A universal face

March 20 2012

Years ago, I asked some friends in different parts of the world what they thought of the painting at the top, which is called A Woman of the Fields. I didn’t load the question by asking: “What nationality is the woman?”, but they knew the painting was English.

An Englishman said: “She’s not English. She’s certainly French! Look at the face, headdress and shawl.”

A Brazilian emailed: “That doesn’t look English. It is very interesting. I could swear that that woman was a Latin American.” I suppose he meant Amerindian.

A Scot called it a “moving portrait”. He didn’t say: “She’s obviously Scottish”, despite the hint of tartan.

An Egyptian emailed: “That woman looks really like an Egyptian country woman … so strange!”

I haven’t posed the question to a French Algerian friend, but he would surely have said: “She looks like a Berber woman.”

His own grandmother (last picture above) even resembles her.

My mother, who comes from south Germany, emailed: “A Woman of the Fields could most certainly have lived on the Swabian Alb – right up to the time after the war. I have always felt that I know this woman.”

(I know what she means. There’s that Swabian display of folded hands. Veined obduracy. I can even remember peasants in this part of Germany.)

The last painting above (the oil version, not this engraving) was being sold several years ago as a poster by an Australian company which described it, plausibly, but completely inaccurately, as a piece of old Australiana.

Actually, she was an English farm hand.

The paintings are by an English artist called George Clausen, my great-grandfather. Why isn’t he better known? His career was long (seventy years, from the 1870s to the 1940s) and his style evolved continuously. This is discouraging to critics. The quality of his work was uneven, though there are good pieces from every phase. His paintings were quiet and he was personally modest. And there has never been a proper book about him, though Kenneth McConkey, the main living expert on late Victorian and Edwardian painting, is writing one which will be published later this year or in 2013, I hope by Yale. (Kenneth wrote an important catalogue for a Clausen exhibition at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 1980.)

It has been fun to do some dilettante research of one’s own while in the unusual position (despite Kenneth’s work) of having a subject even somewhat to oneself.

Clausen’s early work has always been admired, especially paintings of the 1880s, but some of the later pieces, until recently, were undervalued. Good work could be bought cheaply.

Van Gogh knew about and admired Clausen, at a time when Clausen could not have heard of Van Gogh. He sends Theo a Clausen print. “Here at last you have something of English art.”

The paintings, from top to bottom, (they all expand) are:

A Woman of the Fields, also known as A Field Hand (1884)

A Moment’s Rest (1882)

December (1882); the workers are topping and tailing turnips for sheep fodder

Day Dreams (1883)

Flora, The Gypsy Flower Seller (1883); she reminds me a little of Picasso’s La Célestine (1904)

Winter Work (1883-4); the girl was painted in after the canvas was finished

Labourers – After Dinner (RA 1884); after the oil painting; The Magazine of Art (check issue and date); scan used with permission of Heritage Images

and at the end of the post

A Field Gang (1883)

and a plate in the possession of the Royal Photographic Society and exposed before April 1884, which shows the same woman cutting a turnip.

She probably appears in some other pictures from the same period.

Clausen painted these pictures at Childwick Green, near Childwickbury, in Hertfordshire. He had studied in London, and then briefly in Belgium, Holland and France. At the end of 1881, he moved to Childwick Green. Between 1882 and 1884 some of his work had a brutal realism which shocked the academicians. He had discovered the work of the French naturalist Jules Bastien-Lepage at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1880 and became his main English champion. But A Woman of the Fields goes beyond Bastien in realism.

He had been exhibiting at the Royal Academy since 1876. Of the pictures here, only Labourers – After Dinner was shown there.

A Woman of the Fields was shown at Coutts Lindsay’s Grosvenor Gallery. She was originally called A Field Hand, and the sexlessness of that title must have made the image seem even more disconcerting. Not all Clausen’s paintings of those years were as stark as these. Clausen’s most Bastien-like images were actually done towards the end of the 1880s.

