SOL DE FRENTE
Henry Herbert La Thangue (English painter) 1859 - 1929Polly, 1885-86oil on canvas28.5 x 23.5 cm. (11 1/4 x 9 1/4 in.)bears a later signature 'H.H.LA THANGUE' (lower left)
inscribed 'POLLY/HH La Thangue ARA' on an old label attached to the reverse of the frame
The discovery of Polly, a study related to The Return of the Reapers circa 1885-86 (fig 1) sheds new light on the early years of Henry Herbert La Thangue. It also appears to be a further study of the girl in A Portrait (fig 2), La Thangue's hitherto unidentified model. Buildings in the background of Polly and A Portrait, coupled with the downland landscape background of The Return of the Reapers suggest that all three were painted on the south coast, perhaps in the vicinity of Rye where La Thangue lived for a brief period in 1885.1 He had moved to Horsey Mere in the Norfolk Fens by the summer of 1886 and remained there until 1890.2 Its survival is the more remarkable because the artist frequently discarded his early work and examples of this type are exceedingly rare.
Fig 1 The Return of the Reapers, 1886, Tate Britain
Fig 2 A Portrait, c. 1885-86, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
During these years La Thangue produced head studies of farm hands, fisherfolk and Broadsmen, and although a number of these have survived, his practice of exhibiting them under anonymous titles such as A Study or A Portrait, makes it difficult to place them in a reliable sequence.3 This is not the case with the present example since it so clearly anticipates the Tate Britain canvas, a work originally purchased by Abraham Mitchell, the Bradford mill owner and passed to his son, Herbert.4
The years in which these works were painted were eventful for La Thangue. In 1885 he married the actress, Kate Rietiker and became absorbed in art politics. His radicalism came to the fore in discussions amongst the founders of the New English Art Club concerning reform of the Royal Academy. La Thangue proposed a 'democratic' society open to all and based on the principles of 'universal suffrage' ie elected selection and hanging committees. Hotly debated in the Wentworth Studios in Manresa Road, Chelsea, where he had a toehold, (see lot xxx), these plans generated letters and articles in the press, but were ultimately regarded as impractical.5
At the same time La Thangue was the highly influential leader of what was known as 'the Square Brush School', succinctly described by Morley Roberts in 1889 as,
'... a technical method which puts paint on canvas in a particular way with a square brush, which many older men never use. Those who practice it in its simplest form leave brush-marks, and do not smooth away the evidence of method, thus sometimes insisting on the way a picture is painted, perhaps at the sacrifice of subtleties in the subject.'6
What we find in Polly is a perfect example of this method, ultimately derived from the teaching ateliers of Paris and popularly associated with the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage. La Thangue would paint across the form in choppy strokes there was no scumbling or glazing over unsatisfactory passages, and brush marks were left for all to see. His normal practice at this time would be to paint on a loose canvas tacked down on a board, then stretch the canvas later. The long 'T' in 'Thangue' indicates that it is the artist's own signature, but added at a later date than the execution of the work. Although much derided by critics of the nineties such as George Moore and DS MacColl, the artists of La Thangue's generation broke the mould and, standing in the open air painting a young reaper, hedger or wood-cutter, was at once more honest than posing a model in costume in a London studio. As evidence of an encounter with a hitherto unknown English peasant girl, Polly not only confirms the freethinking of its creator, it takes to a moment of high idealism in British painting when old ideas about picture making were swept away.
1 When he returned to England in 1884, La Thangue first lived at South Walsham on the edge of the Norfolk Broads before moving to Rye. See James Stanley Little, 'HH La Thangue', The Art Journal, 1893, p. 171; Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, 1978, (exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery), pp. 9-10; Adrian Jenkins, Painters and Peasants, Henry La Thangue and British Rural Naturalism, 1880-1905, 2000 (exhibition catalogue, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery), p. 84.
2 During these years La Thangue commuted regularly to Bradford for portrait commissions and to attend meetings of the Arcadian Art Club, of which he was President.
3 Adding to the problem, a number of these are unsigned; examples include The Head of a Girl, (National Trust, Standen, c. 1978); A Girl Reading, (formerly Pyms Gallery, London) and A Boy's Head, (sold Sotheby's c. 1995). For this reason it is suggested that the signature on the present example may be a later addition.
4 Christine Hopper and Adrian Jenkins, The Connoisseur, Art Patrons and Collectors in Victorian Bradford, 1989, (Bradford Art Galleries and Museums), n.p. suggest that The Return of the Reapers was exhibited at the Arcadian Art Club in 1888, entitled Haytime. For further reference to the Tate Britain picture, formerly the Fine Art Society and then in the collection of Arthur Grogan Esq., see McConkey 1978, p. 21.
5 See for instance, HH La Thangue 'A National Art Exhibition', The Magazine of Art, 1887, pp. 30-2; HH La Thangue 'Politics in Art', The Artist, 1 April 1889, p. 97; also WJ Laidlay, The Origin and First Two Years of the New English Art Club, 1907 (John Lane). For a modern and less partial account see Kenneth McConkey, The New English, A History of the New English Art Club, 2006, (Royal Academy Publications), pp. 32-7.
6 Morley Roberts, 'A Colony of Artists', The Scottish Art Review, vol 2, August 1889, p. 73.
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