In Focus: William Lee-Hankey, the British painter who became famous painting French rural life

Best known for his romantic evocations of French pastoral life, the British painter William Lee Hankey’s skilfully executed work is imbued with rich colour and emotion, reveals Anthony J. Lester.

‘Too busy to bother,’ was the response from William Lee Hankey when a journalist asked how he had celebrated his 80th birthday, adding that he had allowed the occasion to pass unmarked and spent it, as he usually did, working in his room in London’s Chelsea. This remark encapsulates the temperament of a man who was arguably one of the most energetic artists of his generation and deserves to be better appreciated.

The son of a Chester-based cabinetmaker and upholsterer, William Hankey attended the city’s King Edward’s School before taking up work with a local company that designed furniture, carpets, textiles and wallpaper. His days were spent producing meticulous blueprints and easing his boredom by making surreptitious, lightning figure sketches, which he often had to feverishly conceal when the foreman appeared.

His evenings started to look up in 1886, when he began art studies at Chester School of Science and Art. Under the tutorship of Walter Groom Schröder, Hankey’s work blossomed and he won numerous awards, including a bronze medal for furniture design in 1890. Three years later, he received several awards for ‘design and architectural measurements’ and his watercolour of Poole Hall near Nantwich was reproduced in the Illustrated Magazine of the Chester Art School, with Schröder hailing him as the ‘champion of the year’.

William Lee-Hankey’s Summer at Moret. Credit: Alamy

In 1893, Hankey gained a studentship to the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art) in London’s South Kensington, where he was taught by the landscape artist Thomas Clack and the formidable neo-Classical painter Sir Edward John Poynter.

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Hankey was quick to make his presence felt at the capital’s major exhibitions, too, with his first exposure that year at the Royal Society of British Artists (with Aber Shore), to which he was elected a member only three years later. Surprisingly, however, despite exhibiting 81 works at the Royal Academy, he was never elected an Academician.

It was a visit to France — where he discovered the landscape and character of the peasantry greatly appealed to him — that was to prove pivotal in his career. He subsequently made frequent visits to Normandy and Brittany, occasionally accompanied by his good friend and fellow artist Dudley Hardy, capturing pastoral scenes imbued with the spirit of Naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, luscious and rich in colour. After visiting the fishing town of Étaples, Hankey became emphatic that, one day, he would have a home in France. His aspirations came to fruition in the early 1920s, when he had a house built in the coastal town of Le Touquet- Paris-Plage, followed by the purchase of two fisherman’s cottages in Étaples, which he converted into an impressive studio.

Another significant development came in 1904, the year he commenced etching. His early prints are mainly aquatints achieved with a ‘textile ground’ (impressing fabric into a soft ground to achieve a fine bitten texture). However, he ultimately discovered that a more personal expression could be obtained with the intaglio drypoint technique. Hankey’s progress in this medium was meteoric and, from 1907–12, he was in charge of the etching classes at the Goldsmiths University of London.

William Lee-Hankey’s ‘The Kiss’.

Displaying technical virtuosity and poignancy, his innovative etchings predominantly focused on figure studies of rural Breton women and children. In 1921, the London dealership L. H. Lefevre & Son published an impressive volume entitled The Etched Work of W. Lee-Hankey RE from 1904–1920, which reproduced 187 etchings.

During the early 1900s, Hankey attracted international acclaim for his technical dexterity. In 1905, the influential Arts magazine The Studio hailed him as one of the best of the younger painters and, in 1906, the Globe described him as ‘an unusually skilful executant and sensitive colourist’. Solo shows were mounted at leading London galleries, such as the Fine Art Society and the Leicester Galleries. In 1907, his painting The Kiss was awarded a Gold Medal at the Barcelona International Exhibition and, in 1911, five of his works were displayed at the International Fine Art Exhibition in Rome. His fame was further enhanced in 1909, when 40 of his paintings were reproduced in The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith, with the Glasgow Herald writing: ‘They have caught the very spirit of the poem and given force and vitality to the most striking lines in it.’

Early in 1914, Hankey was in France, but, aware of the escalating tension in Europe, prudently returned to England. At the start of the First World War, he immediately enlisted in the 2/28th Battalion, the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles), initially serving as a private at Flanders, his rank rising to lieutenant in November 1915 and captain in 1916. Part of his time was assigned to No 15 Officers Cadet Battalion at Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, Romford, Essex, where his ability as a draughtsman was put to good use instructing recruits’ map reading and field sketchinng.

William Lee-Hankey’s The Farmer’s Daughter. Credit: Alamy

Hankey produced images of the scenes he had seen at Flanders, some of which were included in the 1916 Artists’ Rifles Art Exhibi-tion at the Leicester Galleries in London’s Bloomsbury Square. Among the visitors was Queen Alexandra, who much admired Hankey’s The Artists’ Billets, Bailleul. His most arresting war-related image is his etching depicting the flight of a group of refugees from Belgium, in which he adroitly captures the emotion, anxiety, despair and determination on the faces of the families.

After the war, Hankey made several visits to Cornwall. Yet, although he did paint there, fully embracing the principles of en plein air and the subject matter of the artists’ colonies based in St Ives and Newlyn, he was never part of their communities. His inspiration was firmly in France, where he returned to produce more etchings, particularly of peasant girls, such as Marie of the Fields and Minding the Flocks, one of his largest and, now, most sought-after images.

At the time, the desire of American collectors to own period contemporary etchings proved highly lucrative for Hankey. However, the Great Depression had a devastating effect on the art market and he was not immune to the downturn. In 1932, when the Cornish artist Samuel Lamorna Birch visited him and his wife, Edith, at their home in Warwick Place, London, he found them extremely despondent. Birch wrote: ‘They can’t sell a thing and goodness knows what they are going to do now.’ However, Hankey pressed on and his work continued to be included at the Royal Academy and the Royal Watercolour Society, of which he became vice-president from 1947–50.

William Lee-Hankey’s The Blue Door. Credit: Alamy

Conventional in his approach to art, Hankey believed in the fundamentals of drawing and painting. In his atmospheric, luminous oil paintings of French towns and harbour scenes, he was a master at contrasting patterns of light, shade and reflections; his brushwork is always spirited, but assured. In his watercolours, he was a purist — washes are transparent, very rarely having recourse for opaque colours. His etchings, which, by 1920, had extended to 187 plates, are often charged with poignancy and sentimentality. They also reveal a remarkable facility in a medium he fully understood.

A workaholic, Hankey’s perfect day saw him setting up his easel early in the morning in a Brittany town and painting until the light failed.

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