There can be no more definitive portrayal of the massive social changes affecting the English countryside in the late nineteenth century than H.H. La Thangue's Leaving Home. The picture graphically records the plight of a young woman leaving her family to go into service probably as a kitchen maid. The aged driver of the horse and cart cracks his whip with a fatalistic stroke. He is the early exemplar of La Thangue's aged harvester passing the garden gate as a sick child sinks into her final slumber in The Man with the Scythe, his Chantrey Bequest picture of 1896 (Tate Britain). The critical rhetoric, which contrasted 'realistic truth' with 'symbolic purpose' in La Thangue's later work seems appropriate here (see Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, H.H. La Thangue RA, 1859-1929, 1978, p. 33).
For The Speaker, La Thangue's intentions were obvious to all who flocked to see Leaving Home when it was first shown at the New Gallery in 1890. It noted,
There was a constant crowd around the Leaving Home of Mr La Thangue, a picture that has both an artistic and an emotional beauty, and the name gave so much information that few made any grave errors (The Speaker, 3 May 1890, p. 482).
Apart from the picture's evident popularity - it was one of the talking points of the 1890 season - within its viewing public there was a social awareness in which its subject matter could readily be understood. It alluded to conditions which left country girls to face a purposeless future if they remained on the land. This dilemma is graphically described in Flora Thompson's classic Lark Rise to Candleford, (1939), in which Laura, the stonemason's daughter, dons her best clothes and mounts the spring-cart to leave her cottage home at Lark Rise to go to work in the post-office at Candleford Green. 'As Polly [the horse] trotted on', Thompson wrote, 'Laura turned to look across ... to the huddle of grey cottages where she knew her mother was thinking about her, and tears came into her eyes' (Century Publishing ed., 1983, p. 176). Later historians have shown that the traditional cottage industries of lace-making, straw-plaiting and glove-making were in sharp decline in the face of industrialisation and cheap imports, providing the daughters of farm labourers with little alternative but to leave home to seek work. Even the Small Holdings Acts of 1892 and 1908, designed to retain the rural population on the land, were of no avail, or were too late to stem the tide (see for instance G.E. Mingay, Rural Life in Victorian England, 1977, Futura ed., 1979, pp. 120-142).
In placing his female harvester in the forefront of earlier compositions like The Return of the Reapers, 1886 (Tate Britain), the artist was drawing attention to country practices which were now under threat and to the role of women within them. Focussing more particularly upon the tearful farewell, a subject which emerges from a quite specific visual context, La Thangue's canvas spoke unequivocally and left little possibility for 'grave errors' of interpretation. For its readers The Art Journal provided the definitive description of the work,
The grey-and-green tonality and the open-air effect of the whole are evidently derived from French sources; but the types of rustic personages and the aspect of the bare landscape which frames them are sufficiently national to exonerate the painter from the charge of slavish imitation of foreign models. The scene is a high road in an uninviting country, upon which a trap, driven by a rustic and drawn by a shaggy white pony, has drawn up; it bears away from her home - evidently to service - a weeping village girl, at whom her family sadly take a last look ere she departs. Boldly and skillfully designed is the white horse, which stands absolutely facing the spectator and stepping right out of the picture; but it forms inevitably an ugly and unpictorial element in the design (The Art Journal, 1890, p. 170).
What falls between the cracks of most literal descriptions, but is alluded to here, is the conscious stagecraft of Leaving Home. No one could avoid its message. Its viewpoint is carefully managed to give the sense that our space is being invaded. The conventional Claude Phillips, who penned The Art Journal critique regarded the horse as 'ugly and unpictorial', forgetting that Lady Butler had employed similar strategies to convey the urgency of a cavalry charge. The poor were allowed to be seen, their emotions could even be portrayed, but they must not be threatening. The horse should not be allowed to bring them out of the picture into the spectator's space. Surprisingly the social context of Leaving Home tended to be overlooked by critics who preferred to comment upon the French naturalist syntax implied in La Thangue's confrontational composition.
La Thangue's career was, as George Thomson later pointed out, synonymous with 'the history of the naturalistic movement in England' ('H.H. La Thangue and his Work', The Studio, IX, 1896, p. 163). He was one of the leading Francophile painters of the 1880s, having left the Academy Schools to study in Paris under Jean Léon Géröme with a letter of recommendation from Frederic Leighton. There, he was particularly close to Stanhope Forbes, Arthur Hacker and the sculptor, James Havard Thomas. When he returned to England, fired with youthful idealism, La Thangue set out to overhaul exhibiting practices and he was immediately in conflict with the Academy cartel. He sought to use the New English Art Club as a vehicle for bringing a 'bigger movement' into being, based upon the recently reformed Paris Salon. In this, his principal comrade 'conspirators' were George Clausen and Frederick Brown. After a good deal of heated debate, which led to La Thangue leaving the club, the plan for a National Art Exhibition collapsed.
La Thangue's importance as the standard bearer of radical practice during these years should not however be underestimated. He consorted with photographers like Peter Henry Emerson whose images of East Anglian life often repeat the stark confrontations we see in La Thangue's works. In 1889 Morley Roberts recorded that La Thangue 'had an incalculable effect upon all with whom he came in contact by the earnestness of his personality, and his love of truth and directness' ('A Colony of Artists', The Scottish Art Review, 2, 1889, p. 73). Based in the Trafalgar/Wentworth studios in Manresa Road, he was, before his departure for South Walsham, near Norfolk, surrounded by young painters who included Philip Wilson Steer, James Jebusa Shannon, James Elder Christie, Frank Brangwyn, Percy Jacomb Hood and the sculptor, Stirling Lee. La Thangue was regarded as the leader of the 'square brush school',
a technical method which puts paint on canvas in a particular way with a square brush, which many of the older men never use. Those who practise it in its simplest form leave brushmarks, and do not smooth away the evidence of method, thus sometimes insisting on the way the picture is painted, perhaps at the sacrifice of subtleties in the subject (M. Roberts, p. 73).
