Faggott gatherers oil on canvas 118.5 x 73cm (46 5/8 x 28 3/4in).
Provenance: William Rawnsley Esq, Bradford Mill, Bradford, by early 20c.; to Luddenden Mill, c. 1965; sold Phillips, London, 14th November, 1989, lot 27.
'Faggot Gatherers' is one of the most striking variants of what for Henry Herbert La Thangue was to become a classic composition.
La Thangue first observed processions of fieldworkers in rural France in 1883, only to revisit this experience in 'The Return of the Reapers', 1886 (fig 1, Tate Britain) - a work painted for one of his Bradford patrons, Tom Mitchell. Immediately the painter discovered a format that sustained him well into the twentieth century 1. Frieze-like compositions favoured by earlier painters of rural life were dismissed as his laden labourers in 'Faggot Gatherers' boldly advance towards the spectator. This canvas is likely to have been produced for another Bradford patron, the mill-owner, William Rawnsley.
Fig 1 Henry Herbert La Thangue, Return of the Reapers, 1886, Tate Britain
The flat Fenland countryside around his home, cut in segments by drainage dykes, brought visual drama to the scene2. These shallow tracts of water reflecting grey skies frequently featured in his landscape studies (fig 2), and in later works, the sunlight of the early 'Reapers' was exchanged for the cooler autumn colours, as fieldworkers turned their attention to thinning the copses and laying-in winter fuel. This simple seasonal task had exercised the imagination of painters back to Gainsborough. It was however Jean-François Millet who first addressed it for La Thangues generation. Millet, quoted by his biographer, Alfred Sensier, had on one particular occasion, contemplated the woodcutters lot,
You are sitting under a tree you see come from a narrow path a poor creature loaded with faggots. The unexpected and always surprising way in which this figure strikes you, instantly reminds you of the common and melancholy lot of humanity weariness. It is always like the impression of La Fontaines woodcutter in the fable: What has he had since the day of his birth? Who so poor as he in the whole wide earth.3
To accompany these reflections, Sensier illustrated 'The Old Woodman', one of Millets most expressive drawings. Published in English in 1881, Sensiers account of the heroic rustic painter was available to French and British artists. It came at a time when Millets repertoire was being overhauled by painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, and La Thangue, along with his contemporaries, George Clausen, Edward Stott and the Newlyn School painters, was among the first visual translators of the new naturalism. In a series of paintings and prints that began in 1882, Clausen reworked Millets woodcutter motif in a modern way, culminating in 'The End of a Winters Day', 1885 (fig 3, unlocated)4. However, the fundamental differences between Clausens woodcutters and La Thangues are obvious while the former follows Millet in arranging male figures parallel to the picture plane, La Thangue faces his, and confronts a woman bearing as heavy a bundle as her male companion. Survival on the bleak fens of East Anglia demanded equal labour from men and women.
Fig 2 Henry Herbert La Thangue, Plovers over the Marshes, c. 1888, Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Puna O Waiwhelu, New Zealand Fig 3 George Clausen, The End of a Winters Day, 1885, unlocated
Confrontational figures were not unique to La Thangue. In 1882 he would have had the opportunity to study Bastien-Lepages 'Le Père Jacques' (Fig 4, Milwaukee Art Centre) at the Salon in Paris.5 Lepage used this painting to demonstrate to his followers, the new naturalism. Look, he would say,
here we are in a wood the objects that are nearest to us, instead of being seen in profile against the sky, are silhouetted upon the fields grey and green they sometimes mix with the background which then, instead of going away, seems to come forward6.
La Thangue fully concurred with these naturalist strategies with one important proviso. Where Bastien-Lepages eye caught the intricate surfaces of bark, brushwood and forest flowers, La Thangue stripped away detail in order to accentuate movement and drama. The extreme foreshortening of the female figure, her head bent towards the spectator indicates an unusual level of distortion as the painter strove to convey the obvious visual fact that the weight of her burden compelled her to lean forward as she walks towards us. The angular treatment of her body supports this illusion.
