Lewis studied with Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) at the Royal Academy, and painted landscape at the beginning of his career, becoming known principally as a portrait painter after 1820. He exhibited Hereford, Dynedor and the Malvern Hills ... along with Hereford, from the Haywood, Noon (N02960) and twelve small harvest scenes set in the same locality, two of which are in also in Tate’s collection (T03234 and T03235), at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours in April 1816, announcing them all as ‘painted on the spot’; all these works have very specific titles giving topographical details of the viewpoint and time of day they were painted. In 1813 he had undertaken a sketching tour of North Wales with John Linnell (1792–1882), an enthusiast of plein-air landscape painting, which may account for Lewis’s continuing interest in the approach in 1815.
The scenes shown in all the Herefordshire landscapes indicate that Lewis, who lived in London, was staying in the late summer of 1815 at Haywood Lodge, a large farmhouse a few miles outside the city of Hereford; the fields and harvesters depicted were all associated with the farm. No particular family or other personal connection has been made between Lewis and Herefordshire at that time, although later in life he made drawings of Kilpeck church, in the same county, and published a pamphlet on education at Hereford. It is possible that Lewis may have been invited to paint the area by a local patron, or even by the owner of the farm itself.
In Hereford, Dynedor and the Malvern Hills ...Lewis pays great attention to the accuracy of the topographical detail of the cornfields and the surrounding landscape, representative of the concentration by British artists on the authentic representation of the details of rural and agricultural life in the ‘decade of naturalism’, 1810–20, referred to by John Gage (A Decade of English Naturalism, exhibition catalogue, Norwich Castle Museum, 1969). Lewis’s work can be compared with contemporary detailed harvest scenes by Peter de Wint (1784–1849), John Linnell and John Constable (1776–1837). Rosenthal has noted that in the work of these artists can be seen a celebration of the fecundity of rural England, the morally uplifting emphasis on the success of Britain’s agricultural activity implicit in the paintings reflecting and promoting patriotic fervour and social harmony during the period up to the first defeat of Napoleon in 1814 (p.110). Interest in naturalistic representation of agricultural scenes declined after 1815, as economic depression made the theme more problematic.
Although N0291 is ostensibly a plein-air study, Payne has suggested that three of the workers in the foreground, including the barely-visible pentimento figure with a jacket almost obscured by over-painting to the right of the group, may have been portraits of the employees of Mrs Theresa Price, the tenant farmer (p.96). The other figures, painted less convincingly with minimal individualization, were probably added in the studio later. It is possible that the jacketed figure represents the overseer, or bailiff, possibly arguing with the harvesters, and that Lewis removed the figure in order to minimize this confrontational element, creating a more harmonious atmosphere in the group. There was a serious fear of political instability in Britain in 1816, when the painting was exhibited, during a period of economic decline after the end of the Napoleonic war, and Lewis may have been concerned to avoid any allusion to tension between workers and their employers.
Christiana Payne, Toil and Plenty, Images of the Agricultural Landscape in England, 1780–1890, pp.52–4 and 95–6, reproduced p.95.
Leslie Parris, Landscape in Britain c.1750–1850, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.104, reproduced p.105.
Michael Rosenthal, British Landscape Painting, London 1982, pp.110–12, reproduced in colour p.113.