Eileen Agar
The Reaper 1938

Artwork details

Eileen Agar 1899–1991
The Reaper
Date 1938
Medium Gouache and leaf on paper
Dimensions Support: 210 x 275 mm
frame: 330 x 390 x 20 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1976
Not on display


Eileen Agar often made collages and in this picture she added a leaf to a gouache. As in her painting Autobiography of an Embryo (Tate T5024), Agar was exploring the themes of life, death, the passing of time and seasonal cycles. She uses a single, simple image to encompass a range of universal themes. Although it looks abstract, the collage shows a mechanical reaper cutting a crop on a farm, a metaphor for the end of life. She described and explained the collage in 1978:

The leaf came from a 'dry garden', a book I have which dries and preserves leaves pressed between special paper. It was dead originally when used for the collage, but it was one I must have picked myself. The whole watercolour was intended to suggest a symbolic reaper with the flailing movement of the scythe-like concentric forms. The title indeed relates to time, the seasons and especially death the Great Reaper. The dead leaf being the hub of the whole.

Time is expressed more especially by the large black sun, which at the bottom left hand corner is sinking. The little triangle suggests a country roof and the two black spots two people riding the machine. There is also the outline of the back of a cow, with the small forelegs implanted on either side of the stem of the leaf.
(Conversation of 29 July 1978, quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1976-78, p.27.

The painting is mounted on blue paper and the frame was a 'found' object painted in silver and gold. Although the artist denied that the framing had any 'special significance' she agreed that the mount and frame work with the painting to evoke secondary associations, for example the blue and gold can be linked to the sky and the sun.

The picture was first exhibited in 1965 when Marlborough Fine Art reviewed the avant-garde of the 1930s in the exhibition Art in Britain 1930-1940.

Further reading:
Ann Simpson, with David Gascoyne and Andrew Lambirth, Eileen Agar 1899-1991, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1999, no.47, reproduced p.78.
Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1976-78, Tate Gallery, London 1978, p.27, reproduced p.27.

Chloe Johnson
June 2002