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‘He prefers the light of early morning and sunset to the unmysterious glare of noon, and one of the most admirable things in his art is the courage with which he, almost alone of modern painters, has faced the difficulty of the “pretty” subject, and by his honesty and his poetic feeling made of its something significant. It is not difficult to see how pictures like “The Budding Tree” would have degenerated into sentimentality at the hands of a less sensitive artist. Mr Clausen comes through the ordeal, because, though he has set down his impression of that reality with an extraordinary literalness, that impression has been formed by a genuine aesthetic experience and its expression on the canvas has been guided and restrained by an artistic sensibility.’ (‘D H’ [Dyneley Hussey], George Clausen, London: Ernest Benn, 1923)
George Clausen’s The Budding Tree
In 1904 George Clausen stood before an audience of critics, cognoscenti and Royal Academy students to deliver the first of a highly successful series of lectures.1 After 23 years of country living, the artist was returning to the London of his childhood as the Academy’s newly appointed Professor of Painting. A permanent move from his old stamping ground in rural Essex in the summer of the following year would become necessary and the new abode – a spacious villa in St John’s Wood – saw a complete change in his and his family’s way of life. As a painter, Clausen had been known as the champion of the work patterns of the English countryside, and had you been let loose to explore his studio in that year you would find many studies of field workers – shepherds, woodmen, harvesters – who derived their living from the land. Sketchbooks were filled with notes on farmyards, fields and trees; there were even delightful small studies of orchards, hayricks and sheepfolds, but there were very few larger oil paintings that did not primarily address the human figure in such settings. Looking at current works on the easel at the time of his appointment, such as Gleaners Coming Home (1904, oil on canvas, Tate), would confirm these observations. Women and children are returning from the fields, heavily laden with bundles of wheat, under a canopy of trees that fringe a country lane. Sunlight filters through the foliage picking out their forms in the dappled shade. This, it would seem, marked the apex of the new professor’s career.
But what had those former years working on the rich farmlands of Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Essex taught him, and what experience did he have to impart to his students? As a young artist, his first impetus had been to sweep away the old stereotypical inhabitants of the countryside – the swains and shepherdesses who peopled the counterfeit landscapes that delighted the Victorian bourgeoisie. His sights were elsewhere on the realistic truth of ‘Courbet, Millet, Manet, and Bastien-Lepage …’ from whose ‘Naturalism’ he hoped to create a new ‘National Art’.2 In time this had been modified by Impressionism, by the study of light and colour, that brought the group of gleaners vividly before visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1904. The rebel had conquered the establishment. Its walls were tumbling down.
But had these same observers checked their catalogues they would have found that changes were also afoot. Elsewhere in the exhibition there was an unusual painting of Willow Trees at Sunset in which no figures were present (1904, oil on canvas, Private Collection). Clausen had painted a picture in which the trees by a pond or country stream, had no particular distinction, and, ostensibly, the subject was missing. There were no proud elms or ‘hearts of oak’ here; just a well-felt evening light crossing a field and softening the contours of the wayward stumps on the bank in the foreground.
In the next ten years the character of Clausen’s work developed in new directions. His duties in the Academy Schools meant that visits to his favourite haunts were restricted, but not completely lost, and while he continued to remain in contact with the farms around his former Essex home, the terrain, once so familiar as a backdrop, was now being viewed more objectively for its unique properties. He would stand on Duton Hill, survey the neighbouring villages and cycle the miles north from here to Widdington and Tilty, and west to Rickling and Clavering. Observing labourers’ cottages and ancient barns dating from the Domesday Book, he pedalled towards the squat Tudor tower of the church of St Mary and St Clement, seen in Clavering Church (Clavering Church, circa 1909, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).3
On one of these forays, perhaps on a bank of the little river Stort, encircling the parish on its western side, Clausen noted a tree coming into bud. It was early spring, and while the other trees on the opposite bank had been pollarded, this specific specimen stood tall against the twilight glow. Beyond the gate and across the field was human habitation – a thatched cottage with the sun striking its white gable wall. As in Willow Trees at Sunset, light was the unifying factor, yet here the tree, regular in shape, was not merely a framing motif, but was in itself, the focus of attention and the subject of the present picture.
