Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Henry Herbert La Thangue - Winter in Liguria

Price Realized £498,050

signed 'H.H.LA THANGUE.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
41¾ x 35¼ in. (106 x 89.5 cm.)
Painted in 1906.

London, Royal Academy, 1906, no. 825.

In the early years of the century, recalling the sunny experiences of his youth, Henry Herbert La Thangue returned to the south of France. Provençal paintings appeared at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1901 and in 1904 his first Ligurian subjects were shown.1 By 1906, when the present work was exhibited alongside Selling Chickens in Liguria, this new aspect of La Thangue's work was widely appreciated, one critic remarking that his Ligurian subjects restore ' ... the light heart he (the visitor) may have lost in the preceding galleries'.2 These pictures immediately indicated that La Thangue was not a traveller of the classic Victorian type. He eschewed topography and the popular tourist sights. He was in essence, looking for a congenial way of life which he felt had been destroyed in the English shires. Alfred Munnings recalled meeting him at the Chelsea Arts Club, occasionally before the Great War, when La Thangue would ask him if he knew of a 'quiet old world village where he could live and find real country models'. Munnings ruefully added that he 'never found his spot'.3 By contrast, the untravelled roads of northern Italy led La Thangue to sunny arbours and neglected gardens which were eminently paintable.

Bound for Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, late Victorian travellers to Italy tended to miss the Ligurian coastline as they were delivered by train through to St Gothard tunnel.4 The hill towns and coastal villages of Piedmont, Brescia and Liguria acquired a few more hotels, but remained generally unspoilt. In 1881 Samuel Butler, literary pariah of the 1870s, published Alps and Sanctuaries, an account of the towns, people and monastic settlements of Northern Italy which was reissued as a pocket edition in 1913, as the area was slowly becoming more popular. For him, the traveller in this region found hillsides covered with auriculas and rhododendrons, and landscapes such as 'some old Venetian painter might have chosen as a background for a Madonna'.5 Despite Butler and artist-enthusiasts like Charles Gogin, however, the development of the region as a tourist destination was slower than that of the fishing ports of the Riveria.

While he had witnessed the complete demise of classical and mythological painting at the Edwardian Academies, La Thangue's arrival on the shores of the Mediterranean brought the opportunity to rework from life, a number of themes which retained ancient resonances. Living in later years at Bormes les Mimosas, he had ready access to the primitive livelihoods of French and Italian shepherds and goatherds, who were shown watering their flocks.6 Peasant women packed the flowers and fruit that grew in abundance in winter and early spring, before the earth became too parched. Although many of these activities had changed little since Virgil, flowers had become luxury goods in Paris and London, as is clear from the work of Madeleine Lemaire and Victor Gilbert. La Thangue nevertheless refused to romanticize their production.

Winter in Liguria thus represents the first statement of two related themes in his work. The first of these, figures at the well, was to be treated in a number of Academy exhibits in the 1920s. These include a A Provencal Fountain (Manchester City Art Gallery) and Goats at a Fountain (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). In general terms it refers to the complex imagery of the well of 'source' as a sustainer of life. There were numerous treatments of the subject in the nineteenth century, from Ingres' classic nude La Source, 1856 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) to the more prosaic works of Edward Poynter such as The Cup of Tantalus, (Royal Academy, 1905, unlocated). This latter work appeared in the same Academy as La Thangue's A Ligurian Mill Race (unlocated), and both showed female figures drinking, the one a product of classical artifice, the other a vivid record of the action of a thirsty shepherdess.

La Thangue's second theme, the packing of scented stocks was also to provide favourite motifs in later years, as is clear from Packing Stocks (fig. 2, Oldham Art Gallery) - a work that shows a young woman with bobbed hair, fashionable in the twenties, filling wicker boxes with flowers.7 This same lucrative activity conducted throughout the winter months, is clearly that upon which the two girls in Winter in Liguria are engaged. Visiting Italian gardens, Vernon Lee observed this phenomenon. 'Flowers in Italy', she wrote, 'are a crop like corn, hemp or beans; you must be satisfied with fallow soil when they are over. I say these things learned by bitter experience of flowerless summers, to explain why Italian flower gardening mainly takes refuge in pots ...' watered, as here, from springs and fountains. Lee explains that flower gardens in Italy are like Moorish ones, 'sunny yards walled in with myrtle and bay, in mysterious chambers, roofed over with ilex and box'.8

So important did such scenes become, that the painter staged an exhibition almost exclusively devoted to them in 1914 at the Leicester Galleries. Although many of the 42 pictures on display were landscapes, the critic of The Times, reminded readers that La Thangue was at his best as a figure painter, and predictably, it was works of this type that lingered in the mind.9 And at the end of his life, it was the Ligurian canvases, with their 'preference for colour and strong sunlight' that, as a body of work, was considered his lasting achievement.10

Of La Thangue's two early Ligurian pictures in 1906, The Illustrated London News preferred the present example to its companion piece. It described Winter in Liguria as ' ... the most pleasure compelling (of the two), for here La Thangue's powers of selection seem to have crowded into one canvas all the especially delightful accessories of an Italian scene; the well with its whitewashed walls, the well water, the flowers deliciously cool in the shadow - the whole world of colour and contrasts ...'11 It was clear that the simple harmonies of rural life, first discovered in the val du Rhône, and which appeared as In the Dauphiné, are, at that moment when two Ligurian girls water and pack their flowers, experienced once more.

We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.

1 For further reference see K. McConkey, Exhibition catalogue, A Painter's Harvest, H.H. La Thangue, 1859-1929, Oldham, Art Gallery, 1978, n.p., no.s 26, 27, 28, 31, 37, 38, 39, 40.
2 Illustrated London News, 19 May 1906, p. 732.
3 A.J. Munnings, An Artist's Life, Bungay, 1950, pp. 97-8. Munnings was heavily influenced by La Thangue in the early years of the century (p. 138).
4 The St Gothard tunnel opened in 1882. Thomas Cook planned a circular tour of Italy in anticipation of these improved transport links taking travellers south to Naples and returning via the coast from Pisa and Genoa to Nice. This latter part of the journey proved the most problematic because of the poor condition of the roads, see L. Withey, Grand Tours and Cook's Tours, A History of Leisure Travel, 1750-1915, 1998, pp. 153-5. When An Italian Flower Seller, a Ligurian work of 1907-8 was purchased by Blackburn Corporation, La Thangue wrote to the local art dealer, Richard Haworth describing the 'fine old house' at which it was painted and concluding that ' ... all of these regions have been spoilt by the war and still more perhaps by the peace ...'. It is likely that the present work was painted in the same setting.
5 Samuel Butler, Alps and Sanctuaries, 1881, p. 26.
6 For an account of this idyllic setting see W. Donne, Bormes-Les-Mimosas - A Winter Sketching Ground, c. Holme (ed.), Sketching Grounds, 1909, The Studio, Special Number, pp. 175-82.
7 K. McConkey, 1978, no. 40, fig.12.
8 V. Lee, Italian Gardens, Limbo and other Essays, quoted from I. Cooper Willis (ed.), A Vernon Lee Anthology, 1929, pp.10-11.
9 The Times, 20 April 1914, p. 12.
10 The Times, 23 December 1929, p. 12.
11 Anon., The Royal Academy, The Illustrated London News, vol. 128, 12 May 1906, p. 689.

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