There’s a passage in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Hardy describes the complete sensory experience of walking across a field, the thrum of insects, motes and sunbeams, the ammoniac tang of cows, snail shells crunching underfoot. It’s a very sensual account, and given that it comes from what is still held to be one of the most sentimental novels of the Victorian era, surprisingly unromantic. Farquharson’s Grey Morning immediately struck me as a perfect cover illustration for one of Hardy’s novels, which led me to get out my copy of Tess. While I skimmed some favourite passages, his characters began to take on faces painted by La Thangue; as I later learned, when the book was serialised in The Graphic, it was illustrated by Hubert von Herkomer.

The pictures in this catalogue cover approximately 100 years. They range from a tonal Thameside view by Greaves to the populist graphics of Ruskin Spear and are arranged more in sympathy with subject or motivation, rather than according to any region or strict chronology. I find the fact that only a century separates the death of Turner from the Festival of Britain dizzying in its suggestion of how many people, events, and innovations must lie between (and even connect) these events. One of the great pleasures I get from studying British painting is that it motivates me to revisit parts of cultural history I’ve either largely forgotten, or worse, ossified under the heading of ‘general knowledge’. So, every exhibition of British paintings offers me another chance to pull something from the shelf of my mental library, blow off the dust and learn something new.

This year’s exhibition is no exception; in between Greaves and Spear are works by Farquharson, Tuke, La Thangue, Hemy, and Heath, artists whose quiet social realism developed out of the sincere connection they held to their part of Britain. Masters at manipulating tone and perspective, these artists never tried to modify the realties of their world, only the ‘light’ in which they are seen.

Following on, are pictures by Bond, Knight, Wyllie and other artists who explored realism, alongside the possibilities of Impressionism to depict rural subjects and the more communal narratives of maritime trade: the backbone of the British Empire. Well into the post-WWI era, Impressionism would prove the perfect vehicle for depicting city life and genteel privilege; sport and leisure, the development of the coastal landscape schools and their move towards abstraction.

Finally, there are works by Gotch, Harvey, Sharp and McGlashan; artists who made their name as painters of children. This is, arguably, one of the youngest genres in British figurative art, since apart from portraiture, children really only emerge as actual subject matter in the Victorian era. Our ‘century’ closes with works by Mary Potter, Norman Blamey, John Nash and Spear, all of whom used anecdote, poetry and the possibilities of paint surface to find the precious in the everyday, illustrating the careful optimism of the post-war world. Their work, to paraphrase Nigel Gosling: ‘[bridges] the gulf between the specialist’s and the public’s fancy. That, today, is as rare as it is heart-warming.’

Text by Andrea Gates, Director, Art Historian and Archivist for Messum’s