As October begins and Autumn matures, we reach harvest time once again. Artists have celebrated this climax of the agricultural calendar in various ways.
A Cornfield in Catterline
In The Cornfield of c.1960, Joan Eardley (1921-63) conveys the visceral power of nature at its fertile peak. Born in Warnham, Sussex, she studied at Glasgow School of Art and at Hospitalfield, Arbroath. After 1954 she spent significant amounts of time in Catterline, a fishing village on the north-east coast of Scotland. Working outdoors in all weather conditions, seasons and times of day and night, her response to her natural surroundings was raw and direct.
This almost square format painting measures a modest 41 x 43cm. However, its entire surface is enlivened by a variety of textures, brushstrokes and techniques. They capture those of the scene Eardley is not only witnessing, but experiencing. An entirely unsentimental image which verges on abstraction, the golden corn is defiant under a glowering sky. A hint of blue is an encouraging sign of the dry weather required for a successful harvest. Although unpeopled, the scene suggests the challenges involved in growing and reaping a crop, as humankind attempts to master nature, whilst being at the mercy of its whims.
The Harvest Moon
In contrast, John Maxwell (1905-62) portrays a more harmonious relationship between farmer and farmed. His Harvest Moon of 1960 relates the lunar cycle to the rhythm of the rural year, as they peak together. Maxwell was born in Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbrightshire. He trained at Edinburgh College of Art, where he later taught. Like Eardley, Maxwell often worked outdoors, but in contrast to her, his response to nature was often romantic and poetic.
In this painting, a man is lit by the full, bright moon of the Autumnal Equinox, which made harvesting into the night possible before the invention of electricity. He lies upon and within the ripe crop, sharing its palette of colours, which blurs the boundary between their entities. A bird flies close by, its wings silhouetted against the over-sized moon which dominates the night-time scene. Thickly-applied paint is layered up whilst colours and tones are covered and revealed, suggesting layers of earth and time and the very cycle of life.
Those who Harvest
John Bellany (1942-2013) focusses on the people who undertake the harvest itself in The Harvester of the 1960s. Born into the religious fishing community of Port Seton, on the Firth of Forth, Bellany studied at Edinburgh College of Art and at the Royal College of Art in London. He made this early, monumental painting on a board measuring 198 x 240cm. The titular figure stands at the centre, in a gap amidst the head-height crop which provides a background for his companions. This positioning and his pose, holding a hay fork, is surely a Biblical reference to Moses and his staff parting the Red Sea. It may also be read as an allusion to the Grim Reaper.
The solemnity of the task at hand is narrated by the procession of labourers: at the left, a balding man’s muscular arms and hands hold on to a spade struck down into the earth. Beside him a boy peaks around a weary father figure, whose shoulders are hunched up and whose head is bowed. This suggests the weariness which results from physical work and its repetition across generations. To the right, another man sits on the ground, cross-legged and cross-armed in a pose which combines defence and defiance. Finally, a woman stands upright behind a sack of unidentifiable contents. She is a counterpoint to the man at the far left, to whom she is visually connected by their red tops. The suggestion of her cleavage introduces a discordant note of sensuality to an otherwise sombre scene. All are dressed in contemporary clothing in a composition which recalls Renaissance altarpieces. Rather than a celebration of fecundity and abundance, the atmosphere is formal and grave.
A Triumphant Harvest
Harvesting in Galloway of the 1940s, by Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976) is a joyous image at the conclusion of the harvest. Thomson was born in Edinburgh and, like Maxwell, was both a student and teacher at Edinburgh College of Art.
Jubilant stooks crowd the foreground of his painting, which gives way in stages to a distant view. Behind a dry stone wall are other successfully harvested fields. Dotted trees lead the viewer’s eyes to farm buildings nestled into the curvilinear landscape, before reaching the muted tones of the hills and evening sky. Rich yellows and greens, generously applied paint, details and broad description all contribute to a sense of abundance. Harvesting in Galloway celebrates harvest time as a triumphant finale of the growing year.