Saturday, February 21, 2015
West Runton, Norfolk
Winter Morning in the Farmyard…Illustration of the month
This month’s illustration is a farmyard scene by Stephen Bone, painted in 1936. Although it doesn’t have much architectural content (apart from the corner of a building on the right, which looks as if it’s built of flint with brick quoins) I greatly admire the way it conjures up a place and a time.
Stephen Bone (1904–58) was the son of the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone and his wife Gertrude Helena Dodd. He was encouraged to draw by his father and taught as a boy by Stanley Spencer, who lodged for a while at the Bone family house near Petersfield. Bone went to the Slade, but left early, not liking the school’s academic approach to draftsmanship, and embarked on a career as a book illustrator, excelling as a wood engraver. He also travelled widely, notably with his wife and fellow artist Mary Adshead (they met at the Slade), and when he travelled, he painted, producing colourful landscapes on board. Some of these travels led to a book, Albion: An Artist’s Britain, from which my illustration is taken.
What a lot of atmosphere Bone conveys with his limited and rather muddy palette. It’s winter, and quite early in the morning. The farm is already hard at work – the threshing machine is steaming away, someone is on top of a stack, a horse waits patiently between the shafts. We observe all this through the gate, at one remove, as it were – and through the mist, which makes the scene less distinct but also encourages us to look into the picture and puzzle at what’s going on. Bone reported: ‘Dimly through the mist one sees threshing in progress. The January frost was thawing into mud and my feet were cold and wet.’
From Bone’s thick, painterly way with the mud and frost in the foreground to the looming shapes of stacks and buildings in the distance, from the vague figures to the precise lines with which objects such as ladders and cartwheels are delineated, it’s clearly a composition that has been put together with great care. At first glance it all seems to so casual – those thick foreground daubs of paint. But look for a minute or two. Look at the gate, for example, and the artful way a few strokes of the brush summon up the shadows on the uprights, the frost on the top rail. Look too at the combination of diagonals (ladders, cart shafts, the stack-man’s fork handle), again portrayed with a few slender lines. Marvellous.
Bone’s Albion was published in 1939, the year war came. Its author-illustrator joined up, serving in the camouflage unit before becoming an official war artist (his father had been the very first official war artist in World War I). After the war he continued painting his landscapes, but dealers found them uncommercial. Bone carried on painting the way he wanted to anyway – but forged for himself additional careers in illustrated books (working with Mary Adshead), as a broadcaster (on popular British radios shows such as The Brains Trust), and as an art critic. I think he’s probably still rather under-appreciated: my copy of Albion cost just £5.