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July 09, 2006

Peripheral artists (6): George Henry and E.A. Hornel

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Continuing my series on artists at the edges of both Europe and the Paris-centric narrative of art history, we jump westward from Finland and Russia to Scotland. (For some reason, the phrase "peripheral artists" drives some readers nuts. My feeble defense is here.)

Around 1885 (plus/minus 10 years or so) there emerged a group of artists with ties to Glasgow who tended to be anti-establishment [yawn] and influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84), about whom I wrote here, and J. M. Whistler.

These artists became known as the "Glasgow Boys."

I plan to write about more of the Boys, but will start with two comparative latecomers to the group.

Why two? Because they jointly worked on a painting that greatly interested me when I first spotted it in a book about architect Charles Rennie Macintosh and his milieu. I was so impressed that it became a reason to visit Glasgow a few years ago (the prime reason being to see Macintosh's Glasgow School of Art building).

The artists are George Henry (1858-1943) and E.A. (Edward Atkinson) Hornel (1864-1933).

Henry was born in Ayrshire, but said little about his early life. He went on to study for a while at the Glasgow School of Art. He met Hornel in 1885, Hornel convincing him to spend time at Hornel's Kirkcudbright, Galloway haunts. There they did a good deal of work including two paintings that were done jointly. Henry and Hornel visited Japan for a year and a half in 1893-4, subsidized by an art dealer. Unfortunately, most of Henry's oil paintings, not yet dried (the curse of working in the medium), were ruined aboard the ship on their return trip; his watercolors survived, however. After 1900 Henry moved to London and became a portrait painter.

Hornel was born in Australia while his parents were briefly living there before returning to Kirkculbright. Not satisfied with his art school training in Glasgow, he went to Antwerp to study under Karl Verlat. Following his association with Henry, noted above, Hornel found prosperity painting increasingly innocuous pictures of young girls in woodland settings. For more details on his career and work, see here.

The following observations are by Roger Billcliffe in his book The Glasgow Boys.

In reference to a 1887 Hornel painting, Billcliffe states (p. 194):

There is a stronger sense of design and pattern in the composition and the beginnings of Hornel's fascination with an enclosed subject. There is no indication of a horizon but a strong feeling of the claustrophobic enclosure of a dense wood. ... It is the beginning of a Glasgow School concern for pattern, colour and design in composition that was dubbed by several London critics in the 1890s 'the Persian carpet school'.

On pages 236-37:

...the most common factor in their work of those years [Henry and Hornel, about 1885-86] is the creation of a confined space within which the figures and animals in these paintings exist. Using a woodland setting both artists dispensed with a horizon and narrowed their field of view, almost as if they were wearing blinkers. The majority of these paintings take a vertical format which serves to emphasize this restricted view by the creation of a dominant vertical axis through standing figures or tree trunks. Within this space perspective is flattened, at first by the introduction of a slope or hillock against which the figures are arranged progressively up the canvas, and later by the merging of brushstrokes which cease to define the boundaries between landscape and figure. In this way recession is reduced, in some pictures almost to the point where there is no spatial depth at all, and is replaced by a concentration on surface pattern created by the marks of the brush in the thickly applied paint.

Here are some examples of the work of Henry and Hornel:


Hornel and Henry - Mistletoe - 1890.jpg
Henry and Hornel: The Druids -- Bringing in the Mistletoe - 1890.
This is the joint-painting that got me interested in these artists. I saw it in Glasgow, and the colors in this reproduction are pretty close to the original. The painting was "skied" or hung "above the line" (not a position of honor) when first exhibited in London. Nevertheless, it fascinated many viewers then as it continues to fascinate today.

Henry - Noon - 1885_LoRes.jpg
Henry: Noon - 1885.

Hornel - Resting - 1885_LoRes.jpg
Hornel: Resting - 1885.
These two paintings appear to use the same model and setting.

Hornel - Autumn - 1904.jpg
Hornel: Autumn - 1904.
Hornel cranked out many paintings of girls in countryside settings after his Glasgow Boys days, and made a comfortable living at it. Henry rounded out his career in London as a portrait painter.


The 1885 paintings shown above have a color scheme fairly common in outdoors scenes done in Europe north of the 45th parallel at that time (see the Bastien-Lepage article linked above). The prevailing color is brown, even though the setting is clearly summertime. Some of this might have to do with the fact that Scotland is not overflowing with vegetation. And for much of the year, the northern part of Europe isn't very colorful either; this is reflected in Dutch, German and Scandinavian painting as well as that from Britain and northern France.

The coloring also seems to reflect a fashion of the 1880s because outdoors scenes in similar latitudes from other eras are often much brighter, though not quite Mediterranean.

What most interests me is that Henry and Hornel are able to include essentially undistorted human images in paintings where the settings (foreground, background, etc.) are somewhat "designed" or "abstracted." The Pre-Raphaelites, who hit the British art scene 30 years before, were meticulous in depicting settings (and everything else). Thirty years later, artists such as Picasso and Modigliani were designing and abstracting everything including humans.

I find this sort of Post-Impressionism very satisfying, if well planned and executed. An artist currently producing work of this kind is Bernie Fuchs, whom I discussed here.

As for Henry and Hornel, I think they peaked out by 1900. Therafter, they focused on making paintings that would sell. This is not heroic behavior in an art-historical sense, but is perfectly understandable to most folks who are middle-aged or older.



posted by Donald at July 9, 2006


Thanks, Donald. These are quite gorgeous and I can easily see why that first painting ensorceled you enough to draw you to Glasgow. I find this an attractive balance between impression and reality -- almost dreamlike, almost art nouveau.

Those mopey girls in the cow pasture -- they are so ubiquitous that they must strike some chord in those who are wealthy enough to buy them. What the heck is it? A desire to save the maiden or to ruin her? Can rich old women be buying this stuff under the illusion that it's their secret life?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 9, 2006 11:22 PM

Another gorgeous and informative lesson, tks! As usual you've got me thinking that there's a lot more to art history than the art historians (or than the usual art-history story) let on. I think these kinds of paintings are a kind of art that many people who dislike what's become of gallery art would really enjoy -- it has style, but doesn't lose itself in style. Reminds me a bit of swing jazz: lots of freedom and personality, but it still stays pretty close to the tune and the song structure. It's a nice combo. Their work reminds me a bit of Klimt and Schiele too, minus the creepy-evil-sexy parts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 11, 2006 4:30 PM

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