2 For further reference see Christie's, Important British and Irish Art, 23 November 2005, lot 13. La Thangue's early cow girl (formerly Belgrave Gallery, c. 1980) remains unlocated.
3 Kenneth McConkey, 'Pauvre Fauvette of petite folle: a study of Bastien-Lepage's Pauvre Fauvette', Arts Magazine, January 1981, pp. 140-3.
4 Significantly, Roll's canvas became the most significant of a group of monumental images of working people. For further reference see, John House et al, Post-Impressionism, 1980 (exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts), p. 124.
5 La Thangue would have noted the foreshortened back views of the cattle in Bastien-Lepage's and Roll's works.
6 In large British farms a hierarchy existed with 'horse men' forming an elite group above 'cow men', who in turn stood above casual labourers. For general purposes - milk and meat production - Ayrshire cattle seen here, remained the most popular breed of cattle in Britain in the nineteenth century. Prior to the Great War, Fresians began to be introduced into Home Counties farms and quickly took their place. At a time when anti-German feeling ran high, there was some antipathy to the fact that Fresians originated in Germany, however cow men quickly realized that the breed was more versatile than the Ayrshire and by the twenties most dairy herds had converted.
7 For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929, 1978 (exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery), p. 42.
8 This does not rule out the possiblity that both pictures represent different views of the same farm.
9 Stumping the Cow was shown at the Royal Academy in 1911, no. 48 and Out with the Cow in Provence was exhibited in 1924, no. 62.
10 Osbert Sitwell ed., A Free House! Being the Writings of Walter Richard Sickert, 1947. (MacMillan), p. 271 (quoting from The New Age, 7 May 1947); The Academy, 21 May 1904, p.574. La Thangue's technique was described at greater length in The Academy, 6 May 1905, p. 498, remarking that 'every touch appears to have been put on with a heavily loaded spatula ...' the effect of this was to make one wish to animate the scene - as if it was a still from a 'biograph ... arrested in a kind of unstable equilibrium'.
11 Athenaeum, 21 May 1904, p. 662.
12 Speaker, 11 June 1904, p. 247.
13 George Bourne, Change in the Village, 1912, (Augustus M Kelley ed., New York, 1969), pp 23, 26-7.
14 For Feeding Chickens, see Pyms Gallery, Rural and Urban Images, 1984 (exhibition catalogue), pp. 56-7. This picture was also owned by J Denham Christie, who lent two Provencal works, Harvesting the Donkey and The Farm Pond to the Commemorative Exhibition of La Thangue's work at the Royal Academy in 1933. Both The Errant Hen and Feeding Chickens show farm buildings similar to those in A Sussex Farm. For Tucking the Rick, see Kenneth McConkey, Peasantries, 1981 (exhibition catalogue, Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic Art Gallery), pp. 55-6. For The Errant Hen, see Royal Academy Pictures, 1904, p.6.