A complex landscape study in which we see cattle grazing on the marshlands through a tracery of intertwined trees, Cecil Lawson’s Marshlands, 1876, was first exhibited with the title In the Marshlands: ‘The branches cross above our eyes, The skies are in a net’, at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1877.1Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, NGV research files. The attachment to Lawson’s title is a couplet from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem A New Year’s Burden (1858–59), reflecting the fact that Rossetti lived next door to the Lawson family in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The painting’s title was subsequently shortened to Marshlands, without the addition of the Rossetti quote.
Marshlands was included in the memorial exhibition of Lawson’s works held at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, following his death in 1882 and reproduced in the tribute paid to him by his friend Heseltine Owen in the Magazine of Art in 1894.2Heseltine Owen, ‘In memoriam: Cecil Gordon Lawson. Part one’, The Magazine of Art, 1894, p. 3.Marshlands is a classic example of Lawson’s heroic landscapes, large-scale compositions that he embarked upon with the aim of reinvigorating the English landscape tradition. In this, he was linked to a group of artists that later came to be known as the Idyllists, who abandoned the medieval and mythological trappings favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, focusing instead on finding idyllic beauty in local depictions of rural life. In the foreground of Marshlands botanically accurate depictions of dandelion, coltsfoot, cocksfoot, willow, sweet grass and mint can be identified.3Dr D. B. Foreman, National Herbarium, Melbourne, letter to Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, 4 Dec. 1986.
Lawson was born in Shropshire, West Midlands, in 1851, the son of a successful Scottish portrait painter William Lawson and a flower painter Elizabeth R. Stone. Cecil and his elder brother Wilfrid Lawson were both trained in painting by their father and, then Wilfrid, who had started a successful career creating woodblock designs for Cassell and other publishers, taught Cecil the techniques of draughtsmanship on wood. Cecil was also mentored in his youth by another elder brother, Malcolm Leonard Lawson, who was a talented musician.
In 1861 the Lawsons moved to St Pancreas in London and then, in 1870, relocated to 15 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where their next-door neighbor, as noted above, was the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Through his brother Wilfrid’s contacts in the world of commercial illustration, the young Lawson met a group of artists who were to become close friends, such as Hubert Herkomer, George Pinwell and Frederick Walker. Like them, from 1870 he began designing landscape and figure illustrations, in which ‘in particular [he] explored the strong narrative and pictorial potential of landscape’.4Donato Esposito, Frederick Walker and the Idyllists, Lund Humphries, London, 2017, p. 114.
Lawson first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1870 at the age of nineteen, with a painting depicting Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. He had work accepted at the RA for the next four years, although he was not always happy with the choice or the hanging of his paintings, the jury at times selecting the weaker of the works he submitted, which were also sometimes ‘skied’ (hung too high for visitors to appreciate). Two early masterpieces rejected by the RA were A hymn to spring,1871–72 (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California), which was refused in 1872, and The hop-gardens of England, 1874 (Tate, London), refused in 1875 but then accepted in 1876. In 1877 Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche opened the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street, which provided Lawson with a new and supportive venue for exhibiting his work. While he continued to exhibit annually with the Royal Academy, at the Grosvenor Gallery his work could be seen in closer focus, bringing him sudden recognition among critics and collectors. When Cecil Lawson died in 1882 at the young age of thirty, The Art Journal (1882) noted that he ‘left behind a noble promise half fulfilled’.5‘Art notes. Obituary. Mr. Cecil Lawson’, The Art Journal, Jul. 1882, p. 223.
Lawson scholar Donato Esposito has argued that ‘Lawson’s Scottish parentage may have commended him to Scottish collectors’.6Esposito, p. 132. Shortly after the artist’s death, Marshlands was acquired by the Scottish railway engineer and art collector James Staats Forbes, who loaned it to the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888 (where it had the separated title Marsh Lands). By 1900 it was in the collection of the Glasgow-born mining magnate George McCulloch, who had made his fortune in Australia by forming the Broken Hill Mining Company in the 1880s before returning to London to live. McCulloch loaned the painting to the winter Exhibition of Works by British Artists Deceased Since 1850 held at the Royal Academy in 1901. While in McCulloch’s collection, the painting was featured as a full-page illustration in in The Art Journal (1900), where it was compared to the work of Théodore Rousseau, a leading painter of the French Barbizon School:
In its composition, ‘Marsh Lands’ shows some affinity to Rousseau’s work, and in its way might make a pendant to the large picture in the Wallace Gallery. The graceful shapes of overhanging trees darken the foreground, and, through the leafy arch in the centre, the eye is carried across the placid stretches of pool and pasturage bathed in light.7‘ “Marsh Lands.” From the painting by Cecil Lawson in the collection of George McCulloch, Esq.’, The Art Journal, Aug. 1900, p. 232.
