Friday, January 27, 2012

Henry Herbert La Thangue - Calling to the Valley

Price Realized

signed 'H. H. LaThangue' (lower left) and signed and inscribed 'Calling to the Valley H. H. La Thangue' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm.)

In his youth Henry Herbert La Thangue had visited the Rhône valley to paint the peasants of the Dauphiné and the memory of this experience remained vivid as the restless painter became increasingly disenchanted with the changes affecting rural England at the turn of the twentieth- century. He bemoaned the damage that the modern world was inflicting upon such communities and like D.H. Lawrence, he had rejected the England of industrial grime and rampant commercialism. In the winter of 1901 he set off for the South of France and each year thereafter, Provence, Liguria and Southern Spain became destinations of choice. He avoided the fashionable coastal watering holes of the Riviera favoured by English expatriates, preferring instead the mountain paths and hill villages beyond the reach of Baedeker, such as St Jeannet and La Roquette. These 'castelli' frequently feature in his work but are never identified; they were regarded by travellers as 'more picturesque at a distance'. (Augustus J.C. Hare, The Rivieras, 1897, George Allen, p. 69.) Where other artists might broadcast their discoveries, this painter wished to guard his secrets and one such is the location of Calling to the Valley. Here, a young woman on a high mountain plateau has tethered her donkey and is calling down to unseen peasants in the valley. In the distance are the glistening snow-covered peaks of the Alpes Maritimes. The clean, pure air in such a place may well throw back an echo of her call.

Suggesting the sounds one might hear at such a place was a ploy frequently adopted by painters of La Thangue's generation. Fragments of conversation or characteristic calls became picture titles. Themes such as 'the song of the lark' accentuated the crystalline stillness of the countryside at dawn or dusk. In the mountains near his winter studio at Bormes-les-Mimosas, such piercing cries were not unusual, especially during the olive harvests when donkeys carrying sackcloth panniers would be led up into the hills to bring back the fruit to village presses, their well-worn tracks etched into the hillsides. The pack animal was a familiar sight on these roads and no one painted it with more sympathy. In Ligurian Olives and The Threshing Floor for instance, La Thangue's familiar peasant woman wearing a red headscarf loads her donkey in preparation for the trek while in The First of Spring, the painter comes upon a harvesters' campfire high in the hills. It was a scene relished by Lawrence in the last Winter before the outbreak of the Great War.

' have no idea how beautiful olives are, so grey, so delicately sad now the hills are full of voices, the peasant women and children all day long and day after day, in the faint shadow of olives, picking the fallen fruit off the ground, pannier after pannier full".
A. Huxley introd., DH Lawrence, Selected Letters, London, 1950 (Penguin Books, 1954 reprint), p. 65 (letter to W.E. Hopkin, 18 December 1913).

Calling to the Valley thus portrays a typical moment. The low rampart and cross suggests that it was painted on the edge of a village, convent or monastic settlement, affording splendid views of distant peaks and deep ravines. These are appropriately framed by an everyday event, a wave of the hand, a call, a greeting.


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