Horses bathing in the sea by Lucy Kemp-Welch (1869–1958): A close examination


A picture made on the beach

One might expect the general condition of Horses bathing in the sea (fig. 1), which has been in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria since 1900,1The painting was bought ‘off the walls’ of the Royal Academy (A. Dixon, entry on Horses bathing in the sea, unpublished ms, National Gallery of Victoria). to reflect the exposure to the elements that this work received while being painted on the beach at Parkstone, near Bournemouth. One might expect, for example, to find accelerated deterioration of the canvas and paint layer, extraneous material behind the stretcher bars, or water stains on the canvas (the artist noted in her diary that there were rainstorms during the time she was painting on the beach).2Several diary entries note bad weather – for example: ‘Went to work at sandbanks but did nothing, heavy rain’ (Lucy Kemp-Welch, diary, 28 August 1899, private collection). Kemp-Welch’s diary informs us, however, that when the stretched canvas was supplied by the artist’s colourman it was already in the case in which it was to be transported to and from Parkstone and in which it would remain during the execution of the painting on the beach.3According to the artist’s diary, the canvas was supplied stretched, and in its case, by the colourman Smith (Kemp-Welch diary, 30 June 1899). Two canvas stamps on the back of the painting read: JOHN BRYCE SMITH / 117 HAMPSTEAD ROAD / 21 LONDON N.W. The fact that the stamps have been placed symmetrically on the back of the painting suggests that the cloth was stamped after the canvas was attached to the stretcher, and that the artist received the canvas already stretched. It is difficult, however, to determine how the stretched canvas might have been held in its case. There may be some clues in the appearance of the top and bottom edges of the painting, where the application of paint suggests the edges may have been covered, perhaps by a batten, though it is not certain that this was so, as the picture was returned to the studio and was probably held on easels. These may also have covered the edges. For the painting’s case, see Laura Wortley’s commentary in first article, esp. note 2. The canvas was, therefore, protected from the very beginning, and thus bears none of the characteristic hallmarks of exposure to the elements. Indeed, the case must have been particularly waterproof for the canvas to have been protected during the kind of wet weather Lucy Kemp-Welch described. 

Nevertheless, when examining the surface of Horses bathing under the stereo-microscope one does find conspicuous material evidence that the work was executed among the sandhills – particles of sand, which would have adhered to the surface while the artist was painting, are embedded in the paint layer. In many areas the sand has caught, or is covered by, subsequent applications of paint, and sits between paint layers rather than on the surface (fig. 4). The fact that sand can be found beneath layers of paint is consistent with the work’s having been later altered indoors, in the studio. 

Alterations in the studio

After taking the canvas from the beach, Lucy Kemp-Welch sought the advice of her former teacher Hubert Herkomer and it was perhaps as a consequence of his response to the picture that she radically altered her initial composition (see Laura Wortley’s commentary in first article). Many slight alterations to both men and horses can be seen with the naked eye, and such pentimenti, though they may be hard to decipher, can be seen especially around the heads of the figures and animals. But most conspicuous are the changes at the sides of the painting, particularly on the right, where two horses’ heads may be seen underneath the pale blue paint of the sky while the forms of the animals are visible in the texture of the paint used for the sea. 

An infra-red photograph, showing what is beneath the top layers of paint, reveals the earlier workings across the painting (fig. 5), recording them as both white ‘haloes’ and darker passages of paint around the figures and animals. One can see that the rider on the extreme left was previously larger and was positioned slightly closer to the left edge. There are also two distinct areas of pentimenti in the water in the left foreground: two pairs of legs, possibly both rear pairs, can be seen to the left and right of the white horse. It appears that this horse was originally positioned further towards the left edge of the canvas. The second set of legs shows that at one stage the artist had also started painting the horse to the right of its current position and closer to the foreground. 

An extensive pentimento on the right side of the painting is most striking. Infra-red photography reveals two horses that have been almost fully painted; on one sits a rider who is looking back over his right shoulder, while his horse nuzzles its companion (fig. 6). The horses appear to be taken directly from the artist’s preparatory studies for the painting (figs 2 & 3) – the group on the right in these sketches was initially replicated on the canvas almost exactly as it was drawn. This group was also originally in closer proximity to the viewer, creating a shallow composition – quite unlike the final one, which recedes into the distance on the right. 

