George Warner Allen's paintings of English pastoral idylls led critics, including the painter Brian Thomas, who wrote the introductory essay for Allen's 1952 exhibition at Walker's Galleries, London, to categorise him as a Neo-Romantic artist. This tendency, which included Graham Sutherland (1903-1980), John Minton (1917-1957) and John Craxton (b.1922), came to prominence during the late 1930s and continued to flourish for a brief period after the Second World War (1939-45). However, while Allen shared their idealised attitude towards nature and England, his allegiance to traditional subject matter rendered in styles and techniques stretching back to the Italian Renaissance placed him at odds with their overtly modern manner.
Picnic at Wittenham was considered by Allen to be the outstanding work of his early phase. In spite of the contemporary setting, the stylistic and compositional references to Poussin's (1594-1665) pastorals are clear; indeed, shortly after completing it, he painted its companion Et in Arcadia Ego, a homage to Poussin's painting of the same title. In Picnic at Wittenham Allen has applied glazes of thin oil paint over tempera underpainting to enhance form and colour; a technique which he particularly associated with Titian (c.1487-1576) and other Venetian painters of the High Renaissance.
The principal subject of the painting seems to be the artist's calling. In the foreground, with a bird and a squirrel beside him, the painter lies sleeping in the shade of the trees, a variation on the traditional trope of the sleeping shepherd; between him and the viewer are his paints and brush and an unfinished watercolour of the landscape beyond. In the sunlit middle distance, a group of friends are picnicking. The contrast between the relaxed social interaction of this group and the isolation of the artist is heightened by Allen's use of shade and light. Whether the picnickers are a product of the sleeping figure's imagination is not clear, but their compositional separation from him reflects Allen's belief that the artist has a special role. An equal subject of this painting, therefore, is inspiration and the primacy of instinct and intuition. In keeping with this theme, the artist is about to be wakened by the potent mythical figure of the faun, symbol of the vitality of the irrational.
Although Allen was himself a somewhat solitary man, this image of an artist is not a literal self-portrait. Wittenham, however, does refer to an actual place, namely Long Wittenham, Oxfordshire. It is near to where Allen lived, and is part of the local countryside that he would often visit to paint watercolour landscapes.
Brian Thomas, George Warner-Allen: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Walker's Galleries, London 1952, reproduced p.1
John Christian (ed.), The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1989, p.197
David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.143
25 January 2001