In works like Resting, circa 1906 (Sheffield City Art Galleries) and the related watercolour, Tired Out, (private collection), William Lee-Hankey captures the attention of the visitor to a public art gallery. The peasant girl, resting on a barrow, directly engages the gaze of the spectator, stopping him in his tracks. For 'Tis', the art correspondent of Colour magazine, such peasant girls and children, 'are nearly all 'beautiful'; and their very flesh tints have a transparency of other worldiness such as one rarely finds in the complexions of country lasses, however 'pure' and unspoilt by civilisation' (see W. Lee-Hankey his place in art, in Colour, vol. 7, no. 2, September 1917, p. 29). The call for purity in nature had a particular resonance at the time when the painter was serving as a commissioned officer in the Artist's Rifles. Amidst the horror of the Great War, Captain Lee-Hankey's figures spoke of prelapsarian innocence.
This quality of engagement through the single female figure with a world of simple values extends even more forcefully to The Goose Girl. In a popular fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, the goose girl was really a princess whose role had been usurped by her maid. Like Sleeping Beauty, she will reclaim her identity when she encounters the handsome prince. Here in Lee-Hankey's rendering of the subject, a country maid stops under the trees to pose for the painter. His eye selectively focuses upon her face and hands, the most important details, and those rendered with complete fidelity. In this the painter conforms to the naturalist tradition, stretching back to Jules Bastien-Lepage. Indeed the comparison of the present work with Bastien's Pauvre Fauvette, 1881 (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum), is instructive in that, although this also conveys the sense of a direct encounter with the figure, the stark barren winter hillside on which she stands, shrouded in sackcloth, predetermine the reading of her face. Backgrounds reveal mind-sets. Here, a girl whose features are 'modern' and unblemished - she could almost be wearing make-up - stands under the trees at the edge of a flowering meadow on a bright sunny day. Her presence upstages that of the geese. And where Bastien-Lepage looked for spartan naturalism in his setting, Lee-Hankey accentuates the decorative effect of gnarled apple trees and foliage. This is the age of Arthur Rackham and changes in intention of the treatment of trees lead us to reflect upon the commentary provided by Alfred Lys Baldry on Lee-Hankey's work in 1906. 'He enters correctly into the spirit of open-air nature,' Baldry wrote, 'and shows his sensitiveness by selecting out of the vast amount of available material just what he requires in each instance to fill out properly the impression he has received. Here again his decorative training stands him in good stead, for it helps him ... to concentrate into a coherent and credible design just what his subject demands (see The Art of William Lee-Hankey, R.I., in The Studio, vol. 36, January 1906, p. 299).
Lee-Hankey grew up in Chester and, like Frank Brangwyn (see lot 27) practiced first as a designer of furniture, carpets, textiles and wallpapers. In 1894 he won a scholarship from Chester School of Art to study at what was shortly to become the Royal College of Art. He was, however, very anxious to make his mark quickly and in 1901 staged the first of many exhibitions, working in all media. Some of his innovations as an etcher, developing colour printing, for instance, feed back into his painting. Aspects of The Goose Girl, recall Lee-Hankey's watercolour style - indeed, as with Resting, the same motifs often appear in a variety of media.
There has, however, been no modern reassessment of Lee-Hankey's work. Like Clausen and Stanhope Forbes he remained active through the inter-war period and beyond. Spending much of his time at Le Touquet, where he built a house, and at his studio at Etaples, he was out of the mainstream in the twenties and thirties, submitting pale, post-impressionistic landscapes to the Royal Academy and the Royal Watercolour Society. Nevertheless, at the time the present picture was painted, in the first ten years of the century, Lee-Hankey was one of the leading painters of his generation. Around 1910, 'goose girl' subjects were very familiar to exhibition visitors. Its definitive modern statement was James Guthrie's To Pastures New, 1882 (fig. 1; Aberdeen Art Gallery), a frieze-like composition in which more attention is drawn to the geese than to their attendent. Other salient treatments of the subjects were produced by Arthur Melville, Henry Herbert La Thangue, Edward Stott, Fred Hall and Stanley Royle. These all date from between 1880 and 1920 and in general terms they illustrate movement in modern British art from plein-air painting to a form of decorative naturalism, frequently associated with the later phases of the Glasgow School. William Lee-Hankey was the chief exponent of this kind of painting in England, drawing inspiration from the work of George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel. Hornel's academy exhibits in the early years of the new century combined children with clean, pale, china features, and a richly impasted and decorative setting. At times it seems as though the wild wood in which his children play, will grow up to envelop them. Critics like Baldry were at pains to point out that the sentiment in Lee-Hankey's work should not be confused with sentimentality, and in 1917, 'Tis' returned to this theme, praising the strength and integrity of his work. He wrote, 'The preference for sentiment might easily lead one to think that his pictures were 'cheap' and affected; smooth in quality and false in the handling of pigments. They are not. Lee-Hankey is one of our best technicians in paint. His 'quality', a rich agreeably rough fatness of impasto, makes them, quite apart from subject matter, a real eye-pleasure. The eye, so to speak, has something to masticate, and that proves that his art is of good taste. Moreover his 'drawing' is not only correct, to use a word dear to the dilettante of old, but virile, that is to say far removed from the niggling detail finish once considered essential' ('Tis', W Lee-Hankey his place in art, p. 29).
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.