Horses bathing in the sea by Lucy Kemp-Welch (1869–1958): The painting's genesis


Begun in the summer of 1899, Horses bathing in the sea belongs to the early part of Lucy Kemp-Welch’s career (fig. 1). The modest success of her first exhibit at a Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Gypsy horse drovers (RA 1895; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth), painted when she was still in the preliminary class at Hubert Herkomer’s art school in Bushey, Hertfordshire, only faintly presaged the phenomenal reception that awaited her 1897 Academy submission, Colt hunting in the New Forest (Tate Gallery, London). The latter painting was immediately bought for the nation by the Chantrey Bequest trustees, the purchase transforming Kemp-Welch almost overnight from a novice to a national celebrity. She was pursued by picture buyers, printmakers and journalists alike, amazed so they said that such a diminutive, young woman could produce paintings so large and of such masculine strength. It was two years on, as this furore was subsiding, that Horses bathing emerged.  

For Kemp-Welch the period 1897–99 had been both an exhilarating and a difficult time. Like a young writer whose first novel has become an unexpected bestseller, she needed to consolidate her achievement but found herself uncertain of the direction to take. The problem was intensified by the pressure she now felt to complete at least one significant painting every spring for the Royal Academy show, the high point of the British art calendar and the London society ‘season’. In 1898, following the example of great Victorian narratives, she tried an historical approach with To arms! Early morning in the camp of the Duke of York’s army before the Battle of the Roses at St Albans.1Kemp-Welch would eventually cut this canvas in half, and by 1915 she had painted over her original composition (see L. Wortley, Lucy Kemp-Welch, 1869–1958: The Spirit of the Horse, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1996, p. 55). The next year, in Harvesters (private collection), she picked up instead on the agricultural realism of Herkomer, Frederick Walker and Luke Fildes, but, probably because she lacked their commitment to ‘hard times’ ideology, she focused her attention on the horses in the composition and failed to achieve a meaningful balance between the animal and human protagonists.  

Aesthetically and commercially, To arms! and Harvesters were a disappointment. Their subjects were too contrived and suggested that the artist had lost the energy and imaginative insight that had empowered her earlier canvases. Herkomer’s advice to Kemp-Welch not to attempt to imitate the figurative paintings of his popular contemporaries, but to speak out with her own instinctive voice as an animal painter, was echoed in September 1899 by the Magazine of Art, which criticized the too-obvious ‘picture making’ in her most recent exhibition pieces. However, finding another real-life subject that spoke directly to her heart, as the gypsies’ captured mounts and the wild New Forest ponies had done, was proving immensely challenging.  

While Kemp-Welch drew endlessly from life, her sensitive observations and spontaneous sketches of ponies, both in the New Forest and at Bushey, seemed too slight and incidental to convert into Royal Academy pieces. Nevertheless she was to come upon a simple, real-life situation that would engage her at once both as artist and as horsewoman: a troop of cavalry horses exercising on the beach at Parkstone in Dorset. Not only did this subject relate closely to the freedom-versus-restraint themes Kemp-Welch had explored with such empathy in both Gypsy horse drovers and Colt hunting, but the sea added an extra dimension to the imagery – the archetype of the unrestrained force of nature being confronted by its direct antithesis, disciplined human control represented by the military.

Unfortunately none of Kemp-Welch’s diaries from before late June 1899 have been traced – and indeed there is, frustratingly, no mention among the extant diary entries of the artist’s actually seeing cavalry horses on the beach. However, it seems likely that the idea for the composition of Horses bathing came to her early in 1899, possibly during an Easter break with relatives in the Parkstone area, when she may have seen the horses or been reminded of their recuperative local holidays. (It was believed that sea bathing strengthened the horses’ legs.) While one of the artist’s preparatory pencil sketches, dated 12 July 1899 and apparently drawn from life (private collection) (fig. 2), suggests that she saw the cavalry horses in Parkstone on that date, the diary entry for 30 June records the delivery of a large canvas, with its specially constructed case,2Lucy Kemp-Welch, diary, 30 June 1899, private collection. The case was simply an upright, shallow box built round the canvas, with two fully opening barn-type doors, to the inside of which the artist sometimes attached sketches and plans of her work. Kemp-Welch seems to have first used this sort of case while painting Colt hunting, another 5 x 10 foot canvas, and she continued to use cases for nearly all her large pictures until World War I. Cases were a neat solution to her quest for authenticity, enabling her to commence the final picture, not just preliminary studies, on site en plein air. For a photograph of the artist dwarfed by a canvas in its enormous picture case, see Wortley, p. 19. to Kemp-Welch’s home in Bushey, indicating that by then her plans for the painting were already quite advanced.  

