Even before it arrived at the Royal Academy in May 1922, Short Cut across the Fields was much admired. It had been the most important new picture shown at a retrospective exhibition of Stanhope Forbes’s work at the Passmore Edwards Gallery in Newlyn in March of that year. One local reviewer described it as ‘full of the golden light of a harvest afternoon’, while another referring to the ‘milk-cart’, set in one of the meadows around the village of Paul with a glimpse of the bay ‘in strong sunshine’, characterised this ‘world’ as ‘his wonderland, teeming with novelties’. It was a fine tribute to the excellent summer of the previous year.
Those who first saw the picture would readily recognize its three principal characters. The elderly ‘pilot’ of the cart appeared with the girl in Three Generations, c. 1915, while the girl in her saffron jumper is probably that in Girl in a Wicker Chair, c. 1915-20. The boy leading the pony in this instance, drives the cart in The Huskster, 1917 (Private Collection) and is given the task of leading a harvest waggon in On Paul Hill (Penlee Museum and Art Gallery, Penzance), Forbes’s principal contribution to the Royal Academy in 1923. However, for the present, the milk cart, painted at the same time by Maud, the artist’s wife, was the subject that occupied the artist’s attention.
Since the early 1890s, when he moved up the hill from Newlyn and eventually built his house and studio at Higher Faugan, Forbes had begun to haunt the high roads around Paul and the tiny hamlet of Sheffield. Country carts now featured more frequently than fishing boats, to such an extent that he was approached in 1909 to provide colour illustrations of recent work for Mary R. Mitford’s Sketches of English Life and Character. Although these are all Cornish scenes, and Mitford’s observations were drawn from the Home Counties, they had universal appeal. In recounting anecdotes and country lore, typical rustics and seasonal tasks, the author was valorising English rural life, to Forbes’s visual refrain. He could tell his own story, and while we do not know if his elder carter was a ‘veteran of the tap room’, age and experience are etched on his face. W.H. Hudson, at the same time, had been quite specific about the classic Cornish physiognomy, finding the old farmers around Penzance similar to the ‘intensely Irish type’, and at four-score years they could ‘once up on the seat … drive a cart or trap or reaping machine as well as anyone’.
For his part, Forbes had a life-long commitment to a race that regarded itself as un-English. ‘Our rustics’, he declared in his early thirties, ‘are not Greek gods, but their healthy sunburnt faces are often handsome; and though our country peasant women have not the elegance …[of] those who have led lives of ease, their unstudied action is beautiful in its way’. This remained his goal throughout his long career, and it is what he aimed to show in the three figures taking a short cut across the fields. For The Cornishman, these were observations best reserved for the artist. ‘We become so familiar’, it reported, ‘with … the physique and dress of our neighbours, that we fail to see them as they are …’ We need the artist to tell us what we see and ‘he must refuse to grow old and unseeing’.