Gilbert Spencer

The Beginning of an Event in History: The Tolpuddle Martyrs


Not on display

Gilbert Spencer 1892–1979
Watercolour on paper
Support: 559 × 800 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1944

Display caption

This large watercolour is a design for a mural. It reflects the political mood in Britain before the Second World War. Opinions were polarised between support for the left and the right, and Gilbert Spencer sought a landscape subject that would show his commitment.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834 were a popular example of trade union history. They were farm labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset who were prosecuted for combining together to insist on an increase in their pay.  Gilbert Spencer shows his characteristic farming subject in the light of historic social unrest. The mural was never painted.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed.
Watercolour (squared for painting), 22×31 1/2 (56×80); enlarged on left side by strip 2 3/8 (6) wide.
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1944.
Coll: Purchased by the C.A.S. from the Leicester Galleries May 1943, although the painting is not listed in the printed catalogue of the exhibition of that date.
Exh: Reading, June–July 1964 (131).

The ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ were six labourers from Tolpuddle, near Dorchester, who had sought to combine together to secure better wages. They were prosecuted for administering unlawful oaths and in March 1834 sentenced to transportation for seven years. Public opinion was outraged by this savage punishment and a monster petition was presented to Parliament, as a result of which the men were pardoned in 1836 and brought home.

This drawing, done about 1937, was the original finished composition sketch for what the artist had intended to be a mural. ‘The subject’, he wrote (letter of 20 April 1958), ‘was one that appealed to me strongly. It was a secular event with a strong flavour of the sort of thing that would replace for me, subject matter which in the circumstances I did not regard as any longer suitable.... It arose simply from an account I read about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The reason for my calling it “The Beginnings” is intended to explain that although the three figures could be regarded as the martyrs, at the moment I have chosen they were not; they had put on their smocks and are carrying their emblems - the whip (Carter) crook and tuft of wool (Shepherd) and corn in hat (Ploughman) and are remonstrating with their employer before going to the hirings. The characters are intended to indicate (1) the reasoning man, Lovelace with his whip (2) the accuser, the shepherd and (3) the religious fanatical type pointing skywards and at the same time indicating the full barn. In my efforts to knit it together I extended the idea to weave in contemporary farm life.’

After the war had broken out the artist gave up his ideas of a mural and in 1943 painted instead a canvas, 28×36 in., at Professor de Selincourt's home, Grasmere. This picture was then shown at the Royal Academy, 1956 (122), and reproduced in that year's Royal Academy Illustrated, p.76. A comparison between this and the Tate drawing shows only a few minor variations other than the squarer format of the oil painting; the man on the right carrying bucket and watering-can has been omitted, the pose of the figure of the man with the horse and cart has been altered, and a house or barn occupies the top right-hand corner instead of a herd of cattle. Chickens have been introduced into the foreground, while the pose of the ploughman now shows him with upraised left arm.

A watercolour drawing of this subject belongs to Lord Methuen, and a tracing and other fragments remain in the possession of the artist.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

You might like

In the shop