J.W. North is one of the most original and idiosyncratic of the late Victorian watercolourists. The son of a tailor who later emigrated to Canada, he belonged to a group of artists who came to prominence in the 1860s as leading contributors to the revival of good illustration which took place at this time. Like Fred Walker, G.J. Pinwell and Charles Green (see lots 30, 41), he was apprenticed to the wood-engraver T.H. Whymper before finding ready employment with the Dalziel brothers who played such a crucial role in the revival as engravers and entrepreneurs. However, while Walker and Pinwell died tragically young in 1875. North lived on until the 1920s, moving away from his tightly structured early work to develop a highly personal style characterised by an intensely poetic response to the countryside, a feathery delicacy of form which creates an illusion of detail rather than detail itself, and a penchant for quirky and wayward compositions. He was elected an associate of the Old Watercolour Society in 1871 and a full member in 1883. Ten years later he became an assocaite of the Royal Academy.
In 1869 North discovered Halsway Manor, a romantic old house of honey-coloured stone standing on the edge of the Quantock Hills in Somerset, and for the next few years he, Walker and Pinwell stayed there periodically, finding inspiration for some of their finest work. In 1868 this arrangement came to an end when Halsway Manor was sold, but North continued to rent a house in the area. Finally he settled there permanently, steeping himself in local ways and recording the landscape pictorially with as much love and feeling as his friend Richard Jeffries did in prose. North had been born in Brixton and spent all his early life in London, and in a sense he was always a tourist, looking at the countryside with an outsider's yearning. In his hands it becomes a lost arcadia, hopelessly threatened by agricultural depression and the forces of so-called progress, for which he often finds a metaphor by showing his subject in the grip of autumnal decay. The term coined for him and his circle in the 1890s. 'idyllists', is apt if hardly euphonious.
Lot 12 says much about North's mature style, both in terms of subject matter, a Somerset apple orchard, and style. North is one of those artists who demands to be accepted on his own terms. Conventional standards do not apply; 'wavelength' is everything.
Another version of the watercolour, similar in size but dated 1904, was sold by Sotheby's in London on 16 June 1982, lot 281.