Catalogue entry

John Rogers Herbert 1810–1890

T01455 Laborare est Orare 1862

Inscribed ‘J.R. Herbert R.A./1862’ b.r.
Canvas, 38¼ x 69¼ (97 x 176).
Purchased from Leger Galleries Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1971.
Coll: probably Sir Howard Bates; by descent to Sir Percy Bates; Mary Lady Bates, sold Talbot Wilson & Co., Heswell, 27 April 1971 (611), bt. Leger.
Exh: R.A., 1862 (231); A Collection of Late-Nineteenth Century English Paintings, Leger Galleries, October 5-October 30 1971 (4, repr.).
Lit: Art Journal, 1862, p.129; Athenaeum, 1862, p.668.
Repr: Burlington Magazine, CXIII, 1971, p.752, fig. 61.

The following inscription, apparently in the artist’s hand, is attached to the frame: ‘LABORARE EST ORARE (to labour is to pray) And some fell upon rock: and as soon as it was sprung up it withered away because it had no moisture And some fell among thorns, and the thorns growing up with it choked [sic] And some fell upon good ground : and sprung up and yielded fruit a hundred fold Gospel of St. Luke. The monks of St. Bernard’s Abbey Leicester gathering the harvest of 1861. The boys in the adjoining field are from the Reformatory under the care of these Religious.’

This inscription, with the correction of line 3 of the quotation from Luke viii, 5-7, appeared in the catalogue of the Royal Academy when the work was exhibited in 1862.

The quotation from St Luke is also inscribed in the same hand on the stretcher at the back of the painting, together with the comment ‘Harvest pt St Bernards in Charnwood Forest Leicestershire in 1861’.

The monks of Mount St Bernards, Charnwood Forest, are a Cistercian Trappist order. The site for their monastery was provided in 1836 by Ambrose Phillipps de L’Isle, whose neighbouring family seat of Garendon had been a Cistercian Monastery before the Reformation. De L.’Isle also commissioned Pugin to design the church and monastery. Plans of these were published in the Dublin Review in 1842 (end plates; un-numbered) and construction began in 1843. Herbert visited the Abbey in 1861, as the guest book records: ‘Mr. Herbert, an artist from London, July 22nd 1861. Left for Gracedieu on 24th. Returned here 26th, and left on 27th.’ (Grace Dieu Manor was Ambrose Phillipps de L’Isle’s house). The tower of the Abbey had not then been built, and Herbert evidently made use of Pugin’s designs when painting the spire in ‘Laborare est Orare’. The tower finally completed shortly before the Second World War was of a different construction (sec N.Pevsner, Leicestershire and Rutland, 1960, pp.192-3, pl. 17b).

As well as creating an allegory of Christian virtue out of this harvest scene, Herbert has included an act of Christian charity, showing a monk handing a loaf of bread, the outcome of the harvest, to the poor girl who has entered the gateway in the stone enclosure. A slightly ironical description of the incident was provided by the reviewer of the Athenaeum who objected to the ‘social policy’ that Herbert’s picture indicated: ‘Some monks are seen reaping harvest from a once barren moor, having shut themselves in by a stone fence which, however, is broken, after an archaic fashion in Art, so as to admit the poor and needy, whom they feed’.

The artist has also depicted himself in the extreme foreground.

The reviewer in the Art Journal, while admiring the picture, considered that Herbert’s change from conventional religious themes to landscape ‘can be regarded but as a diversion’. Like his friend Dyce, however, Herbert seems to have become influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites to move from his earlier ‘Nazarene’ style towards a plan air treatment of religious subjects, and landscape paintings become increasingly frequent in his later exhibited works. Like Holman Hunt, Herbert travelled to the middle East during the 1850’s and made use of this experience in many of his later religious paintings. In the same year as he painted ‘Laborare Est Orare’ he also painted ‘The Sower of Good Seed’, which is based on the same text and which is treated as a contemporary Middle Eastern scene. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865 (46) and is now in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg (3036: Katalog der Meister des 19. jahrliunderts in der Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg 1969, p.118, repr.).

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.