It was on Monday, 3 July, with arrangements made for the canvas and case to follow by train, that Kemp-Welch had set off, on horseback, for the two-day journey to Dorset, to work on Horses bathing. By Sunday, 9 July she was down on the sandbanks at Parkstone looking for a suitable place among the dunes to set up her canvas for a month or so. Although Kemp-Welch had moved to Bushey in 1892 when she joined Herkomer’s school there, she had been born and brought up in Bournemouth, the town next to Parkstone. The Bournemouth area, particularly the New Forest to the east, had always been a rich source of material for sketches. Likewise to the west the sandbanks had already served the artist as a sketching ground, and the view from there westwards towards Studland Bay and the distinctive white columns of Old Harry’s Rocks, familiar to her from childhood, would soon be incorporated into the background of Horses bathing.  

None of these landmarks are evident in Foam horses (RA 1896; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth), the earlier Academy piece that the artist had painted on Parkstone beach. A study of metaphoric white horses cresting the waves, Foam horses seems too fanciful for Kemp-Welch, being much closer to the aestheticism of Walter Crane’s Neptune’s horses, 1893 (New Gallery, London), than to Herkomer’s realism. While Foam Horses, executed in 1895–96, may just possibly have been inspired by an earlier encounter with the cavalry horses in the surf, its primary purpose was probably as preparation for painting Colt hunting in 1897. With only the horses’ heads, chests and one foreleg appearing above the waves, Foam horses allowed Kemp-Welch, who was still a student, to work out the central structure of Colt hunting – in which the horses charge directly out of the picture at the viewer – without having to confront the complexity of foreshortened limbs and multiple, overlapping hoofs. Two years later, Horses bathing brought the artist back to Parkstone beach, but with a different agenda, with greater technical prowess and, if not exactly with overwhelming confidence, at least with more experience.  

Next to their clearly contrasting scenarios, the most obvious difference between the two beach paintings is canvas size, Foam horses being a modest 45.7 x 91.4 cm and Horses bathing a formidable 152.9 x 306.5 cm (5 x 10 feet). In 1895 Kemp-Welch could carry her canvas down to the beach daily, but in 1899 she had to organise carters to set up the weatherproof case and canvas for her on the sands, where they withstood for weeks on end a typically English hotchpotch of rain, wind, storms and blazing sunshine. At least once, when extremes of weather threatened during that summer, Kemp-Welch erected an awning on the beach as additional protection for the picture and herself.  

The logistics Kemp-Welch evolved and the discomfort she endured to tackle her large-scale paintings in the open air underline how integral size was to her conception of her subjects. Perhaps because she was quite small herself, canvas size was an issue for her from the moment she embarked on Gypsy horse drovers. Forced to paint indoors from on-the-spot sketches, she struggled to manoeuvre, let alone paint, the 4 x 8 foot canvas in her tiny, terrace lodgings, yet she persevered. More often than not, she was dwarfed by her own paintings but nonetheless her vigorous brushwork and sensitive characterisation put contemporary masters in the shade. The enormous, finely detailed animal paintings produced by, for instance, Thomas Sidney Cooper and H. W. B. Davis had a static appearance in comparison with the urgency of Kemp-Welch’s compositions.3 Just as W. P. Frith’s vast, stagey panoramas of Victorian society had mirrored newly invented still photography, so Kemp-Welch’s almost cinematographic creations, propelled by her physical stamina and intuitive understanding of horses, paralleled the development of motion pictures.  

Reproducing scenes at almost life size was essential to the dynamic of Kemp-Welch’s work. Underlying the structure of Horses Bathing, and that of both Gypsy horse drovers and Colt hunting, is the huge momentum – both potential and actual – of the horses as a mass, driving through the composition and conveying an expectation of further drama. The artist’s mature paintings – The joy of life (RA 1906; private collection), for example, The riders (RA 1911; Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield) or Timber hauling in the New Forest (RA 1904; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery) – are all hallmarked by her dextrous orchestration of this strong, directional undercurrent, enlisting lighting and the suggestion of strong winds to enhance the excitement. These effects are not evident in Gypsy horse drovers, but they were fundamental to Foam horses, and Kemp-Welch was still wrestling with them in Colt hunting.  

The competent handling of the central passage in Horses bathing, however, suggests that by now she was in almost complete control of medium and message, and only her later equivocation over the sides of the composition betrays uncertainty (see Linda Waters’s commentary in second article). 