Things he had said in his lectures now came vividly to mind. Having expressed his admiration for Constable’s trees in The Valley Farm (circa 1835, oil on canvas, Tate), he had remarked that ‘one of the most difficult things in painting is to paint a tree’ and how easy it is to become ‘confused … with the infinity of detail’. ‘One often sees,’ he continued,
… trees painted that look all cut out at the edges, like trees on the stage, and when we look at the edges of a tree against the sky, we see that they look cut out too; but if we look at the tree as a whole – as a great green dome, spreading up and rounding into the sky, with the light showing on it and through it – if we realize this, we can get a little nearer to our tree.4
He had, of course, been objecting to the Victorian landscapist’s trees that are shaped to become decorative motifs. At the same time ‘infinity of detail’ needed to be avoided and in support of his arguments Clausen referred his audience to Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses where Reynolds describes a landscape painter he met in Rome, who was known for representing every individual leaf on a tree. The artist, by contrast, who
looked at the general character of the species, the order of the branches, and the masses of the foliage, would in a few minutes produce a more true resemblance of trees, than this painter in many months.5
Within this prophetic utterance the battle between leaf-after-leaf Pre-Raphaelite detail and the generality of Impressionism was accurately predicted. Truth, for Clausen, as is evident in the newly rediscovered The Budding Tree, lay in the authenticity of the encounter, just as the truth of Bastien-Lepage’s peasants of the 1880s had been in representing them ‘as they lived’.6 So also the tree, no matter how ignoble, must be presented as it exists, inhabiting space and filtering light through its branches. Trees were not the ornamentation of landscape as they were for some, nor were they freighted with jingoism. The decorative appendage was not what Clausen saw – any more than Samuel Palmer’s blossoming Kentish apple tree was a mere colourful embellishment. Reasoning of this sort had made The Budding Tree a creative possibility.
Yet if after 1905, when the centre of his working life had moved to the St John’s Wood studio, there were undoubted moments of frustration. ‘Lots of things I see in town I’d like to paint’, he wrote to his old friend, Havard Thomas,
… in the country one could look at a tree day after day without disturbance and get to understand it, but I’ve been drawing a little down by the river at St Paul’s Cathedral and getting there - through town knocks everything out of my head – then, there one is in the midst of agitations …7
Slow looking, getting to ‘understand it’, conveys the ambition of The Budding Tree. When he quoted Clausen’s Lectures on the subject, Rex Vicat Cole felt compelled to add, ‘familiarity will not in this pursuit breed contempt, but reverence; and casual representation will be replaced in time by free handling, acquired by appreciative knowledge and self-confidence’.8 In those still moments of the exile’s reverie, a contemplative vision emerged.
The picture stood out when shown at the Royal Academy in 1914 as one of four very different submissions.9 Accompanying The Budding Tree was Clausen’s portrait of Thomas Okey (Art Workers Guild), author, friend and fellow Guild member, a second was Primavera, a studio-based nude, and the third, In the Fields in June (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).10 Of the four, Primavera, dominated the press reports, especially when attacked by a suffragette.11 Its instant notoriety left The Budding Tree under-appreciated at the time, and although war news dominated the papers when it was re-exhibited in Birmingham in January 1915, it was nonetheless acquired by a discerning collector. On this, rather than on the vague classical allusion of Primavera, Clausen’s path was set for the works of the 1920s. In 1917 he would purchase his own labourer’s cottage on Duton Hill and construct a country studio in its garden, so that from here the patient study of light and air in the slow sequences of rebirth in nature could continue.12 The artist was no romantic pantheist, but he nevertheless addressed the ‘sentiment of nature’ which, in the great scheme of things, mirrored mankind’s rise and fall. For this he was applauded, as a ‘true impressionist’ who ‘does his best when he is entirely possessed by some real scene … and loses himself as soon as he loses contact with reality’.13
The Budding Tree leads us directly to Sunrise on the Road (1920, oil on canvas, Ulster Museum, Belfast) and the many landscapes of the inter-war period in which light is only truly perceived as it dissolves into and through the branches of a tree. The 1914 picture contained all the wisdom he had found in studying the work of Claude Lorrain.
‘The subject is not the marriage’, he declared, when describing Claude’s The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (National Gallery, London),
… but the beautiful peep of sunlit country seen through trees. In this picture we may mark how the dark trees accent the sky and the river, and how they have to be painted to express the lightness of the sky. Their colour is sacrificed to their tone. Claude did not wish us to look really at anything but the stretch of open country. We notice the trees, but our eye goes through to the distance … 14
The understanding expressed in the landscapes of the 1920s is thus prefigured in The Budding Tree. It was the lodestar that carried Clausen through war and pandemic, and its promise of rebirth, became an article of faith. And while recording it demanded serious scrutiny, the wonder remained and was forever.