Lucy Kemp-Welch’s facility in making these radical changes in the composition – like her technique generally – exemplifies her confidence in handling her medium. Kemp-Welch in fact made changes continually during the painting process, working back and forth to redefine silhouettes or shape a form, instead of simply replicating the fully realized composition from a preparatory study. Interestingly, the infra-red images do not show the use of pencil or charcoal to delineate the initial composition on the canvas, this absence of pencil or charcoal underdrawing again attesting to a certain confidence in the handling.4Roy Perry, Head of Conservation at the Tate Gallery, London, also notes the lack of underdrawing (except in paint), in the Tate’s Colt hunting in the New Forest, 1897 (conservation report on Colt hunting in the New Forest, November 1997, Tate Gallery, London). 

In technique, Horses bathing is very similar to Gypsy horse drovers, 1895, at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, though there is a notable difference between the two paintings in terms of the appearance of the sky. In my opinion, this is likely to be because the sky in Horses bathing has been repainted. In Gypsy horse drovers the sky is loosely scumbled in a light application of paint consistent with the technique used for the background as a whole, whereas the sky in Horses bathing appears somewhat opaque and heavy. It can be seen in the texture, nevertheless, that the paint has been applied vigorously, so its opacity and weight must be due to the fact that there are two layers. The first application of paint in the sky can be seen at the edges of the picture; it is a duller, more scumbled, blue, similar in appearance to that in the painting in Bournemouth. 

Framing and varnishing

The frame in which Horses bathing was acquired for the Gallery is likely to be that chosen by the artist herself.5On 21 March 1900, Kemp-Welch noted in her diary: ‘Frame came from Dolman 2/8, got it set up’. The appearance and finish of the corners indicate assembly at some point in time after the gilding had been applied, while the joints are of a type that suggests the frame was made to be dismantled and transported in pieces – a design that would have been advisable given the difficulty and cost associated with moving something so large. 

Kemp-Welch varnished Horses bathing on ‘varnishing day’ at the Royal Academy.6The diary entry for Monday, 30 April 1900 reads: ‘Varnishing Day. Picture looking very well’. As can be seen in the photograph of the painting before treatment (fig. 7), the varnish was brushed on very unevenly, with some areas of paint being left uncovered and others receiving a heavy coating. The varnish would have been clear at the time it was applied, but it became strongly discoloured over time, due to deterioration associated with age. As a result, the picture, though popular, was not exhibited for many years after the relocation of the Gallery to its present St Kilda Road premises in 1968.7Horses bathing was exhibited, however, in 1992 in The First Fifty Years: Nineteenth-Century British Art from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. . 

The discoloration of the painting’s surface was also more marked than it otherwise might have been, because the varnish contained oil.8Though analysis of the varnish layer has not been undertaken, its appearance and solubility are characteristic of an oil/resin varnish. In the conservation report by Roy Perry, analysis of Colt hunting in the New Forest showed the varnish to contain oil (Perry conservation report). The uneven application of the varnish further contributed to the unsightly appearance of the work: where there was no varnish the colours read correctly, as they had not been tainted by the yellowed film; in other areas the blues had been rendered green, and the whites had become a dark yellow. The discordant appearance of the surface interrupted the reading of the picture, and the sense of space and of aerial perspective was significantly lessened.

Conservation

The treatment of the picture, undertaken in 1997–98, primarily involved removing the varnish. First, however, local repairs were undertaken on the canvas and stretcher, the surface was cleaned of dirt and grime, and cracking found in the darker tones was consolidated with a suitable adhesive. Varnish removal was slow, partly because of the size of the painting and partly because the varnish layer was particularly tough. 

After the varnish was removed, the local repairs were filled and inpainted, and a new varnish was applied. 

Details revealed by cleaning

Cleaning restored a feeling of space and perspective to the work and revealed the artist’s palette. Despite the formality of the composition, the range of colours Lucy Kemp-Welch used was, surprisingly, found to be more aligned to impressionism than to academic painting of her the late nineteenth century. The links with impressionism are evident in the artist’s choice of blue-violet for the shadows, the colour having been first used for this purpose by the Impressionists. Broad shadows of blue-violet are seen in the water, and touches of the colour are used on the figures and animals throughout the composition.