Initially, then, all seems to have progressed well. During July and August 1899 Kemp-Welch evolved a pattern of working in the morning on a commission from the publisher J. M. Dent for illustrations to E. H. Nesbit’s Pussy and doggy tales, and of going down to the sandbanks in the afternoon. Occasionally she spent a long day on the beach, as on Wednesday, 26 July when she worked from 11.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. and ‘decided to make centre horses white and chestnut’.4Kemp-Welch diary, 26 July 1899. The next day she worked from 11.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. and ‘tried to fit another horse into the centre group’.5Kemp-Welch diary, 27 July 1899. The most likely candidate for this adjustment seems to be the small dark horse to the right of the central white horse. The cavalry generally seemed to exercise their horses in pairs, and this third mount does not feature – at least not in the same position – in the preparatory drawing showing the right-hand central pair (fig. 2). Alternatively the chestnut horse with the white blaze might be the addition in question, as only the black horse and the rider occur in the undated preparatory drawing showing the left-hand central grouping (private collection) (fig. 3). However, a drawing dated January 1900 (private collection), a month when other alterations were made, corresponds exactly to this chestnut’s head.6See Wortley, p. 53, repr.  

Generally Kemp-Welch seems to have been pleased with the ongoing variations to her planned composition. On Monday, 21 August she even went down to the sandbanks in the evening with ‘a sudden inspiration for the second horse (black)’.7Kemp-Welch diary, 21 August 1899. By Monday, 11 September, however, her holiday was almost at an end and she ‘removed the picture from the shore to the station and started it in the afternoon by goods [train]’.8Kemp-Welch diary, 11 September 1899. The next day she herself returned to Bushey by train. 

Although Kemp-Welch had laboured at the painting incessantly for two months, it was not finished, and throughout October she worked regularly on the ‘big picture’. On Monday, 13 November, however, the first disconcerting note appeared in the diary: ‘Professor [Herkomer] came in to see picture. V. pleased with it. Wants alteration of composition’.9Kemp-Welch diary, 13 November 1899. Herkomer may have been referring to the right-hand side of the painting, where recent conservation work (see Linda Waters’s commentary) has revealed that two horses and a rider have been overpainted, probably in the studio rather than on the beach. The original disposition of the troop across the picture ties in more closely than does the present arrangement with the two preparatory drawings reproduced here (figs 2 & 3). Meanwhile, during conservation it also became apparent that the position of the white horse at the left of the composition has been altered. However, as no preparatory drawings for this passage have yet come to light, one can only speculate as to how it might originally have looked.

If Kemp-Welch made these major alterations on Herkomer’s advice – she herself had recorded no problems with her composition before he viewed the painting – then they illustrate the extent of her dependence on him at this stage. As an established Royal Academician he had no doubt been instrumental in securing her earliest works inclusion in the Academy’s Summer Exhibitions (he also purchased Horses bathing for the National Gallery of Victoria),10Hubert Herkomer (1849–1914) had been appointed the National Gallery of Victoria’s London adviser in 1891. but his ‘changes’ (if indeed they were his) considerably altered the structure and feeling of Horses bathing. Whereas from the two preparatory studies reproduced here it appears that Kemp-Welch had initially envisaged leading the troop out of the picture with the flowing tide, from left to right, in the final composition this strong, directional force was diffused and the composition was rotated somewhat introspectively back on itself to encircle and inhibit the central group rather than carry it forward. These alterations also detract from the rationale for the spit of land projecting into the sea from the right, which had presumably been designed specifically to balance a more compelling movement from the left. The revisions seem to run counter to the instinct, already noted in many of the artist’s works, to create a powerful momentum that seems almost to proceed out of the canvas. Had Horses bathing been painted a year or two later when Kemp-Welch had more confidence in her own judgement, perhaps these changes would not have been made.  

From November 1899 through to January 1900, Kemp-Welch worked on the painting nearly every day, using local horses as models for her changes. As late as Thursday, 11 January she would spend a whole day making supplementary studies, but it was not until Sunday, 18 February that Herkomer ‘came to see the picture. Very pleased indeed’.11Kemp-Welch diary, 18 February 1900. For several weeks after this, however, Kemp-Welch was still painting from a grey horse, possibly completing adjustments to the sequence on the left. A private view of the painting was held in Bushey on Sunday, 25 March, and the following Saturday the artist wrote with relief: ‘Slaved all day. Got the picture finished’.12Kemp-Welch diary, 31 March 1900. At 6.30 a.m. on Monday, 2 April she sent Horses bathing off to the Royal Academy.  

Just as Kemp-Welch’s diaries reveal little about the exact changes she made, neither do they record details of her palette or technique, which have largely to be observed in the paintings themselves. While Gypsy horse drovers and Colt hunting display an apparently quite conventional landscape palette with earth tones in the shadows, there are occasional instances of quite pure, bright colour in the latter work. As Linda Waters observes, the removal of the discoloured varnish on Horses bathing has revealed a surprisingly colourful palette, with blue-violet passages in the shadows and some intense emerald greens among the waves on the right. These colours, and their handling, signal the development of a cleaner, brighter palette and more liberated brushwork in the new century, particularly in the artist’s oil sketches.  