It was also singled out for praise by the art dealer and critic David Croal Thomson:
Cecil Lawson’s ‘Marsh Lands’ is by far the finest picture by this little-known artist, and in some ways it is the best landscape in Mr. McCulloch’s collection … The composition has a certain relation to Theodore Rousseau’s ‘Coucher de Soleil’ in the Louvre, but it is firmer in treatment, and stronger in result.8 David Croal Thomson, ‘The late Mr. George McCulloch’, The Art Journal, Feb. 1908, p. 44.
Marshlands was included in a memorial exhibition of George McCulloch’s collection held in London in 1909.9Exhibition of Modern Works in Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Late George McCulloch, Esq. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1909, No. 101. It remained with McCulloch’s widow, Mrs J. Coutts Michie, until she dispersed the McCulloch collection at auction in May 1913, when the painting was acquired for 2800 guineas on behalf of the Felton Bequest. Bernard Hall, r\the NGV’s Director at the time, who had probably seen Marshlands while it was still in McCulloch’s hands,
said that the subject of the work was a beautiful one, and it had been treated in a beautiful manner by the artist. The value of the painting lay in the remarkably fine treatment of the foliage … Mr Hall thinks that an endeavor was made some years ago to secure ‘Marshlands’ for the Melbourne Gallery, but it was not for sale at that time.10‘Picture sale. Mr G. McCulloch’s Collection. Purchase by Felton Bequest’, The Herald, 30 May 1913, p. 1.
When Marshlands was hung at the NGV in late July 1913, it received a mostly praiseworthy notice from the local Argus newspaper (1913):
It … has carried its 35 mellowing years wonderfully well, almost without a blemish: in fact, at present it is the best preserved picture on the walls. Lawson, who was self-taught, was for many years under the spell of the Dutch landscape painters, and some of their leaven can be traced in his composition. ‘Marshlands’ has a strongly set arborous foreground, the foliage painted – especially in the higher positions – with singular sweetness and technical accomplishment, but the pronounced fantastic angularity of the tree-stems and branches forces them into undue prominence. The foreground is quite a botanical essay, realistic almost to Raphaelitism, but the distance atones for much and is full of charm, forming the central element in the conception of this homely landscape, which is strongly impressed with the sympathetic personality of the artist.
Weighing in on the controversial local reception which often greeted works acquired in London under the terms of the Felton Bequest at this time, The Argus concluded that ‘”Marshlands” is undoubtedly a great improvement on much that has been purchased of recent years’.11‘ “Marshlands.” New Gallery picture’, The Argus, 2 Aug. 1913, p. 9. Three years on, The Age (1916) reported Felton Bequests’ Committee member Dr Charles Bage as saying
that the standards of knowledge, taste and criticism were, of course, higher in London than in Australia, where [Dr. Bage] thought that we must confess to being somewhat provincial. Therefore, new or strange work often met in Melbourne with a cool reception. Dr. Bage agreed that Australian accomplishment in landscape was of a high quality, and that landscape work for the most part met with full local appreciation. For instance, The Marshlands, by Cecil Lawson, had gained the favorable notice it deserved.12‘The Felton Bequest. Friction with Gallery Trustees. Explanation by Dr. Bage’, The Age, 3 Jul. 1916, p. 8.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, NGV research files.
Heseltine Owen, ‘In memoriam: Cecil Gordon Lawson. Part one’, The Magazine of Art, 1894, p. 3.
Dr D. B. Foreman, National Herbarium, Melbourne, letter to Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, 4 Dec. 1986.
Donato Esposito, Frederick Walker and the Idyllists, Lund Humphries, London, 2017, p. 114.
‘Art notes. Obituary. Mr. Cecil Lawson’, The Art Journal, Jul. 1882, p. 223.
Esposito, p. 132.
‘ “Marsh Lands.” From the painting by Cecil Lawson in the collection of George McCulloch, Esq.’, The Art Journal, Aug. 1900, p. 232.
Exhibition of Modern Works in Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Late George McCulloch, Esq. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1909, No. 101.
‘Picture sale. Mr G. McCulloch’s Collection. Purchase by Felton Bequest’, The Herald, 30 May 1913, p. 1.
‘ “Marshlands.” New Gallery picture’, The Argus, 2 Aug. 1913, p. 9.
‘The Felton Bequest. Friction with Gallery Trustees. Explanation by Dr. Bage’, The Age, 3 Jul. 1916, p. 8.