Alfred Munnings records a disconsolate Henry La Thangue when they met in Chelsea Arts Club in the early years of the century. The rural idyll was fast disappearing in England, and the painter wondered where he could find 'a quiet old world village' with 'real country models'.
'...Again and again when we met ... there was the same question - and a tinge of sadness in his voice.'
La Thangue, Munnings believed, never achieved his goal.1
To some extent, this story is apocryphal. While it is true that he spent much of his time in Provence after 1901, throughout the Edwardian years La Thangue retained his base at Haylands, Graffham in Sussex. For the travel writer, EV Lucas, his presence in the village was one of its chief distinctions. Surveying the area in 1904 he wrote,
'Graffham is interesting as being the home of one of our most truthful of living painters, Mr HH La Thangue whose scenes of peasants at work ...and studies of sunlight spattering through trees are among the triumphs of modern English art.'2
The local farms and surrounding orchards of Lavington Down and Petworth continued to provide the stimulus he required - particularly in the unmechanised activities of fruit-picking. Apples and plums were in abundance during September each year and their processing inspired a long series of works, beginning with the monumental A Sussex Cider Press, shown at the Royal Academy in 1898 (Private Collection, sold Christie's, 9 June 2004).3
Here was a Hardy-esque celebration of an old country tradition. Itinerant labourers in the old gang system were paid in part with cider, and there are instances of their refusing wage increases if the cider allowance was to be cut. The drink was frequently consumed in the fields during harvest times, and larger farms in West Sussex maintained orchards expressly for this purpose. The commercial production of cider was yet in its infancy. Collecting and storing the fruit to await the arrival of a travelling press was a labour-intensive activity often involving wives and children during the weeks of autumn, and cider-making lasted, in some instances, up until December.4 La Thangue was interested in the whole process from gathering wind-falls to loading laden baskets on to carts - activities shown in Cider Apples, 1899 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), A Sussex Orchard, 1905 (Private Collection), and A Sussex Autumn 1907 (Toi o Tamaki, Auckland Art Gallery, Mackelvie Trust Collection). Because it involved women and men, young and old working in collaboration to garner nature's bounty, fruit picking was a metaphor for rural harmony in the face of industrialisation. Unlike their pale city counterparts, La Thangue's yeomen apple gatherers were strong and healthy.
The present example extends this general theme. In its deployment of foreground and background figures - a classic La Thangue arrangement - it complements the works of 1899 and 1907. In his memorial exhibition of 1930, In the Orchard, Haylands, Graffham was particularly admired when a local reviewer, invoking lines from a popular rustic poem by Whittier, remarked
'The most wistful thing in the exhibition is the face of the young girl carrying red apples gathered in the orchards of Haylands, Graffham. Perhaps, like Maud Muller, she was yearning 'for something better than she had known'.5
1 Sir Alfred Munnings, An Artist's Life, 1950 (Museum Press), pp.97-8; quoted in Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929, 1978, (exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery), pp. 13-14.
2 EV Lucas, Highways and Byways of Sussex, 1904 (1923 ex, MacMillan), p. 21.
3 A later variant on this theme, Milling Cider Apples, (National Trust, Standen), was shown at the Royal Academy in 1905. See McConkey, 1978, no. 24.
4 Giles Winterborne, the hero in Hardy's The Woodlanders operated a travelling press.
5 Anon, 'The Late Mr HH La Thangue - A Memorial Exhibition', Sussex County Herald, 19 September 1930. Maud Muller was the heroine of celebrated verses by the New England Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), in which a fieldworker gives sustenance to the local Judge and as he departs she pines for a better life.