A defining moment in La Thangue's life occurred in 1883, when he was still a student in Paris. Having been to Brittany where the coastal villages were populated with British and American artists, he and his friend, the sculptor James Harvard Thomas, struck out for pastures new. Their journey took them south to the Rhône valley, now being opened up by newly-laid railways linking Paris with the south of France. The experience of painting around the village of Donzère was formative and it resulted in one of La Thangue's most important canvases, In the Dauphiné, 1886 (Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 26 November 2003, lot 26). Although, during the following fifteen years, La Thangue was based in East Anglia and the home counties, the south of France remained a kind of lotus land. When, in the early years of the century, his British farm scenes began to be criticised in the press, he returned to Provence to find new subject matter and within a short time had journeyed to the hill villages in Northern Italy. His first Ligurian canvases were shown at the Royal Academy in 19041.
Liguria was still largely unexplored at this time and its produce - olives, wine and flowers for perfume - continued to be harvested by the most primitive methods. In the age of burgeoning motor transport, just before the Great War, Ligurian olives were still loaded onto the backs of donkeys to be taken to the press. The slow pace of this existence greatly appealed to the painter and it was to be celebrated in canvases like Winter in Liguria, 1906 (Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 26 November 2003, lot 37) in which a barefoot girl prepares flowers to be packed for the markets of Northern Europe.
While he held his position as a figure painter, during the Edwardian years, La Thangue also became interested in the impressionistic effects of landscape. He was acutely aware of the degree to which the older academicians of his day had devalued the currency of the genre, and as he observed the Ligurian and Provençal hillsides, he thought of the work of forerunners like Monet and Monticelli. These new studies were unveiled in his solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1914, a show of 42 landscapes of cabinet size. The Times found that at their best, those containing figures, were 'truly delightful' in 'their colour and in their vitality'2. However, it was Walter Sickert who, in a masterly critique, matched the Ligurian landscapes with those of Monet and Cézanne.
'Take one of (La Thangue's) pictures home ... hang it in a room where you can see it at breakfast, or while you are dressing ... Give it time to convey its message, and you will see how that message is remote from the din of aesthetic discussions of the moment'3.
There were transcendent values in La Thangue's new work - typified by Ligurian Olives. Here the motif - a woman fixing the panniers on a white mule - is engagingly simple. It echoes that of The Threshing Floor (private collection), which must also have been painted near Pietra Ligure4. The same beast also appears in Calling to the Valley, 1922, (not traced) while the setting is similar is some respects to A Ligurian Bridle Pass (Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool). In all of these, the painter reveals his fascination for the fugitive qualities of light in dappled shade. It was this which in the end, seemed to resonate throughout his life's work. His old friend, George Clausen, in a brief foreword to the catalogue of La Thangue's memorial exhibition noted:
'Sunlight was the thing that attracted him: this, and some simple motive of rural occupation, enhanced by a picturesque surrounding, sufficed him for a subject. He would never paint except with the object before him ... and to anyone who knows the incidental difficulties of carrying out a picture - not merely making a study - in this way, the result was a little short of marvellous'5.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1 La Thangue's first Provençal canvases appeared in 1901. From a Ligurian Spring (297) and A Ligurian Cradle (346). For futher reference see Kenneth McConkey, Exhibition catalogue, A Painters Harvest H.H. La Thangue RA, 1859-1929, Oldham Art Gallery, 1978, p. 41.
2 Anonymous, 'Mr La Thangue's Art, A Collection of Ligurian Landscapes', The Times, 20 April 1914, p. 12.
3 Osbert Sitwell (ed.), A Free House! Being the Writings of Walter Richard Sickert, London, 1947, quoted in McConkey, 1978, p. 14.
4 The donkey or mule motif appears frequently in La Thangue's work in the 1920s, having been introduced in A Sussex Orchard, 1905 (private collection). On some occasions it is a beast of burden, while on others it pulls a cart.
5 George Clausen, H.H. La Thangue RA, in Brighton Public Art Galleries, 1930, p. 5.