In Horses bathing as in many of Kemp-Welch’s paintings a leading white horse, which catches the light and epitomizes the emotional content of the work, provides the key. Again, as in most of her other mature works, the artist strikes an intricate series of balances and counterbalances between the horses’ colours, gaits and postures, which together convey the prevailing momentum. This visual coherence is a notable improvement on the ragged passage behind the lead horses in the centre middle ground of Colt hunting, where heads and limbs are confused and Kemp-Welch’s insuperable difficulties over conflicting hoofs are ultimately hidden by a screen of bracken. While a degree of artistic confusion adds to the evocation of panic in Colt hunting, fundamentally Horses bathing displays much more assured draughtsmanship and greater technical confidence. The comparison rather bears out Herkomer’s opinion in 1896 that Kemp-Welch had not yet acquired the skill to fully encompass as demanding a challenge as Colt hunting.13 Lucy Kemp-Welch, note, Kemp-Welch papers, private collection. The massive audacity of the project, however, allied to the artist’s unsentimental appreciation of horses as vivid, individual personalities, won the day for Colt hunting.  

Kemp-Welch was as perceptive a portrait painter in her field as was Herkomer in his, and in Horses bathing she returned to presenting events from the horses’ rather than the men’s perspective. Indeed, she reversed the accepted status quo, making the soldiers ciphers for humankind and the horses the characters in control.  

After the painting had been sent to the Royal Academy, it was not mentioned in the diary for several weeks. The next references were filled not with exhaustion but with wonderment:  

[Thursday, 26 April] Picture well hung. Professor [Herkomer] delighted, says best of all outside work. Incredible! …  

 

[Friday, 27 April] Professor gives wondrous accounts of the way the RA’s received picture …  

 

[Monday, 30 April] Varnishing day. Pictures looking very well. RA’s very kind and saying work of genius, etc. [H. W. B.] Davis RA especially, and Seymour Lucas. V. Prinsep said he had seconded my name for the Academy. All very enthusiastic. It is overwhelming.14Kemp-Welch diary, 26 April 1900, 27 April 1900, 30 April 1900.  

 

Although Kemp-Welch’s RA nomination came to nothing either on this occasion or on several others, largely because of her youth and her sex, Horses bathing represented a constructive advance on her most recent Academy exhibits and confirmed that her earlier successes had not been a flash in the pan. The picture’s welcome was warmed too, perhaps, by its coincidental relevance to the Boer War, which started during the autumn of 1899. While the war unfortunately diverted Kemp-Welch back to narrative subjects for two years, nevertheless Horses bathing, highlighting the fact that her real skill lay in painting directly from her own experience, pointed the way ahead. On Wednesday, 30 May 1900 the artist received a letter from Sir Edward Poynter, President of the Academy, confirming the sale of the picture to Melbourne, and thereafter the painting has passed into history, on the other side of the world – an episode in Lucy Kemp-Welch’s coming of age.  

Laura Wortley

Notes 

1     Kemp-Welch would eventually cut this canvas in half, and by 1915 she had painted over her original composition (see L. Wortley, Lucy Kemp-Welch, 1869–1958: The Spirit of the Horse, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1996, p. 55). 

2     Lucy Kemp-Welch, diary, 30 June 1899, private collection. The case was simply an upright, shallow box built round the canvas, with two fully opening barn-type doors, to the inside of which the artist sometimes attached sketches and plans of her work. Kemp-Welch seems to have first used this sort of case while painting Colt hunting, another 5 x 10 foot canvas, and she continued to use cases for nearly all her large pictures until World War I. Cases were a neat solution to her quest for authenticity, enabling her to commence the final picture, not just preliminary studies, on site en plein air. For a photograph of the artist dwarfed by a canvas in its enormous picture case, see Wortley, p. 19. 

3     Just as W. P. Frith’s vast, stagey panoramas of Victorian society had mirrored newly invented still photography, so Kemp-Welch’s almost cinematographic creations, propelled by her physical stamina and intuitive understanding of horses, paralleled the development of motion pictures. 

4     Kemp-Welch diary, 26 July 1899. 

5     Kemp-Welch diary, 27 July 1899. 

6     See Wortley, p. 53, repr. 

7     Kemp-Welch diary, 21 August 1899. 

8     Kemp-Welch diary, 11 September 1899. 

9     Kemp-Welch diary, 13 November 1899. 

10     Hubert Herkomer (1849–1914) had been appointed the National Gallery of Victoria’s London adviser in 1891. 

11     Kemp-Welch diary, 18 February 1900. 

12     Kemp-Welch diary, 31 March 1900. 

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

14     Kemp-Welch diary, 26 April 1900, 27 April 1900, 30 April 1900.