Harold Swanwick was among the elite of late 19th and early 20th century agricultural landscape painters; he expressed a deep empathy with his subjects and had a nuanced eye for context. (Joseph) Harold Swanwick was born on 30th January 1866 at Clive, Middlewich, Cheshire, the son of doctor turned farmer Joseph Powell Swanwick and his wife Eliza Harriette, née Pritchard. From his father, Harold inherited a love of art and Swanwick Senior encouraged him to become an artist.
In 1883, at the age of seventeen, Harold Swanwick began his art training at the South Liverpool School of Art, winning prizes in every year that he was there (1883-86). Following a year of travel, he did a one-year postgraduate course at the Slade School of Fine Art and also received further lessons in London from the Principal of Westminster School of Art, Fred Brown. At the Slade he was taught by Alphonse Legros, a friend of Manet. This connection with France was taken further during 1890-92 when Harold Swanwick was a student at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he shared digs with Fred Pegram near the Moulin Rouge.
He was already an exhibitor at the Royal Academy Annual Exhibition, the first work in 1889 being ‘A Sower’, and over the next 37 years he showed a total of 30 works there.
Harold Swanwick became a full academician of the RI (Royal Institute for Painters in Water-Colours) in 1897, of the Royal Cambrian Academy (RCA) in 1908 and the ROI (Royal Institute of Oil Painters) in 1909.
Though Harold Swanwick is best-known for his ploughing scenes and other representations of farming life, his was a wide creative horizon that included Normandy and Provence, mosques and markets in North Africa, coastal views on the Isle of Man, garden subjects and genre scenes of thatched cottages, in a vein similar to Myles Birket Foster and Helen Allingham. Other influences on Harold Swanwick were Jean-François Millet, Samuel Palmer and Frederick Walker, and with George Clausen and H.H. La Thangue he shared an engagement with rustic themes.
In 1907 he married Lilian Heatley who also came from a Cheshire farming family. In 1908 they moved to Sussex and in 1912 bought Twytten House in the village of Wilmington, at the foot of ‘The Long Man of Wilmington’ chalk figure. Harold Swanwick was a Governor of the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne which, in the year after his death, held a major retrospective of his work.
Harold Swanwick’s views of Sussex downland – both open countryside and farms – became his ’trademark’ and throughout the First World War and the 1920s he produced accomplished work in this genre, including ‘Harrowing near Wilmington’ in 1917 and ‘Labour is Sweet’ which sold at auction in Australia in 1921. His work was discussed in the prestigious Magazine of Art, and among his admirers were the poet, suffragist and critic Alice Meynell and Queen Mary, for whose Dolls’ House he was commissioned to paint a miniature watercolour in 1922.
Harold Swanwick died suddenly in April 1929, aged only 63. His widow Lilian championed his memory and offered examples of his work to public collections. Following her death in 1942, her nephew Norman Heatley maintained this mission, for example with ‘Sweet Auburn! Loveliest Village of the Plain’ (donated to Glasgow Art Gallery and Museums), and ‘Ploughing’, to the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead.
His work was popular in Canada and Australia, and in 1912 the National Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide purchased ‘Turkeys in a Devonshire Orchard’. Harold Swanwick’s work is represented in the British Museum, V&A, the Ashmolean, Oxford, the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and several other public collections.
Written by Andrew Forrest, 2023.
Further Reading Andrew Forrest, Harold Swanwick (1866-1929): Rural Life and Landscapes (to be published 2023); Lilian Swanwick, Diaries for 1908 and 1909 (held at the East Sussex Record Office, The Keep, Falmer); and, for context: Graham Reynolds, Victorian Painting (Guild Publishing/Book Club Associates, 1987); Michael Rosenthal, British Landscape Painting (Phaidon/Book Club Associates, 1982); William Rothenstein, Men and Memories (Faber and Faber, 1931) for the Slade and Académie Julian; Christopher Wood, Paradise Lost – Paintings of English Country Life and Landscape 1850-1914 (Barrie & Jenkins, 1988).