My favourite painting: Julian Radcliffe

'It captures the essence of the simple beauty'

A Cornfield, 1815, by Peter de Wint (1784–1849), 41¼in by 64½in, V&A, London

Julian Radcliffe says:
I first saw this painting years ago and it stimulated my very modest collection of early English watercolours as, at the time, I was unable to afford oils! De Wint taught my ancestor Cheney, who lived, as I do, in Shropshire. This picture resonates with me as I am also a farmer and it captures the essence of the simple beauty, but fundamental importance of the English countryside and its agriculture.

Julian Radcliffe is founder and chairman of The Art Loss Register, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary

John McEwen comments on A Cornfield:
John Ruskin wrote of de Wint: ‘he despises all rules of composition, hates old Masters and humbug—synonymous terms with him —never was abroad in his life, never sketches anything but pig-styes and haystacks, and is a thorough-going John Bull of an artist.’

Most artists were tradesmen’s sons. De Wint’s father was a doctor and Peter, born in Stoke on Trent, was destined for a medical career until allowed to train as an engraver and portraitist in London. he arrived in 1802, the year Thomas Girtin died and Turner was elected an academician. Both advanced landscape painting, which, as Farrington noted, was not so popular as portraiture because it did not have ‘the advantage of being supported by self-love’.

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Girtin was a major influence on de Wint, who probably first saw his work through friendship with the landscape painter John Varley. Varley’s patron, Dr Thomas Monro, had also patronised Girtin. De Wint soon showed a preference for landscape and watercolour, earning the compliment that he was Girtin’s ‘art-child’. From 1810, he was well established in the increasingly popular landscape genre.

The harvest scene was an early specialisation. When all-conquering Napoleon, beneficiary of bloody revolution, threatened England, the harvest scene reassuringly stood for social harmony and security. As one contemporary wrote: ‘it is the consummation of the farmer’s hopes and toils, and excites a whole people to acknowledge the goodness of a bountiful Creator.’

Not all the actions shown would have happened simultaneously— sheaves were not gathered until they had stood to dry, for example—but a good harvest was a merry time.