Laing Art Gallery Newcastle upon Tyne 27 May – 14 October 2023

A new exhibition at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery will trace the radically different approaches to British landscape painting, from the mid-Victorian era through to the 1920s.

Essence of Nature presents a rare opportunity to see around 100 oil and watercolours by leading artists from the Pre-Raphaelite, Rural Naturalist and British Impressionist schools together.

The exhibition begins with the Pre-Raphaelites’ ideal of ‘truth to nature’ – represented by such artists as William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Dyce (1806 – 1864.)

The influential critic John Ruskin famously proposed that artists should aim to record nature, ‘rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing’. The exhibition includes Ruskin’s study of Spray of Dead Oak Leaves (1879, Collection of the Guild of St John, Sheffield Museums Trust) and his on-the-spot mountain view at Mer de Glace, Chamonix, France of 1860 (The Whitworth, University of Manchester).

Ruskin venerated mountain landscape for what he saw as its purity and spiritual character. He helped William Inchbold to travel to Switzerland to paint, resulting in 1857 in The Lake of Lucerne: Mont Pilatus in the Distance (Victoria and Albert Museum). This little painting is probably the picture which William Holman Hunt described as ‘really a very beautiful one’, though Ruskin himself was sniffy about Inchbold’s inclusion of houses and gardens around the edge of the lake, sullying the mountain purity.

Other key Pre-Raphaelite works include William Homan Hunt’s watercolours View of Nazareth and The Plain of Rephaim from Zion, Jerusalem (both 1855, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester), and Cornfield at Ewell (Tate), as well as Dyce’s Henry VI at Towton and George Herbert (both Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London).

Leading Rural Naturalist painters, including George Clausen (1852 – 1944) and Henry La Thangue (1859 ‑ 1929) also painted in on the spot, but turned away from the hyper-real detail of Pre-Raphaelite art, aiming to capture the character and atmosphere of rural working landscapes.

In 1882, George Clausen spent a brief period in the artists’ colony of Quimperlé in Brittany, where he painted Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé (Victoria and Albert Museum), surrounded by globe-shaped onion flower heads. Integrated into the field surroundings by Clausen’s blunt-edged brushwork, the girl wears coarse clothing that indicates her life of poverty and hard work.

Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé, George Clausen, 1882© Victoria and Albert Museum

The harmony of country life is captured in La Thangue’s woodland scene Gathering Bracken (1899, Laing Art Gallery), whilst Edward Stott’s Changing Pastures (1893, Tate)depicts the herd girl and animals merged into the landscape, and all dissolving into the surrounding atmosphere.

British Impressionist pictures of nature were characterised by momentary effects of light and colour, as demonstrated by pictures by Wynford Dewhurst (1864-1941) (known as the Manchester Impressionist), Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), Ethel Walker (1861-1951) and Philip Steer (1860-1942). Painting in front of their subjects, they produced beautiful pictures of sunny hillsides, orchards and gardens, balancing scenes of relaxation with working farmland. The pictures include John Singer Sargent’s Mountains of Moab (1905, Tate), Steer’s An Upland Landscape (1902, Tate), together with Walker’s The Garden, Tuke’s A Corfu Garden (The Lemon Tree) and Dewhurst’s An Ancient Stronghold in France (all Bradford Museums and Galleries).

Among the Shingle at Clovelly, Charles Napier Hemy, 1864 © Laing Art Gallery

Artists at Newlyn and St Ives in Cornwall took their easels to beaches, cliffs and riversides, and the exhibition includes scenes by Laura Knight (1877-1970), Harold Knight (1874-1961), SJL Birch (1869-1955), and Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912). Works include Knight’s joyous picture of The Beach (1909) and The Dark Pool (1917), both from the Laing collection. Conservation examination of The Beach has discovered sand in the paint, showing that, despite its size, Laura Knight painted her picture in the open. Painters at other coastal colonies in Yorkshire (Runswick Bay) and the North East (Cullercoats) also responded to the impetus of Impressionist light and colour with open-air paintings.

Essence of Nature will also feature Birch’s The Morning Mist (1938) and Forbes’s Children in a Garden (1889), both from Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens.

The Garden, Ethel Walker, c.1899 © Bradford Museums and Galleries

Julie Milne, Chief Curator of Art Galleries, says: “The depiction of nature has long been an important subject for artists, and the beauty and drama of the natural world is celebrated in this exhibition. Exhibition curator Sarah Richardson has brought together a selection of impressive and attractive paintings. The themes vary from the intense attention to detail and ‘truth to nature’ of Pre-Raphaelite art to the vibrancy of British Impressionist artists’ responses to light and colour in landscape. The subtle effects of atmosphere feature in Rural Naturalist images of working landscapes, while Newlyn Group painters and other coastal artists portray bold and exuberant open-air scenes.

The exhibition features many important pictures lent from national and regional collections. The inspiration for the show came from the Laing Art Gallery’s own outstanding collection, and the exhibition allows these significant pictures to be seen in a national context. Additional loans from other Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ collections are also included.”

The richness of the exhibition will repay several visits, so look out for multi-visit tickets.

The Stone Pickers  – George Clausen (1852–1944)

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