Victorian Idyllism and Social Realism in Lionel Smythe’s Art

A14ovrpH8MLOn the 4th of September 1839, Royal Academician Lionel Percy Smythe, an English artist and etcher, was born in London. Smythe painted rural landscapes, genre and maritime scenes, people and animals in both oils and watercolours. He became associated with a group of artists called The Idyllic school (or the Idyllists), a 19th-century art movement of British artists—both painters and illustrators—whose depictions of rural landscapes combined elements of social realism and idealism. It was one of the earliest times such issues were brought up in European art history. 

Smythe was a near contemporary of Fred Walker and J. W. North and, like them, was born in London: however. while he was still a boy he spent periods of time in France and was partly educated there. Childhood holidays were spent at Le Chateau des Fleurs at Wimereaux in Normandy. In adult life, Smythe and his wife Alice, made frequent visits to France and from 1879 onward the family lived almost entirely in Normandy. Until 1882 they occupied a Napoleonic fortress on the coastal dunes near Boulogne, but eventually the building was engulfed by the encroaching sea. They then moved to the Chateau d’Honvault on a hill between Wimereaux and Boulogne which was to provide his principal home and the frequent subject of his paintings for the rest of his life. (…) In one of his works“Busy harvesters reap in the old fashion of the country the man swinging his great scythe, the woman following gathering the swathes and turning them over in regular succession. Field after held stretch away into the distance, crowded with busy peasants reaping, gleaning, or stacking the golden corn. A very characteristic French shanderydan cart drawn by a white cob along a neat rood sends up a cloud of dust in the middle distance” (Rosa M. Wiliam and W. L Wylie,  P. Smythe. RA.. R.W.S., London: Selwyn and Blount. 1923).

514QWTCdbtLSmythe is seen as one of the “Idyllists” who sought to combine Pre-Raphaelite inwardness with the pre-Impressionist notion of nature along the lines of the school of Barbizon exhibiting regularly at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy. What they introduced into the pastoral world of Victorian painting was a hitherto unknown moment of social harshness, resignation and hopelessness. (…) They had something in common with the social realist wave of the 186os and 7os in England defined by critics as the ‘School of Social Realism’  in1872. The latter included artists such as Hubert Herkomer, Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, William Small, Charles Green and Robert W. Macbeth. In the latter’s illustrated reports, they predominantly visited deprived areas in the metropolis of London. The drawings made on location in poor houses, homes for the blind, prisons, and on the streets of London are of a strange nature, characterized by a pointedly sketchy and straightforward style. London was the metropolis of the industrial revolution and the wide social gap was an attractive topic of social reportage, which was transferred as a theme into painting. Surprisingly, the Pre-Raphaelites ranked as another artistic model, who in 1848 – parallel to the Europe-wide movements of political reform – fought against late-baroque and classicist academicism with their demand for the authenticity of emotion and realistic depiction. It is little known that the Pre-Raphaelite movement, despite all emphasis on inwardness, on its fringes was also a social-reformist movement. (Melton Prior Institute).

Van Gogh’s admiration for these artists was shown in letters to his brother Theo, as he wrote about Hubert Herkomer and the School of English Social Realism: “There is something virile in it – something rugged – which attracts me strongly (…) In all these fellows I see an energy, a determination and a free, healthy, cheerful spirit that animate me. And in their work there is something lofty and  dignified – even when they draw a dunghill.” (Vincent van Gogh, October 1882; Letter R 16). BoulogneFisherfolk_SmytheSimilar characteristics can be noted in Smythe’s observational tableaux: behind the mere recording of everyday life and beyond the plastic study of colour gradations, light and perspective, there is a sense of serious underlying social commentary.

Feature Image: Lionel Percy Smythe (1839-1918), Shrimpers, 1882, oil on canvas, 69 × 127 cm (27.2 × 50 in), Exhibition history: London, Royal Academy, 1882, no. 675, Inscriptions signed and dated l.r.: Smythe L. P./ 1882, Source/Photograph, Sotheby’s, Wikimedia Commons