Fig 4 Jules Bastien-Lepage, Le Père Jacques, 1882, Milwaukee Art Center
Much has been written about the rural naturalists wish to recreate with paint and canvas, the circumstances of a real life encounter. Bastien-Lepage and La Thangue were both highly influential in forming ideas about naturalistic photography as promulgated by Peter Henry Emerson7. Emerson worked in close collaboration with TF Goodall, a former school-friend of La Thangues who lived in a houseboat on the Norfolk Broads. It is difficult not to find evidence of works such as 'Faggot Gatherers' in Emersons photographs. Images such as 'Coming Home from the Marshes' and 'Poling the Marsh Hay' show figures advancing towards the spectator, while in 'Towing the Reed' (fig 5) a man of the Broads leans forward, almost into the spectators space, much in the way that the principal figure does in the present work. The painter would have been excited by the foreshortening and the dynamic optical distortion found in Emersons lens. Part of this study was to provide a convincing sense of figure movement within a defined depth of field. We can imagine that purged of sentimental thoughts, La Thangue may also have repeatedly watched the fieldworkers coming towards him on the path by the dyke.
Fig 5 Peter Henry Emerson, Towing the Reed, from Life and Landscape of the Norfolk Broads, 1887 (Sampson Lowe), plate xxvi Fig 6 Henry Herbert La Thangue, Returning from the Fields, c. 1887, unlocated
'Faggot Gatherers' links closely to other La Thangues of the later eighties. The male figure in the background, for instance, is likely to be the same man with a scythe in 'Returning from the Fields', c.1887 (fig 6)8. The composition also remained endlessly fascinating being reworked in 'Nightfall in the Dauphiné', 1892 (fig 7) and 'The Woodman', 1894 (Private Collection). It is impossible to think of mature works such as 'An Autumn Morning', 1897 (Private Collection) and 'The Ploughboy', 1900 (fig 8, Aberdeen Art Gallery) without recalling the forceful presence of Faggot Gatherers.
Fig 7 Henry Herbert La Thangue, Nightfall in the Dauphiné, 1892, unlocated Fig 8 Henry Herbert La Thangue, The Ploughboy, 1900, Aberdeen Art Gallery
1. For La Thangues early career see Kenneth McConkey, A Painters Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929 (Oldham Art Gallery 1978) pp. 7-12; see also Adrian Jenkins, HH La Thangue and British Rural Naturalism (Bolton Museum and Art Gallery 2000). The present work was apparently in the possession of the owners of Luddenden Mill, near Bradford, west Yorkshire. For reference to La Thangues Bradford patrons see, Christine Hopper, (Bradford Museums and Art Galleries 1989). Mitchells picture is likely to have been painted at Rye where La Thangue lived briefly in 1885-6. 2. La Thangue moved to South Walsham in Norfolk in 1886. Following his return from France, the painter spent about a year in Norfolk, then a similar period at Rye, before moving to East Anglia. Throughout this period he retained a studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea. 3. A Sensier, Jean François Millet, Peasant and Painter, (Sampson Lowe 1881), p. 93. This letter is variously dated 1850 or 1851. 4. Kenneth McConkey, Dejections Portrait, French and British paintings of woodcutters in the late nineteenth century, Arts Magazine, April 1986, pp. 81-87. 5. Dominque Lobstein, Jules Bastien-Lepage, (Musée dOrsay, Paris 2007), p.152; McConkey 1986, op. cit., p. 85. 6. André Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and his Art, (Fisher Unwin 1892), p. 73. 7. Kenneth McConkey Dr Emerson and the sentiment of Nature, in Neil MacWilliam and Veronica Sekules eds., Life and Landscape, PH Emerson, Art and Photography in East Anglia, 1885-1900, (Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts 1986), pp. 48-56. 8. Returning from the Fields was also owned by William Rawnsley of Bradford.
We are extremely grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his kind assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.