Saturday, August 21, 2010

Robert Walker Macbeth - Sedge Cutting in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire - early morning.

Price Realized £65,725

Sedge cutting is one of the remnants of a fen industry, and Wicken Fen the only remaining portion on which the sedge has free growth. This fen is now reduced to a small acreage by man and his agricultral improvements.

signed with initials and dated 'RM/1878' (lower left)
oil on canvas
39 x 78½ in. (99 x 199.4 cm.)

London, Royal Academy, 1878, no. 1016.

Born in Glasgow in 1848, MacBeth was the son of the notable Scottish portrait painter Norman MacBeth, who was a member of the Royal Scottish Academy. He left Edinburgh for London in 1870 and established himself in a studio of his own. He was then employed as a draughtsman at The Graphic, a leading periodical of the time, and in 1871 he began to exhibit. He made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1874 and was one of the few artists who never had a picture refused by the institution. In 1875 he made a series of large-scale works depicting the life of the inhabitants of the Fenlands of East Anglia. Most of his best-known work resulted from his first-hand study of the local manners and customs of the Fenlands. In Caw's opinion these Fenland pictures were some of his finest, 'in which a sense of beauty mingles with admiration for strength in man or woman, or in Nature.' (James Caw, Scottish Painting, 1908, p. 278).

Such treatment of peasant life had its precursors in the works of the mid-19th century French Barbizon painters, Millet's The Gleaners (1857; Louvre), in which by becoming the focus of the artist's work the labourers are elevated out of the strict social hierarchy of the 19th century and given a timeless and heroic status which is in reality denied to them. The critic for the Art Journal in 1878 noted, '...the fine way in which Mr MacBeth catches whatever is noble in the build and action of a peasant's form...'. Other critics noted that Macbeth painted not only the picturesque but also the unhealthy side of rural England and admired the way he was not afraid to be realistic about conditions in the Victorian countryside. Indeed, one of his most familiar images A Lincolnshire Gang (1876) was inspired by newspaper accounts of the abuse of child labour in the Fens. In addition to the contemporary commentary, there is also a symbolic element to this picture which draws on traditional imagery of the River Styx.

This type of social realist painting is consistent with the style of other artists and illustrators contributing to the Graphic magazine in the 1870s. Although illustrations showing working-class life had appeared in the works of Dickens and other magazines, The Graphic gave these subjects the large format of full-page or double-page illustrations and emphasised the human interest of the new style of art. This new generation of painters presented working-class subjects with a vivid sense of actuality as their post Pre-Raphaelite training in realistic observation led them away from the melodrama and caricature of earlier social realist artists such as Cruikshank and Hablot K. Browne. In the catalogue for the Hard Times exhibition, Julian Treuherz describes the distinctive style of these artists: 'The drawing of the figure was solid and well rounded, the compositions were often strongly designed...the observation of character was keen: portrait-like drawings of individuals, with attention given to nuances of facial expression, could elicit sympathy from spectators, investing a social problem with human interest.' (London, 1987, p. 63). Other contributors to the Graphic are well represented in this sale and include Frank Holl, Sir Luke Fildes, Frederick Walker, Sir Hubert von Herkomer, Charles Green, and G.J. Pinwell.

When this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878 it was accompanied by the following quotation, 'Sedge cutting is one of the remnants of a fen industry, and Wicken Fen the only remaining portion on which the sedge has free growth. This fen is now reduced to a small acreage by man and his agricultral improvements.' Wicken Fen is Britain'’s oldest nature reserve and in 1999 it celebrated its 100th anniversary. On May 1st 1899 the National Trust purchased its first two acre strip for £10 - it is now over 800 acres. The Fen has been managed traditionally for centuries by sedge cutting and peat digging which has produced a unique fenland habitat rich in wildlife. Charles Darwin collected beetles on the Fen in the 1820s and at the turn of the century the fathers of modern ecology and conservation, the Cambridge botanists Sir Harry Godwin and Dr Arthur Tansley carried out their pioneering work. In the 1890s the sedge (used for roofing and animal bedding) and peat (a fuel) economies collapsed and were replaced by more efficient alternatives. There were major concerns that the Fen would be drained as had happened elsewhere in the Great Fen Basin. A number of the early entomologists (particularly G.H. Verrall and The Hon. N.C. Rothschild) played a vital role in ensuring the Wicken’s survival by acquiring major parts of the Fen and donating them to the National Trust.


Barbee' said...

This is very interesting. Thank you.

Hermes said...

The light is just right for Cambridge - I remember it well (the light not the sedge cutting (lol))

Anonymous said...

thanks a great blog .. I read all evening .......

Hermes said...

Glad you enjoyed my blog. Thanks.