Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


99 Peat Burning c.1864-6

Oil on cream wove paper 17.9 x 25.6 (7 x 10 1/8)
Inscribed in the paint when it was still wet 'LET EVIL' and 'Gilh ...' [?] bottom right and verso in pencil 'J.W. Inchbold'


This extraordinarily compelling oil sketch was in a portfolio of thirty-four works by Inchbold which Paul Opp? bought at auction in November 1913. Opp? appears to have given the work its title. Because the idea of burning peat in the open air at first sight seems unlikely, it has been suggested that the subject shows heather being burnt off, as it commonly was on heath and moorland (Newall 1993, no.29, p.60), though to do this there would seem to be no reason for stacking the heather in ordered piles such as those seen in the foreground. However, with these mounds being so prominent, with the recurring flashes of fire, plumes of smoke and a tower-like structure with a fire at its base in the distance this picture conveys a sense of some industry at work. In fact, peat was sometimes burnt in the open moorland where it was dug in order to make peat charcoal: mounds of peat were ignited and then covered with turf and mud to make a blue-grey charcoal which was rather like coke. What Inchbold has depicted tallies with such a process. This charcoal, certainly made during the 1800s on Dartmoor, which Inchbold visited in the 1850s and 1860s (Newall 1993, nos.4 and 11), was used in metal smelting during the nineteenth century (although until when is uncertain), and most often in tin smelting (Woolner 1967, pp.118-20; Rackham 1989, p.316). This suggests that perhaps a Cornish landscape is shown here, and Piers Townshend has pointed out that the shape of the tower is reminiscent of a tin mine engine house and its chimney. A connection between this painting and Inchbold's visit in the late summer of 1864 to Tintagel, Cornwall with his friend the poet Algernon Swinburne (Newall 1993, p.17), therefore seems possible. Equally, however, it might show a moorland scene in or around Inchbold's native Yorkshire where peat was undoubtedly also used in local industries. There are two small oil sketches in the Opp? collection, both of them described by Inchbold as 'Recollections', of the landscape around Barden Tower near Bolton Abbey and dated 1865-6 (T09024, T09025), both the same size as Peat Burning; although, unlike these, Peat Burning is clearly a plein-air work, T09024 contains clouds of a similar type and colour to those seen in this picture and therefore suggests another possible date and location for the subject. Ultimately the clue to the precise whereabouts of the view almost certainly lies in the largely indecipherable word inscribed in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture.

Inchbold, having enjoyed some success in the 1850s as a Pre-Raphaelite artist, in later years was dogged by lack of recognition. Two of the most striking features of Peat Burning are the strange formation of pink clouds and, less obviously, a second inscription which reads 'LET EVIL'. Writing of his painting Stonehenge, dated 1866-9 and thus roughly contemporaneous with Peat Burning (Newall 1993, no.31), Inchbold referred to the way in which 'the clouds are meant to suggest what is at once fiery and spiritual' in his view of a religious site. At the same time he also referred to the difficulty of reconciling painting from nature 'with another and entirely distinct vision before the imagination, and perhaps with a heart somewhat maimed and broken by that deadly and relentless opposition I seem to inspire most innocently in some quarters'. Swinburne described Inchbold as 'a very religious man and a strong Churchman' (quoted in Newall 1993, p.8). In Peat Burning the simple biblical intensity of a sentence left unfinished in the paint (perhaps harking back to 'Let ... evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice' from Ephesians), the portentous dream-like clouds, the flames, smoke and steam of fires, and the blackness beyond at dusk combine to suggest that in Inchbold's troubled mind the landscape before him actually shifted from the certainties of realism to a 'distinct vision' of a kind of Hell, its inevitability for him removed only by a final redemptional thought.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.232 no.99, reproduced in colour p.233