Labourers – After Dinner had the naturalism of A Woman of the Fields, but on a much larger scale. It seemed uncouth. For George Moore and others, it was an entirely inartistic realism, without fantasy or imagination. Leighton must have hated it, though he later became an admirer of Clausen.

Clausen’s 1885 Royal Academy picture was a portrait called An Old Woodman. He then became a founding member, in 1885-6, with Sargent, Steer and others, of the New English Art Club and was absent from the Academy until 1891.

This was the English Secession, though it isn’t called that. Secessions were withdrawals from official academies: independent exhibiting societies, anti-academic, and international in outlook. The Vienna Secession was a seed of extremely radical, but also particularly coherent, thinking about art. It’s hard to call the earlier New English Art Club seminal, though it absorbed and then rejected more radical elements, led by Sickert. But it was a secession.

It is also a mistake to think of the three great secessions in the German-speaking world in the 1890s – Munich 1892, Vienna 1897, Berlin 1898 – as being entirely about avant-garde work. But what a resonance that word Secession has! Clausen himself exhibited at least in Munich.

(Some of the tenets of the Viennese, such as a refusal to make distinctions between art and craft, or high art and low art, or art and life, or art for the rich and art for the poor, had long been explicit or implicit in the thinking of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement in England and elsewhere. And in the particular area of reform of the applied arts, we were first. The refusal to distinguish between art and life could lead one, depending on one’s inclination, into the purest aestheticism and the most engaged socialism.)

Since Moore – garrulous Irish literary figure on the London art scene, as Shaw was on the musical one – is remembered now as a follower of Zola and the writer of the first naturalist novels in English (the first, A Modern Lover, appeared in 1883), he might have been expected to approve of Clausen at his most photo-realistic: but he didn’t. He was too strongly connected with the French impressionists. But after Clausen’s style changed in the ’90s, he became an admirer, and spoke about him with real warmth. Perhaps he had approved of a few earlier pieces as well, I’m not sure.

On August 7 1886, after the first New English Art Club exhibition, Clausen, Walter Crane and Holman Hunt wrote a letter to The Times advocating reform of the Royal Academy. The painter Luke Fildes read it and wrote to his brother-in-law Henry Woods, who was working in Venice:

“I suppose you have read the correspondence and articles this last two weeks in the ‘Times’ about the R.A. I am confidentially informed we are all to be done away with. Messrs. Crane, Clausen and Holman Hunt have appealed to give us another chance, but I believe they are very firm, and though they admit they have no personal objection to some of the Academicians, being personal friends of theirs, still they will not raise their hands to stem the torrent of indignation that is sweeping us away […].”

To which Woods replied:

“My God! When I think whilst I have been sweating and trying to work out here, my Academy has been, and is, in danger still, bombarded with rotten eggs. An imitator of the newest French fakements, and painter of corns and dirty nails, a purveyor of affected muck for infant snobs, and worst of all, the painter of the Flight into Egypt. I wonder who has stirred up all this?”

From LV Fildes, Luke Fildes, RA, A Victorian Painter, Michael Joseph, 1968. No dates given. One would like more of this! They sound like a particular pair of stuffed dermots, though Fildes at least had a social conscience. His most famous painting, The Doctor (1891), reminds one of Picasso’s Science and Charity (1897).

The “purveyor of affected muck for infant snobs” was obviously Crane. Clausen was the “imitator of the newest French fakements, and painter of corns and dirty nails”. Holman Hunt’s offence, I assume, had been to apply excessive naturalism to religious subjects.

In 1945, F Gordon Roe wrote in an obituary of Clausen in The Old Water-Colour Society’s Club 23rd Annual Volume: “I look back to days when George Clausen was still regarded by some as a dangerous innovator. It seemed that he broke all the rules. He had ‘no idea of a subject’. He just looked out of window [sic: old locution] and painted whatever he saw there. He has painted young peasant-women with grimy finger nails – this seemed very important […].”

Caravaggio, who had so shocked his contemporaries with the dirty finger-nails of his Bacchus and the dirty soles of the pilgrim in the Madonna of Loreto, might as well not have lived. And, of course, Caravaggio had almost no reputation among the Victorians. He was a long way from pre-Raphaelite. Clausen’s Royal Academy lectures (delivered 1904-6 and 1913) contained lessons for students from the old masters (they were much admired by EH Gombrich), but in nearly 400 pages Caravaggio gets not a single mention. Joshua Reynolds does not mention him either in his Seven Discourses on Art, delivered at the Royal Academy on its foundation. Yet you would have thought that the Caravaggio of the Cardsharps, especially, would have appealed to artists who were so smitten by Bastien-Lepage.

The grey chest hair of the main stonepicker (the same colour as the stones) in Clausen’s Stonepickers – Midday (watercolour, 1882, V&A) must have been as disconcerting as the corns and nails of the Woman of the Fields would be. Come to think of it, had grey chest hair ever been painted in art before? These pictures were literally not, to use a German word, salonfähig.

Joining the New English did not confirm Clausen in the brutal style of Labourers. After 1884, he sweetened his style overall, while coming even more strongly under Bastien’s influence. He took some of the criticism to heart. That may or may not have been to the long-term advantage of his art. With a young family to support, he no doubt wanted to sell more.

In 1885, he moved from Childwick (where all the pictures shown here were done) to Cookham Dean in Berkshire.

By 1890 he had started to feel that Bastien-influenced realism was a dead end. He returned to the Academy. The Mowers (RA 1892) introduced a new style. His figures came to life. Movement and light were brought into the pictures. Naturalism gave way to a modified impressionism, containing elements of Millet. Paintings were done or finished in the studio. Painting entirely out of doors had had to be done on grey days, when the light was constant. Posing figures had had to stand still.

New as The Mowers seemed, there is a watercolour sketch for it from as early as 1885. Clausen could experiment in watercolour with ideas that he did not yet dare to transfer to canvas.

George Moore was conscious by 1892 that Clausen was developing and Stanhope Forbes was not. He sighed with relief and looked back:

“Realism, that is to say the desire to compete with nature, to be nature, is the disease from which art has suffered most in the last twenty years. The disease is now at wane, and when we happen upon a canvas of the period like ‘Labourers after Dinner’, we cry out, ‘What madness! were we ever as mad as that?’” (Modern Painting, 1893).

In 1891 Clausen left Cookham (it was the year Stanley Spencer was born there) for Widdington in Essex. (Graves’s list of RA exhibitors does not show him in Widdington until 1893.)

He didn’t stop developing. After 1900, his figures are mainly elements in a landscape, rather than subjects in their own right. The last painting I can think of that shows any figures doing field work is Allotments: Evening (RA 1928). At no point had he painted a flourishing countryside. I am not even sure that he tried to give the impression of one.

He was Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy from 1903 to ’06. For this he had to return to London. He bought a house at 61 Carlton Hill in St John’s Wood in the summer of 1905. That was his home until 1940, when he moved again, to live with my grandfather at Cold Ash in Berkshire. Between the wars he had a country house in Essex. “One day in 1917, when he was pushing his bicycle up Duton Hill, Clausen noticed that a house, then called Hillside, was for sale. Having recently sold some pictures to a Japanese client, he was sufficiently well off to purchase the house as a country retreat” (McConkey). Carlton Hill and Duton Hill passed to his children and were sold during or at the end of the war.

A kind of monumentality came into some of his work between about 1908 and 1918, though he had sought monumental effects in some pictures of the 1890s – and in general Clausen’s pictures are smaller in reality than we expect them to be from reproductions, sometimes disconcertingly so. In the 1920s, he became interested in early mornings. Often misty ones. He created what has been called an “Essex arcadia”. There were no cars in it and few people.

Then: “The new canvases of the ’thirties often show stormy skies, or clumps of trees in a midday sun” (McConkey).

The career of his son-in-law, Thomas Derrick, whom I have also introduced here in a small way, also changed abruptly. He became a cartoonist. There are no Derrick cartoons before 1931. He didn’t cease to be an illustrator, but he began to do something new. I am not sure what brought about the change. School fees and family commitments again, no doubt, though the former I believe were paid by Clausen. Perhaps it was his reaction to the newly-urgent Zeitgeist of 1931. His figures, which had been so static in his early work, suddenly sprang to life. Perhaps Clausen’s stormy skies were a similar reaction.

Clausen continued to send paintings to the Royal Academy until 1942. He died on November 22 1944.

I have shown some of his works in earlier posts; the images are not as high-resolution as here:


Morning in November

The power of a comma

Phoney War


16 Responses to “A universal face”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Giovanni Caselli writes by email (being deterred from posting here by WordPress’s absurd new procedure for commenting for those with WP accounts):

    David, I knew the picture and I was mesmerized by it since it conveys the feeling and the mood of an extinct culture in which I was born. That woman could be my aunt, now aged 98. I was introduced to Thomas Hardy and the Ruralists by my wife 30 years ago. I could immediately recognize the worlds of Thomas Hardy and also of Richard Jeffries, or Flora Thompson as my own. Or the world of the people I come from.

    I have seen the same faces in Central Asia, in Greece and Italy. Peasants are all the same the world over.

    Now you have introduced me to the artist […].


    Giovanni is a historian and illustrator, resident in Bibbiena in the Apennines, east of Florence. Some of his work can be seen here:



    Clausen has often been used on Hardy covers. According to the DNB, “Clausen, in association with Thomas Hardy, supported the struggle to retain Stonehenge when it was purchased and threatened with shipment to America in 1899”.

    DH Lawrence, in many ways Hardy’s successor, has two characters arguing about Clausen in his first novel, The White Peacock (1911); OUP’s World’s Classics had a paperback edition with Clausen’s The Boy and the Man (1908) on the cover. You can see the picture in a post here called Housmaniana (link above).

  2. davidderrick Says:

    In Flora, the woman seems to have been transposed to Piccadilly.

  3. judithweingarten Says:

    Hard lives. Beautifully thought and painted.

  4. davidderrick Says:


    Your phrase “hard lives” reminds me of a story told about Clausen, which I have orally through the family, when he was painting a ploughman.

    He called over to him: “Hard work!”

    And the ploughman replied: “Ar! It must be.”


  5. davidderrick Says:

    In the background of Day Dreams, we see something more lyrical. The figure is rather angular and static, but hints at the later Clausen.

    By the late 1880s Clausen had ceased to be radical, but that didn’t make him conventional.

    That letter by Fildes perhaps has a certain importance. The ramparts of the academic establishment in Europe did not start crumbling in earnest for another twenty years (1906 was decisive). This must be one of the first notes of alarm sounded by it. Had it seen the impressionists as a fundamental threat?

  6. […] George Clausen, from Taste, in Aims and Ideals in Art, second series of Royal Academy lectures, Methuen, 1906. […]

  7. […] Longest Clausen post: A universal face. […]

  8. […] Quartet with extra viola. Performers not stated. Clausen painting, so this gets in. Would anyway. Better image. Music 1882, painting […]

  9. […] String Quintet 2 in G. Quartet with extra viola. Performers not stated. Clausen painting. Better image. Music 1890, painting […]

  10. […] Similar to image yesterday and to others by George Clausen here. […]

  11. […] ask him about a favourite painting. He chose one by my great-grandfather. The Wikipedia article on George Clausen isn’t very good, so that is a link to one of my own […]

  12. […] George Clausen (1852-1944), Michaelmas Daisies and Cornflowers in a Jug (1940), exuberant piece painted at the age of 88 […]

  13. […] Old Clausen post: A universal face. […]

  14. davidderrick Says:

    With the narrow format of this blog, landscapes don’t display as well as portraits.

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