Artist Spotlight: Joseph Harold Swanwick

Joseph Harold Swanwick (1866-1929) is a well-known name whose canvases can be found in public collections across the country. A Summer Morning, a charming scene of farm activity in early morning dappled sunlight, is in the collection of National Museums Liverpool; Ducks is in the collection of Oldham Art Gallery; and The Harrow is at Reading Museum – to name a few. He has been described as a genre painter, but what does this mean, and what makes his works so attractive? I set out to take a closer look at this local painter with national appeal.

Joseph Harold Swanwick was born in Middlewich, Cheshire in 1866. He subsequently moved to Twytten House, in the village of Wilmington, South Downs, East Sussex. He was a professional artist: a member of the Royal Cambrian Academy and the Royal Institute, he exhibited in London, especially at the Royal Academy, Suffolk Street and the Royal Institute from after 1889.

It was the landscape of East Sussex that most inspired his art. Living in Wilmington at the foot of the South Downs – now a National Park – he would have been exposed to the landscape’s rolling green vistas, and the agricultural settlements living off the land in this fertile area. The sheep-studded escarpments, white cliffs and tile-hung houses of the area attracted Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in 1916, and still are a draw for painters to this day. The village of Wilmington even boasts a 263 ft chalk figure known as The Long Man of Wilmington cut into the hill – this prehistoric figure symbolising an ancient connection between man, landscape and art.

Swanwick became the greatest downland painter of his day. His fully worked landscapes such as Alfriston, East Sussex in the Towner collection, Eastbourne, show an outstanding lightness of touch and subtlety of colour. We can see particular attention is paid to the variations of tone in the sky and vegetation.

By comparison, the landscape watercolours, apparently quickly executed and possibly preparatory studies for oils. The subtlety of colour, however, is still present, and we see Swanwick focussing on cloud colour and formation – recalling a preoccupation with clouds of earlier Romantic artists and poets. Constable famously produced many cloud studies, endlessly rendering their shifting, evanescent forms.

Furthermore, Romantic poets often meditated on the subject, Wordsworth wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’, and Shelley writing an ‘Ode to the West Wind’. Swanwick was certainly working in a Romantic tradition, and it is no co-incidence that we find him inscribing the back of one work with literary extracts from Thomas Gray’s Elegy and Tennyson.

It is for his genre scenes of country life that Swanwick is best known, inhabiting his landscapes with local people engaged in everyday activities. Genre painting is a realistic style of painting depicting ordinary people and intimate scenes from everyday life – diverging from traditional painting styles where subjects would frequently be idealised or imaginative. The term ‘genre’ originally arose in 18th-century in France and described paintings specialising in one type of picture, one ‘genre’, but by the late 19th century it was restricted to its current sense. Swanwick genre scenes depict activities such as harrowing and ploughing, as well as farmyard scenes with farm-hands and milkmaids at work.

Swanwick drawings are very revealing – not only of the artist’s skill as a draughtsman, but also in subject matter – numerous sketches of ploughmen and farm boys, milkmaids and horses. The British Museum holds a significant number of similar graphite works by Swanwick. These studies indicate his concern for accuracy and naturalism.

Perhaps the most famous pastoral genre painting is Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners, 1857 – and we find Swanwick writing the inscription ‘Gleaners’ along with the literary quotations mentioned above. This possibly suggests that Swanwick was engaging with Millet’s work, which depicts female workers with great naturalism, through which, in turn, they are ennobled in their toil. We see Swanwick treating his pastoral figures equally sympathetically, in modest yet touching scenes such as The Woodman’s Dinner.

This concern with pastoral naturalism Swanwick shared with his great English predecessor, Constable, whose paintings also often contained genre elements. The horse-drawn cart in The Hay Wain, 1821, or the shepherd and farm boy in The Cornfield, 1826 (both in the National Gallery, London), give human context to the natural splendour of the Suffolk landscape. Constable has been dubbed ‘the people’s pastoral’, and the same could be said of Swanwick, whose Arcadian vision is not one of classical nymphs and satyrs but everyday humanity.