Edward Arthur Walton
Berwickshire Field-workers 1884

Artwork details

Berwickshire Field-workers
Date 1884
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 914 x 609 mm
frame: 1050 x 748 x 65 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1982
Not on display


This is one of the most important works that Walton produced while working alongside James Guthrie at Cockburnspath in Berwickshire. Walton and Guthrie were both members of the school of artists - including also John Lavery, Joseph Crawhall, George Henry and Edward Atikinson Hornel - known as the Glasgow Boys. Their commitment to realism led them to take an interest in the work of their contemporaries in France, and in particular Jules Bastien-Lepage, who exercised considerable influence on their developing style.

During the early 1880s Walton, along with the rest of the Glasgow Boys, rejected historical subject matter and academic finish and committed himself to painting contemporary, mainly rural subjects, working en plein air. In this work Walton is interested less in emphasising the back-breaking nature of the workers' task than in capturing the overall effect of heat and light. From the length of the sharply-defined shadows, it is evident that the picture was painted near midday in bright sunshine. The rich terracotta soil and the red bonnets give the picture a warmth which is offset by the slate-blue sky and the blue glint of the sickle in the woman's right hand. Walton applies his paints with the characteristic square brushstroke associated with the Glasgow School. The overall composition and handling of this work invite comparisons with Guthrie's A Hind's Daughter (National Gallery of Scotland), painted the previous year. Under the indirect influence of Bastien-Lepage, Guthrie and Walton had been experimenting with painting single figures, set against a high horizon. This creates a steeply foreshortened perspective, emphasising the relative detail of the foreground compared with the looser handling of the background figures.

The fieldworkers in this picture are wearing large bonnets, known as 'uglies', to protect them from the sun. These curious items of headgear were made of cane and cotton, and a piece of material was attached to the bonnet to protect the wearer's back. The woman's face is almost totally invisible, concealed not only by the bonnet but by a large coloured handkerchief tied beneath her chin. She is wearing clogs on her feet and a protective apron or 'brat' over her striped skirt.

The rich colour of this work is unusual for Walton, who generally worked in more muted tones. Shortly after painting this picture, he abandoned oil as a medium and worked entirely in watercolours.

Further reading:
Roger Billcliffe, The Glasgow Boys, London 1985, pp.132, reproduced pl.131, p.142, in colour.

Frances Fowle
November 2000