16 May 2016 by Felicity
Ha-il Kim, a volunteer in our Fine Art department, explores the enduring influence of William Davis’ Corner of a Cornfield:
“The Walker Art Gallery celebrated its centenary in 1977 with an exhibition titled The Liverpool Academy Celebrates the Walker’s 100th Birthday. Curated by Adrian Henri (1932-2000), a poet and artist involved in the Liverpool art scene of the 1960s, the exhibition was intended to highlight the connection between the Liverpool Academy of Arts, the oldest professional artists’ body in Liverpool, and the birth of the Walker Art Gallery. It would also pay tribute to the role the Academy played in various guises in enriching the Gallery’s collection through exhibitions. As such, all the contributing artists were members of the Academy, and their works were inspired by the Walker’s splendid collection.
One of the two artworks that grace the cover of the 1977 exhibition brochure is a pencil drawing by
Henri, called Study from William Davis II 16.ii.77. This was based on a small oil painting on panel by the Liverpool-based Pre-Raphaelite painter William Davis (1812-73) called Corner of a Cornfield, also on the cover. Painted around 1870, it is currently on display in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion. Davis was a member of the Academy, having started exhibiting there in 1842.
There are striking contrasts between these two works, created 107 years apart. Davis’ oil captures the principle of the Pre-Raphaelite movement that advocated the truthful depiction of nature, even down to every blade of grass, working directly from nature.
It depicts the vast cornfield that Davis saw stretching to the distant horizon and lined with tall trees. The crop in the foreground is forensically studied, with every stalk painted in extraordinary detail. They look so fresh, with a palpable sense of texture, that it is as if we are standing where Davis once stood. A tree with dark foliage is protruding into the far right of the panel.
On the other hand, Henri’s pencil drawing is abstract in its minimalism, quick and simple in its chosen medium and execution. Henri chose to concentrate on the horizon, the tree on the right, and the foreground of the cornfield darkened by shadows.
At first sight the two works could not be more different. Yet, they share a common thread – a vision that fueled the PRB that art should be truthful to nature, recording the world as it appears to them. If one can imagine the endless hours that Davis spent immersed in the cornfield, trying to record the rather mundane yet bountiful subject of in its maddening details, one can also imagine Henri executing a quick sketch of what he saw in Davis’ cornfield, the spontaneity of his poetic vision helping him to capture the essence of Davis’s painting.”
You can see Davis’ painting in Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion, on show until 5 June 2016.
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