Thus the principal tenet of this school, associated with naturalism, lay in a very dramatic and deliberate application of paint to convey the immediacy of lived experience. We obtain a sense of this from A.D. McCormick's contemporary drawing of the artist at work (fig. 1). The most ambitious constructions, like Leaving Home, were rooted in these rapid plein air studies. They were deployed with mental rigour eliminating the excesses and discontinuities of spontaneous on the spot recording in favour of an ensemble which was carefully contrived. In the present case, a Landscape Study (fig. 2, Rotherham Art Gallery), shows a back view of a farm maid driving ducks up the lane towards the farm. James Stanley Little described the cast of mind which emanated from this reading of Naturalism,
Mr La Thangue's art is eminently the art which carries with it the sentiment of good breeding; the dignity and reticence which went with it from its inception are manifested in what we usually speak of as quality and style. Formal perhaps, Mr La Thangue may occasionally be, but he is never vulgar. It is, perhaps, true to say of him as has been said of Bastien-Lepage, that to him the literary and aesthetic sides of life appeal almost equally, and it is this fact which renders his pictures singularly free from extravagance. His outlook on the world is that of a man who has trained his brain as well as his eye and his hand. He rarely commits an error of taste ... ('H.H. La Thangue', Art Journal, 1893, pp. 173-4).
These are the essential qualities of Leaving Home. Its formality is expressed in the strongly centralised composition which draws the eye consistently to the main motif, that of the tearful country girl and her aged driver. Grouped around these figures, the delapidated farm buildings and tearful family members all speak eloquently of an England which could no longer support its population, an England in which the trees are leafless and the well-worn clothes of the peasantry hint at decay and disillusion. The ducks innocently go about their business on the dyke off to the left. The dramatically foreshortened white horse, an aged animal, complies with the general mood. La Thangue used this motif again in 1895 in The Last Furrow to express what George Moore described as 'mute sympathy' with the ploughman's plight. All are enveloped in the grey beauty of a bleak East Anglian day.
Works of this type, like Leaving Home, appealed particularly to La Thangue's northern patrons. In this case the buyer was Isaac Smith, JP (1832-1909), mill owner and Mayor of Bradford. While Smith and his kind were caught up in the very processes to which La Thangue's picture alluded, the general character of his collection was, as the present work confirms, far from escapist. He owned important recent Salon paintings by Léon Lhermitte and Edouard-Joseph Dantan, as well as works by Clausen, Charles, Holl, Tissot and an early non-Pre-Raphaelite work by Waterhouse. In short, he favoured pictures which were naturalistic representations of contemporary subjects, reflecting the 'democratic' tastes of the period in which the great public municipal and colonial collections were formed.
In depicting the state of the poor in this stark, original and objective way, La Thangue was working within a tradition of social reporting going back to the 1870s in the work of illustrators like Frank Holl and Hubert von Herkomer. These and others, in their Academy canvases showed the effects of rapid industrialisation upon the countryside, Holl depicting the tearful farewells of emigrants and Herkomer, the privations of the itinerant workforce. La Thangue treated the theme of the rootless rural poor in later canvases like Travelling Harvesters, 1897 (Private Collection) and Harvesters at Supper, 1898 (Bradford Art Galleries and Museums). Among the painters of his own generation, Fred Hall in Adversity (fig. 3, R.A., 1889, no. 676, unlocated), depicted a dejected labourer's family and horse and cart, dramatically foreshortened, trudging down a country lane in the rain. The rain has ceased in Leaving Home, although the evidence of a recent downpour remains in puddles in the cart-tracks. The picture's immediate iconic status was matched only by George Clausen's The Girl at the Gate, 1889 (Tate Britain), a work which addresses a similar theme - in this case the plight of the forlorn young woman imprisoned in the countryside with aged parents or grand parents.
Like these other 'thesis' pictures, Leaving Home had numerous successors. Not only were there echoes in La Thangue's own work of the nineties, but aspects of his unique approach to assembling the mise- en-scéne are to be found in the work of younger painters such as Harold Harvey and Alfred Munnings. Munnings' The Vagabonds, 1902 (private collection), for instance, in general terms looks back to the present picture. Yet within fifteen years of the appearance of Leaving Home, these grand naturalistic pictures of social dilemmas were outmoded. British agriculture might remain in a parlous state in the middle of the Edwardian era, but in the jovial rustics and rumbustious squirearchy of James Pryde and William Nicholson, new archetypes played to the transcendent bawdiness of the British character. There is no doubt however, that H.H. La Thangue, and Leaving Home, were central to the remaking for its day, of the image of rural England.
Early writers on La Thangue refer to his austerity. Thomson quotes Clausen's reference to his 'magnificent obstinacy', which could be compared to that of the American painter, Thomas Eakins. La Thangue sought isolation. He left London to paint Leaving Home. He worked in remote places and identified with peasants who scraped a living in distant fields. Munnings records this restlessness in later years,
He [La Thangue] was unhappy about where to live and wanted a change. He asked me if I knew a quiet old world village where he could live and find real country models ... Again and again when we met in the club there was the same unsettled, unhappy look in his eye - the same question - and a tinge of sadness in his voice ... Although young looking, age was gaining on La Thangue and I believe he never found his spot (The Artist's Life, Bungay, 1950, pp. 97-8).
The irony is that like his female protagonist, the painter himself would be compelled to leave home. In the early years of the new century he was one of the first British painters to set up his headquarters in the south of France.
We are grateful to Kenneth McConkey for his help in preparing this entry.