Rodney J. Burn

By the Lake


Not on display

Rodney J. Burn 1899–1984
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 917 × 1222 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1981

Catalogue entry

T03214 BY THE LAKE 1922


Inscribed ‘R B U R N’ bottom right
Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 × 48 1/8 (91.8 × 122.2)
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1981
Prov: Purchased by A.M. (later Sir Augustus) Daniel (d.1950) from the Goupil Gallery, 1922; his widow, by whom given to the artist; purchased from the artist through the Fieldborne Galleries by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1979
Exh: Goupil Gallery Salon, Goupil Gallery, November–December 1922 (76); 50 Years of Painting by Rodney Burn R A, Zaydler Gallery, October 1969 (23, as ‘Figures by a Lake’); Rodney Burn R A, Fieldborne Galleries, June–July 1979 (4, repr., as ‘Figures by Lakeside’ 1924)
Repr: Sunday Telegraph, 8 July 1979 (detail)

The following entry, which was approved by the artist, is based on an interview with Rodney Burn on 23 August 1982 following a letter from him of 26 June and a rough sketch indicating the identities of the figures, which he provided in 1981.

Invited by the Tate Gallery in 1925 to list his ‘Chief Works’ on a standard form, Burn included this work, with the title ‘The Lake’. He confirmed in 1982 that its definitive title should be ‘By the Lake’, under which it was first exhibited. He closely associated it with ‘The Christening’ 1921 which, like ‘By the Lake’, was bought, soon after completion, by Augustus Daniel and given by Daniel's widow to Burn. ‘The Christening’ was later sold from Burn's Zaydler Gallery exhibition to a buyer who has not been traced.

Both works were painted when Burn was a student at the Slade School. They were of the same size, chosen by Burn because it was the most customary for the Slade Competition, for which both were entered. In both works the figures included the artist's sister Peggy, Thomas Monnington (with whom Burn shared a studio at the time) and others derived from models. Like ‘By the Lake’, ‘The Christening’ represents a group in the open air, included in which are a mother (Burn's sister) and baby, a clergyman and godparents, and a man (Monnington) fishing beside a stream; a church is seen in the distance.

In accordance with the teaching of the time at the Slade, both pictures were developed from drawings of their various components, nearly all done from nature, and now dispersed. Burn worked on ‘By the Lake’ for at least two months (including the drawings). The background studies were made at Aldenham Reservoir, which was near his home at Potters Bar. The shadowystanding figure at the extreme left was invented, but the other nine foreground figures were derived as follows, reading from left to right. The seated woman (the only other figure not developed from a drawing from life) was based on a picture postcard of a fat freak who was an exhibit at Barnet Fair; although she wore a hat in the postcard, Burn invented the one she wears in his picture. The man standing behind her holding an oar is the artist's father, Sir Joseph Burn KBE, one-time President of the Prudential Insurance Company. The standing lady with her back towards the viewer was the sculptor Dorothy Sharwood-Smith, who Burn was to marry in 1923 and who was at that time a student at the Slade. Burn tried to accentuate the ugliness of the fat lady to her left, so as to stress by contrast the beauty of this figure. With the shadowy figure at extreme left the fat lady was intended to form a slightly sinister corner. The man standing next to Dorothy Sharwood-Smith is Thomas Monnington, a fellow Slade student and later President of the Royal Academy. He was too young to serve in the First World War, but is here wearing the soldier's peaked hat which had belonged to Burn during his War service. The next three figures were all derived from artists' models. The youth holding two oars was Burn's younger brother Maurice, then a schoolboy, and the lady at far right was Burn's sister Peggy, later Mrs Barrowman.

A strong influence on this picture was Watteau, in particular his crowded semi-outdoor figure painting ‘Les Plaisirs du Bal’ (‘Le Bal Champêtre’) in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which Burn viewed often. He aimed to establish a sense of communication across the picture between the different figures, especially between the man in the army hat and the girl seated on the ground. The strongest influence from living artists was that of the Slade Professor, Tonks; Burn felt this is specially apparent in the way the heads are painted. Tonks's teaching was clear and insistent, and was particularly concentrated in the case of any student, such as Burn, who he felt showed special promise. Another Slade teacher, Steer, was also an influence. Burn was struck by Steer's apparent inability to make an unpleasant mark, but found Steer much less forceful as a teacher than Tonks. He considered Steer most effective when a student managed to persuade him to demonstrate technique (as when Steer resolved some difficulties in the painting of the sky in Burn's large lunette, ‘Waterlow Park’ 1922).

Scenes where land meets water remained a persistent preoccupation of Burn's, but in later years he tended to do fewer paintings including figures, both because the demand for landscapes was greater and because models became more difficult to obtain.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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