On 4 October 1899 Clausen noted that William Marchant, the manager of Goupil Gallery’s London branch had visited his studio at Widdington in Essex and purchased four pictures. These were a barn interior, a head study, a small canvas showing hayrick-builders and Harvesters: Setting up Sheaves, the present picture.
The arrangement was that three of the four would be available for the forthcoming Royal Academy Exhibition in the following May. Three were variations on subjects already established within the oeuvre, while the picture of harvesters signaled a new approach to a theme which had been addressed in 1894. In this large earlier canvas, Harvest, (Private collection) the painter concentrated on two fieldworkers gathering sheaves, analyzing their dynamism to the point where, in George Moore’s Criticisms they were lampooned as competitors in a race.1
In this earlier frieze-like treatment, the setting was reduced in significance and the figures – ‘spirit and rhythm in excess’ - are ranged parallel to the picture plane.2
There was, however, more to say on the subject and in transitional paintings that followed Clausen began to pay more attention to stretches of country viewed from hillsides around Widdington. On bright cloudy days he would note the uneven dispersal of sunlight – the pools of light on hills and hollows that momentarily mapped the terrain. Such effects were more dramatic than any he had seen before, and they were predicated on a new form of impressionism – one that demanded the full range of his palette. It was a cultivated landscape that spectators would read and interpret; when shown, one actually noted the ‘yellow of a patch of turnip flower’ on a distant slope.3
England was a garden and the sunburnt laborers trussing sheaves were engaged in a noble husbandry, best described by Edward Thomas, one of whose harvesters had returned from fighting ‘Johnny Boer’: 'First he snicks a dozen straws...then he slashes fast along the edge of the corn...gathers up what is cut into his hook and lays it across the straws: when a dozen sheaves are prepared in the same way he binds them and builds them into a stook...only at the end of each dozen sheaves does he stand his full height, straight as an ash, and laugh...'4
Set upright in ‘stooks’ the sheaves were set to dry in the sun, before being lifted and laid in a strict pattern in the stack-yard, adjacent to barns where the grain would be processed, and the animals fed in winter.5 Clausen’s commitment to recording procedures of this kind dated back to 1881, when he first moved from London to the countryside. Out in all weathers he followed the rubric of Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Millet in striving for documentary accuracy. During recent years, especially after he adopted pastel as a study medium, his facture began to change, and as in the present instance, densely matted surfaces break into prismatic hues, applying as much to figures as to setting. Clausen was of course, au fait with Impressionism, and by 1899 had had many opportunities to study works by Monet and Pissarro. However, Harvesters: Setting up Sheaves was no pastiche. It was, one reviewer confidently asserted, ‘painted in Mr Clausen’s “pointillist” manner, with great purity and certainty of colour’, while for The Times, in this work alone, the artist had reached ‘a point of maturity’, and had learned ‘to make his shadows vibrate with light...’6
In this and in earlier instances, the figures are drawn and redrawn with expressive intensity–that on the left deriving from numerous studies of stooping harvesters produced for The Harvest, while his companion, setting up the sheaves, relates to a dynamic sketch, among other sketchbook notes.
Here we see him working out those seen and unseen aspects of the laborer’s pose. ‘Both men are no make-believe’, the Pall Mall Gazette reviewer remarked, 'they are in the act, and one, being old, seems to give himself with the sheaf he grasps...Here is an insecure figure, not an insecure draughtsman.'
Clausen may well have had the American gospel hymn ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ in mind, as he worked, but there is no obvious rejoicing in his picture other than the self-evident joy in nature and honest toil. Nonetheless, as the song indicates, Biblical metaphors abound and they occur universally in the late nineteenth century, from Jean-François Millet, through Léon Lhermitte and Lepage, to Vincent Van Gogh (fig. 1). From the moment it was published by The Fine Art Society in 1881, Clausen had access to Millet’s inventory of rural activities in Twenty Etchings and Woodcuts reproduced in Facsimile, and he would have seen Millet’s images of harvesters ‘trussing’ and ‘reaping’.7 He would not, of course, have seen Van Gogh’s Millet copies or his late paintings of wheat sheaves, but such scenes were common – more so in Paris, than at the Royal Academy.
Significantly, in this moment, Harvesters: Setting up Sheaves recharged Clausen’s interest in one of his most iconic themes and his purview expanded. In 1902 he produced Harvest: Tying the Sheaves (fig. 2), in 1904, Harvest in the Bean Field (Durban Art Gallery, South Africa) and in 1905, Binding Sheaves, (Private collection).8
The stooping ‘botteleur’ even made a return in The Old Reaper, 1909 (Manchester City Art Gallery). All these re-imaginings of the Essex harvest owe their origin to the present work in that they show a field gang, moving in unison towards the spectator, with an aerial view of a sunlit Essex landscape as backdrop. Such scenes, representing rural harmony, were of course, under threat from prototype mechanical and later motorized harvesters. The field gangs, once the fiefdoms of brutal gang-masters, were now strictly regulated by progressive parliamentarians, and the sense of a stable rural eco-system supporting local windmills was fast disappearing before the advent of steam-powered rolling-mills and the factory-production of the nation’s bread. As troopships sped to Cape Town to defeat the Boer, this golden England, with its healthy sunburnt laborers was a vision they might take.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue note and for his assistance in cataloguing this work.