The Shepherd

NEWLYN SCHOOL (c.1884-c.1920)

The Shepherd (United Kingdom, c.1880 - c.1889)

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Oil on canvas
Signed lower left


102.00cm high
71.00cm wide
(40.16 inches high)
(27.95 inches wide)
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Private collection, Sweden from c. 1900 to 1994

Description / Expertise

Throughout the 1880’s pictures representing rural life became enormously popular. The reasons which lay behind this phenomenon are extremely complex. They have less to do with nostalgia than with a desire to objectively record manners and customs, which were passing. Depopulation of the countryside accelerated at a time of unprecedented industrial expansion. Henry Herbert La Thangue was a leading documentarist of these changes. Significantly in The Shepherd, he shows the main protagonist wearing a countryman’s smock, a garment that had almost ceased to be worn by the end of the eighties. When it got to the stage, later in his career, that old uncontaminated English villages could not be found, he increasingly shifted his attention to northern Italy, Provence and Spain.(1) Although these later works are full of light and colour, they were, for the most part, neglected by critics who recalled the formidable rustic naturalism of La Thangue’s early maturity. La Thangue’s maximum impact was, therefore, in the final two decades of the nineteenth century when he was motivated by a clear programme.

Henry Herbert La Thangue was born in the London suburb of Croyden.(2) He attended Dulwich College, Lambeth School of Art and, from 1874 to 1879, the Royal Academy Schools. As a gold medalist, and with the personal recommendation of Sir Frederic Leighton, he entered Gerome’s prestigious atelier at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Like many other British art students then studying in the French capital, La Thangue was profoundly influenced by the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the leading Salon naturalist painter of his day.(3) Anxious to put Bastien’s principles into action he worked during the summers of the early eighties in Brittany with Stanhope Forbes, and in the south of France with Havard Thomas.

Upon his return to England, he became a founder member of the New English Art Club, although, being something of a radical, he caused division in the ranks by proposing that the New English should be a large national exhibition in competition with the Royal Academy. La Thangue’s exhibit in the first show, In the Dauphine, was also controversial.(4) A scene showing two haymakers walking to the fields, it called attention to itself on account of its broad handling and bright colour. In the years which followed, La Thangue accentuated this ‘square brush’ aspect of his work with a sketchy style in which figures almost disintegrate.(5) Throughout the second half of the 1880’s La Thangue lived at South Walsham in East Anglia. Being close to the Norfolk Broads, he often consorted with the painter T F Goodall and the photographer Peter Henry Emerson. The consonance between Emerson’s photographic naturalism and La Thangue’s painting of the period has been noted.(6) Following Bastien-Lepage’s example, Emerson and La Thangue stressed the need to convey the sense of a real life encounter in the fields. The peasant should, therefore, be viewed from a standing position and seen against the background - not projected heroically against the sky, as J F Millet and Jules Breton had done. The figure should be painted simply, without the complicated or deceptive ‘effects’ in which earlier painters delighted. The rendering of space was a matter of adjustments of scaling and technique, and for this reason La Thangue, in the nineties, habitually introduced a secondary figure in the middle distance.

Before moving from Norfolk in 1890, La Thangue exhibited at the New Gallery a large canvas entitled Leaving Home. This controversial work depicts the sad daughter of a poor farmer setting off for a new life as a domestic servant in the city.(7) Around the time this work was being shown the painter moved from Norfolk to Bosham on the south coast. The Shepherd, since it displays similar features of handling to this work, must date from the same period. Leaving Home was, however, criticized for the stark frontality of the main motif - a horse and cart advancing directly towards the spectator. The space around this central group was, in the minds of some critics, ambiguous. As if to solve this connection between foreground and middle distance, the artist has introduced a flock of sheep following the shepherd - a motif he was to regularly redeploy in later years.(8) During the eighties La Thangue had often found it difficult to resolve the compositional aspects of his work. A number of major canvases were left unfinished, or were destroyed or dismembered. The importance of pictures like The Shepherd lies in the fact that herein was a successful resolution of problems of pictorial organization and a blueprint for highly acclaimed ruralist compositions such as The Last Furrow, 1895 (Oldham Art Gallery) and The Man with the Scythe, 1896 (Tate Gallery).

1. In 1914, when La Thangue was living temporarily in London he met Alfred Munnings at the Chelsea Arts Club. Munnings recorded that “He was unhappy about where to live and wanted a change. He asked me if I knew a quiet old world village where he could live and find real country models...” Sir Alfred Munnings, An Artist’s Life, 1950, pp 97-8
2. The standard account of La Thangue’s career remains Oldham Art Gallery, A Painter’s Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929, catalogue of an exhibition by Kenneth McConkey, 1978
3. For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, “The Bouguereau of the Naturalists: Bastien-Lepage and British Art,” Art History, Vol 1, no 3, 1978, pp 371-382
4. Kenneth McConkey, op cit, 1978, p 9 and British Impressionism, 1989, pp 52-6
5. La Thangue is regarded as the leading exponent of the ‘square brush’ method in Morley Roberts, “A Colony of Artists,” The Scottish Arts Review, Vol 2, August 1889, p 73
6. For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, “Dr Emerson and the sentiment of Nature,” in V Sekules and N MacWilliam (ed), Life and Landscape: P H Emerson, Art and Photography in East Anglia, 1885-1900, catalogue of an exhibition, Norwich, 1986, pp 47-56
7. For further reference to this work see Sotheby’s, Modern British Pictures, 10 Nov 1981, lot 95; for a brief discussion of this work see Christopher Wood, Paradise Lost, Paintings of English Country Life and Landscape, 1850-1914, 1988, p 107
8. See for instance, The Water-Plash, 1900, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; A Sussex Farm, c. 1910, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull