Magazine article The Spectator

Fresh and Feisty

Magazine article The Spectator

Fresh and Feisty

Article excerpt

Working the Land Part II: Harry Becker

Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, Suffolk, until 18 December

Treasures from Budapest: European Masters from Leonard to Schiele

Royal Academy, until 12 December

Harry Becker (1865-1928) is one of those artists too often dismissed as being of regional interest only, who feature but rarely in the art chronicles of the period. He is most widely known for his illustrations to Adrian Bell's celebrated Suffolk trilogy - Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree - and it is worth noting that Becker's pictures were matched to Bell's prose after the artist's death, though they seem to be made for each other in their near-perfect fit. Becker only moved from London to Suffolk in 1913, but he found there his perfect setting. As Bell wrote of him: 'He painted the whole struggle of man in the getting of bread - with earth and weather.'

Becker's fresh and feisty realism, which borders on Impressionism (in its British manifestation, at any rate), is a superb tribTute to the East Anglian landscape and the people who worked it.

For this reason, Gainsborough's House has made Becker the subject of Part II of a themed exhibition, following a show of the photographs of Justin Partyka (born 1972) who portrays the plight of the modern agrarian community. Becker's ploughmen, harvesters, sowers and gleaners are in the long tradition of Breughel, Millet and van Gogh, but depicted with a fluidity and lightness of touch that reconnects him to the work of Gainsborough and Constable.

Becker initially discovered his theme of manual labour (one to be later so thoroughly explored by Josef Herman) at Antwerp, where he studied at the Royal Academy.

His freedom of expression was encouraged by working with Carolus-Duran in Paris, who recommended open-air painting and among whose other pupils was Sargent, and developed out of an increasing passion for working from life. Becker drew sheep in Kent and cattle in Holland, and enjoyed some success exhibiting in London.

For a number of years around the turn of the century he apparently exhibited nothing, before finding a new lease of life and inspiration in Suffolk. For 15 years he toiled with the workers on the land, sharing their long hours. Witnesses recall Becker shining with sweat, not from the heat of action but from the emotion - the empathy - generated by what he saw. His deeply felt response accounts for the authenticity of his act of witness, the compelling truth of his work. He worked fast to salvage the spontaneity of his emotions and developed a wonderfully economic style of expression.

He drew like the wind, with an urgency that had no time for the scenic or the pretty. He depicted life on the land as he saw it, and the energy crackles off the drawings, prints and small paintings gathered at Gainsborough's House.

I had not realised how good a printmaker Becker was. His powerful drawings transfer easily to lithographs, but the revelation is in the etchings. Look, for instance, at his 1914 etching of haymakers with a hay wagon. One of Becker's greatest subjects is the labouring body in movement or at rest, and the way in which he manages to convey its sense of solidity which is both separate and individual yet also an embodiment of the landscape. …

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