Vivid colour is seen in the water, which has been depicted with broad, free brushstrokes of blended paint, many of which are a mix of colours applied together from the brush, while others have been applied to the surface wet-on-wet (fig. 1). (Interestingly, the water in the lower left corner has been depicted by means of a light tone over dark, though it reads as if the dark paint sits on top.) The artist’s preference for mixing colours can be seen also in her signature, which is painted in a variety of browns, again picked up together on the brush. 

Kemp-Welch’s unexpectedly liberal palette is seen especially in her treatment of faces, a good example of which is the face of the rider on the central black horse (fig. 8). Here, blue and warm violets have been used for the shadows, in conjunction with vivid mid-tone pinks, used to highlight features caught by the sun. The blues and violets extend down the shirtsleeve and onto the horse’s rump, with both areas being in shadow. When viewed closely, the colours are surprising in their intensity but have been used with apparent ease to convincingly model the forms. 

Cleaning has also revealed the artist’s working of the paint layer. It is now apparent that she used a range of techniques to apply the paint, whereas these subtleties were formerly obscured by the varnish. The most freely expressive passages of paint are found in the sea: the foam of the waves has been rendered in a boldly applied impasto of stiff paint, which contrasts heavily with the flat paint around it; the seaspray and the foam on the shore have been suggested with dry brushwork; and sgraffito, apparently achieved with the brush handle, is seen in passages of water beneath the central horses. The artist’s rendition of the central white horse also exemplifies her confident handling of paint: the neck has been rendered in an application of fluid paint, while the nose has been applied in paint of a stiffer texture, the artist having added small flecks of various colours; the eye and lashes are ‘drawn’ in fine lines; and the bridle is loosely but accurately painted. The handling of this horse exemplifies, too, the artist’s use of ‘the small amount of actual white and the warm, green colour of the shadows’.9Lucy Kemp-Welch, note, Kemp-Welch papers, private collection. 

The ease with which these different techniques have been used side by side is testament to Kemp-Welch’s skill both as a painter and as a draughtsperson, and was what led to the enthusiastic reception of Horses bathing at the Royal Academy. This public response is likely to be repeated here at the National Gallery of Victoria, when the painting is once again on display. 

Linda Waters, Paintings Conservator, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge Laura Wortley’s generosity in providing copies of the transcripts she had made from Lucy Kemp-Welch’s diaries and for her interest in the treatment of the painting, the correspondence about which led to this article. 

 

Notes

1     The painting was bought ‘off the walls’ of the Royal Academy (A. Dixon, entry on Horses bathing in the sea, unpublished ms, National Gallery of Victoria). 

2     Several diary entries note bad weather – for example: ‘Went to work at sandbanks but did nothing, heavy rain’ (Lucy Kemp-Welch, diary, 28 August 1899, private collection). 

3     According to the artist’s diary, the canvas was supplied stretched, and in its case, by the colourman Smith (Kemp-Welch diary, 30 June 1899). Two canvas stamps on the back of the painting read: JOHN BRYCE SMITH / 117 HAMPSTEAD ROAD / 21 LONDON N.W. The fact that the stamps have been placed symmetrically on the back of the painting suggests that the cloth was stamped after the canvas was attached to the stretcher, and that the artist received the canvas already stretched. It is difficult, however, to determine how the stretched canvas might have been held in its case. There may be some clues in the appearance of the top and bottom edges of the painting, where the application of paint suggests the edges may have been covered, perhaps by a batten, though it is not certain that this was so, as the picture was returned to the studio and was probably held on easels. These may also have covered the edges. For the painting’s case, see Laura Wortley’s commentary in first article, esp. note 2. 

4     Roy Perry, Head of Conservation at the Tate Gallery, London, also notes the lack of underdrawing (except in paint), in the Tate’s Colt hunting in the New Forest, 1897 (conservation report on Colt hunting in the New Forest, November 1997, Tate Gallery, London). 

5     On 21 March 1900, Kemp-Welch noted in her diary: ‘Frame came from Dolman 2/8, got it set up’. 

6     The diary entry for Monday, 30 April 1900 reads: ‘Varnishing Day. Picture looking very well’. 

7     Horses bathing was exhibited, however, in 1992 in The First Fifty Years: Nineteenth-Century British Art from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. 

8     Though analysis of the varnish layer has not been undertaken, its appearance and solubility are characteristic of an oil/resin varnish. In the conservation report by Roy Perry, analysis of Colt hunting in the New Forest showed the varnish to contain oil (Perry conservation report). 

9     Lucy Kemp-Welch, note, Kemp-Welch papers, private collection.