Through the Woods. George Henry RSA RSW (1852-1943). Oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches; 56 x 63.5 cm. Signed and dated 1891. Provenance: Angus Maclean, n.d. Exhibited: Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, 1891, no.448 Glasgow Art Gallery, The Glasgow Boys, 1968, (Scottish Arts Council) no.55. London, The Fine Art Society, The Glasgow School, 1970, no.14. London and Glasgow, Glasgow 1900, 1979, no.29.

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Commentary by Kenneth McConkey

One of the fundamental aspects of the Bastien-Lepage mantra, grasped by Lavery at Grez-sur-Loing, was the concept of ‘spatial layering’. In observing the figure in the open air, the eye scanned the field of vision, noting the high definition of the immediate foreground and the more generalized, atmospheric effects in hills and trees in the distance. In woodland scenes the figure stood within this ‘envelope’, behind the brambles, grasses and saplings of the foreground, as in his La Rentrée des Chêvres (National Gallery of Ireland), shown at the Salon of 1884.

More than any of their contemporaries, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel grasped these concepts and applied them. Influenced by the rich impasto of the Marseilles painter, Adolphe Monticelli, they developed textural surfaces that often give the effect of a decorative mosaic, in which figures are sometimes almost submerged. In Henry’s case, glancing into the thicket, he catches sight of two children who appear to be running ‘through the woods’. These presences, like the vision of the saints in Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc listening to the Voices, 1880 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), are akin to momentary apparitions, and the long, sustained, static observation of the early Lavery, Guthrie and Walton, takes on a new set of possibilities.

Surprisingly Henry regarded these seminal pictures of 1889–91 as ‘boilers’ – short for ‘pot-boilers’, or works of minor, or purely decorative significance (Billcliffe, 2008, p.220, quoting from letters to Hornel in the Hornel Trust). At this time Henry was preoccupied with grander ideas for murals often involving abstract themes based upon the seasons. Moving in this direction, he and Hornel were among the first artists to escape the strict adherence to naturalistic truth.

References

The Glasgow Boys. Ed. Roger Billcliffe. London: John Murray, 1985. p.249.

The Glasgow Boys. Ed. Frances Lincoln. London: John Murray, 2008. (illus. p.221 in col.)

McConkey, Kenneth. Lavery and the Glasgow Boys. Exhibition Catalogue. Clandeboye, County Down: The Ava Gallery; Edinburgh: Bourne Fine Art; London: The Fine Art Society, 2010.


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