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Francis Wheatley RA 1747-1801
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A ploughman with his team by a wood at evening, a country church beyond, from Gray's Elegy
Oil painting on canvas 61 x 85 inches / 154.9 x 215.9 cm
Signed “F. Wheatley pinxt” and dated “1793” (Webster, op. cit. infra, erroneously publishes the date as 1795)
Provenance: The artist’s sale at his house at 14 Fitzroy Square, London, by Mr. Christie, January 13th 1795 (lot 55, sold for £17 10s. 0d);
Exhibited: London, Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 1793, number 114 where entitled “Ploughing” (unsold at 20 guineas)
The last major work by the artist on this scale.
Francis Wheatley was born in London in 1747, and died in the same city in 1801. He was initially self-taught, but was subsequently trained at Shipley’s Academy; he won Prizes for drawing at the Society of Artists in 1762-3, and was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools aged 22 in 1769. He worked as an assistant to the Royal Academist John Hamilton Mortimer in painting the Saloon ceiling at Brocket Hall in 1771-1773, and always acknowledged the profound debt he owed to his distinguished teacher. He exhibited pictures himself at the Society of Artists from 1765-1777, and was made a Director thereof in 1783. From 1778 onwards he exhibited regularly at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy, being made as Associate (ARA) in 1790 and a full member (RA) the following year.
Wheatley seems to have been incompetent with money, and was frequently in debt, despite numerous commissions. He moved from London to Dublin to escape his debtors (and a cuckolded irate husband) from 1779 to 1783, and painted numerous highly accomplished paintings whilst there. His masterpiece of these years is the remarkable The Irish House of Commons, 1780, now in the City Art Gallery, Leeds, which depicts a vast series of faithful portraits of all the Members of Parliament in Dublin.
Wheatley was a versatile painter, executing straightforward portraits, conversation pieces, domestic and sentimental genre paintings and theatrical illustrations. He seems to have taken a particular interest in the depiction of rural life from the 1780’s onwards, and executed such pictures as “The Industrious Cottager”; “The return from Market”; “The return from Shooting”; “Haymaking: a view near a wood”; “The Harvest Home”; “A Harvest Dinner” and “Evening, a Farmyard”. The present painting is the culmination of this series and was painted in 1793. About this date the artist began to suffer from a debilitating attack of gout, which ultimately rendered him a cripple, virtually unable to hold a paint brush. The last few years of his life saw a distressing descent into poverty, though he was frequently helped by his fellow Royal Academicians. The onset of the Napoleonic Wars, and the consequent collapse in demand for art, added to his financial problems, and he was ultimately forced into the Debtors’ Prison of The King’s Bench. By the time of his death at the age of 54, he was an emaciated and wasted figure, incapable of caring for his wife and family of four children. His widow was granted a pension by the Academists until her own demise.
“Wheatley’s life is strictly that of a hard working professional artist……….” (Webster, p.113). “He was a handsome man, of elegant manners, and generally a favourite in genteel company. He understood his art, and spoke with taste and precision on every branch of it” (A Chalmers, Biographical Dictionary, 1817). He was “A very personable man, fond of dress, and polite in his manners, which makes him a great favourite with the ladies”. (Obituary, Gentleman’s Magazine 1801, p.857). All his contemporaries agreed, though, that his “habits of expense became too unbounded for his means” (Gandon, Life 1846, pp.207)
Wheatley at his best shows a remarkably fluidity and freedom of expression in his oil paintings, though his drawings are much more tightly controlled. Along with George Morland, he is the most accomplished English painter of the Rural Scene of his date; his range, though, is much wider than that of Morland, and some of his conversation pieces, for instance, rank with those of his friend and fellow-academist Johann Zoffany.
Rural genre in literature and painting
As Christie's catalogue of the collection of James Daniell in 1809 correctly points out, the present painting has profound literary overtones, and is described there as “from Gray’s Elegy” with the “landscape in the style of Gainsborough”.The opening lines of Thomas Gray’s (1716-1771) masterpiece “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” set the tone for the picture:
“The Curfew bell tolls the knell of parting day,
This poem is the literary precursor of, and counterpoint to, the English artistic movement at the end of the 18th century which moved away from the “grand manner” of Reynolds and his supporters to depict the attractions of rural life and domestic genre in an unpatronising and sympathetic manner. The paintings of Morland, Ward, Wheatley Singleton, Bigg and Walton are, in their gentle way, revolutionary: they rely on acute observation of, and empathy with, the “virtuous poor” and evoke a simplicity and stoicism of their way of life which was unimaginable in British painting of a generation earlier. Whilst many of the images of these paintings are obviously “moral” ion their intent, they are not hectoring or cloying as so much Victorian “sentimental” painting became later. The subject matter is indeed treated as “picturesque”, in the sense that it is worthy of being rendered in oil on canvas, but it is not mawkish or stagey: here, for the first time in British art, we have a dispassionate depiction of the activities of the rural poor:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
At the time of the execution of the present painting (1793), Revolutionary Fervour was spreading from France throughout Europe, and the urban poor of Paris were taking to the barricades. Wheatley was clearly aware both sides of the economic coin: a favourite in the Salons of the wealthy London socialites, and the debtor who had escaped imprisonment “with the Rules” by a doubtfully-legal flight to Ireland. His treatment of the Plough-team, though, is entirely sympathetic: the grandeur of the conception and the very large size of the canvas contrasts with the modesty of the subject matter: he is effectively saying that these are the solid virtues of the rural yeoman class which are worth the support and consideration of the powerful and wealthy.
It is a gentle irony that the activity depicted – growing corn – was to be so essential in the next two decades during the Napoleonic Wars as agricultural self-sufficiency became the sine qua non of British Politics. The Corn Laws of 1815-1846 were promulgated by Parliament to support indigenous food production as post-war prices fell, by placing tariffs on cheap imports: a self-sufficiency. Such good intentions, however, were not without their side-effects: decent bread became too expensive for the expanding numbers of the urban poor, even as the pockets of the landowners were replete. However admirable self-sufficiency had seemed in tempore belli, it became hard-edged Protectionism in the era of Peace which followed. Changes on husbandry, too, ensured that rural employment fell in these years, and the whole panoply of corn production was reduced by the mechanisation of cutting and threshing. Many of the worthy rural poor – those depcited in the present picture – were perforce moved to the rapidly-industrialising cities, as the rural idyll was replaced by the Satanic Mills.
The plough depicted in this painting is a Carriage-plough of a type which was developed in England towards the end of the 18th century, and which radically improved the productivity of the ploughing-team.