Paintings of the revolution in agriculture 2

Percy Shakespeare (1906–1943), December on the Downs, Wartime (c 1939-44), oil on canvas, 62.5 x 92.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of these two looking at paintings showing the revolution in agriculture that occurred between 1500 and the present, I had looked at the harvest, the mechanisation of threshing grain, and just introduced ploughing.

Robert Bevan (1865–1925), The Turn Rice-Plough, Sussex (c 1909), oil on canvas, 66.4 x 90.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

There’s much more to ploughing than dragging a blade through the soil. Advances in plough design during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enabled the draining and cultivation of wetlands, and significant improvements in productivity. Increasing use of fertilisers to improve crop yields made good ploughing even more important.

Robert Bevan’s The Turn Rice-Plough, Sussex from about 1909 shows two ploughmen turning a plough in a field in the south-east of England. Its title is probably a simple error for turnwrest, a dialect name used in Kent and Sussex to describe any type of one-way plough which needed to be turned at the end of a furrow as shown here.

Ploughing was even more critical in the larger fields and farms of North America.

Grant Wood (1891–1942), Fall Plowing (1931), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing (1931) shows a recently-developed walking plough with a steel ploughshare, which had become an important advance in cultivating the prairie in Iowa.

Grant Wood (1891–1942), Spring Turning (1936), oil on Masonite, 46.4 x 101.9 cm, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, NC. Wikimedia Commons.

His Spring Turning from 1936 is a high aerial view of seemingly endless countryside being ploughed using a pair of horses, during the Spring.

Heinrich Vogeler (1872–1942), Farmer Ploughing (c 1930-42), oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When heavy steam traction engines were replaced by tractors with internal combustion engines, teams of oxen and horses were replaced by these new-fangled vehicles. Heinrich Vogeler’s Farmer Ploughing from the period 1930-42 shows a tractor with its own tracks towing a heavy plough.

Percy Shakespeare (1906–1943), December on the Downs, Wartime (c 1939-44), oil on canvas, 62.5 x 92.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Lighter-wheeled tractors became popular during the middle of the twentieth century. Percy Shakespeare’s painting of December on the Downs, Wartime, made in the period 1939-44, is its own lesson in agricultural history. In the distance, on one of the rolling chalk downs in the south of England, are three horse-drawn ploughs tackling some of the steeper ground.

With a high proportion of men serving in the armed forces, the two tractors in the foreground are being driven and tended by young women, dubbed the Women’s Land Army. The further of the two tractors is drawing a lighter-weight wheeled plough, better suited to this land.

Broken Tractor 1942 by Frances Hodgkins 1869-1947
Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947), Broken Tractor (1942), gouache on paper, 38.1 x 57.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1943), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In 1942, when Frances Hodgkins was living in the south-west of England, at Corfe Castle in Dorset, she painted this gouache of Broken Tractor showing the mechanical disarray that overtook many farmyards during the twentieth century, as their ageing farm machinery fell beyond economic repair.

As the cities grew, so did the problem of delivering their food from the fields to the bakeries and food processors. Huge fleets of horse-drawn carts may have sufficed for the produce sold in Les Halles in the centre of Paris, but bulk produce needed greater capacity.

Bemberg Fondation Toulouse - Le canal du Loing - Alfred Sisley 1884 Inv.2086 38x55
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Loing Canal (1884), oil on canvas, 38 x 55 cm, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In the early eighteenth century, a network of canals was constructed to supply the growing city of Paris with grain from farms in central France. Among them is The Loing Canal, painted here by Alfred Sisley in 1884. This connects the Briare Canal to the River Seine, part of the series of waterways connecting Paris with Lyon known as the Bourbonnais Route.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), The Passing of a Train (1869-80), oil on canvas, 31.1 x 37.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The coming of trains in the nineteenth century provided a much faster means to transport perishable foodstuffs across countries. Giuseppe De Nittis here shows The Passing of a Train through productive French countryside between 1869-80.

John Crome (1768–1821), Mousehold Heath, Norwich (c 1818-20), oil on canvas, 109.9 x 181 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1863), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2021), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The whole countryside changed, as previously open land used for communal grazing was enclosed and turned into farmland. John Crome captures this in this painting of Mousehold Heath, Norwich (c 1818-20), showing the low rolling land to the north-east of the city which had been open heath and common land until the late eighteenth century. By 1810, much of it had been enclosed, and ploughed up for agriculture.

Crome opposed the enclosure of common land, and here shows the rich flora, free grazing, and, for the plains of East Anglia, rolling countryside. In the right distance some of the newly created farmland is visible as a contrast. Fortunately, almost two hundred acres (74 hectares) of this heath have been preserved, but it had been considerably more extensive until 1790.

Just as walking through the modern countryside can be a lesson in our agricultural history, so you can read much of it in landscape paintings too.