Gilbert Spencer

The Progress of Husbandry


Not on display

Gilbert Spencer 1892–1979
Oil paint on fabric
Support: 914 × 1816 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1981

Display caption

Gilbert Spencer painted this when he was in his seventies.  He illustrates the history of farming, or 'husbandry', from an ancient Britain 'scratching the earth' to the introduction of the tractor. At the centre, two horses are lead away from a corn binder for the last time. The painting was commissioned to advertise  a tractor for Massey-Fergusson.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Oil on linen, 36 × 71 1/2 (91.5 × 181.5)
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1981
Prov: Purchased from the artist by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1968
Exh: RA, May–August 1968 (72)
Lit: Gilbert Spencer RA, Memories of a Painter, 1974, p.209
Repr: RA Illustrated, 1968, p.25

In his memoirs Gilbert Spencer wrote of this work (op.cit., p.209): 'Before I left Upper Basildon, Lord Alastair Gordon introduced me to a director of Massey Ferguson with the idea that I should paint a picture to advertise their machines. I did a series of cameos illustrating the progress of husbandry spreading them across a landscape which I had already in mind, and placing them where I felt I wanted them. On the left I painted an ancient Briton scratching the earth with seagulls settling round him, and below my idea of the Tolpuddle Martyrs remonstrating with their master. In the centre of the picture was a horse-drill being covered up for the last time, and the horses, unharnessed, being led away. As I moved to the right the inevitable Massey Ferguson appeared ploughing into the jungle, driving the wild animals before it.

'I was so happy painting this picture (later bought by the Chantry [sic] Bequest) that I almost ran down the path each morning to get on with it...’

In his retrospective exhibition at Reading Museum and Art Gallery in June–July 1964 there were six studies for ‘The Progress of Husbandry’, each in oil on panel and dated 1963–1964. They were:
'The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ 14 × 12in.
‘Breaking up Jethro Tull's Horse Drill’ 14 × 10in.
‘Returning Home’ 14 × 10in.
‘Covering the Binder for the Last Time’ 12 × 10in.
‘Birth of Cultivation’ 20 × 16in.
‘Modern Cultivation in the Jungle’ 20 × 16in.

The themes of all six occur in ‘The Progress of Husbandry’. Towards the top left is a near-naked figure, presumably ‘an ancient Briton’, crouching on the ground holding an implement, illustrating the ‘Birth of Cultivation’. Below are three farmworkers dressed in smocks: ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ remonstrating with their employer on horseback. This group is close in composition to a watercolour ‘The Beginning of an Event in History: The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ owned by the Tate Gallery (N05550) which was made about 1937. Gilbert Spencer originally planned to paint a mural of this subject but abandoned the idea and instead executed a painting in oil on canvas in 1943 (repr.RA Illustrated, 1956, p.76). The Tolpuddle Martyrs were six farm workers from Tolpuddle, Dorset, who sought to combine together to secure better wages. They were convicted of administering unlawful oaths in 1834 and sentenced to transportation for 7 years, but were pardoned in 1836 and brought home. Spencer shows three not six of the Martyrs (see Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, 1964, pp.657–8).

To the right, and above ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’, is ‘Breaking up Jethro Tull's Horse Drill’. Jethro Tull (1674–1741), a Berkshire farmer, invented in about 1701 a seed drill which planted seeds in rows, as a result of which the spaces between the rows could be kept clear of weeds and the soil loosened to give access to water. Tull's ideas and his seed drill were subjected to both verbal and physical attack.

In the centre of ‘The Progress of Husbandry’ is ‘Covering the Binder for the Last Time’, presumably symbolizing the binder in crop husbandry being superceded by the combine harvester. Similarly ‘Returning Home’ at the bottom centre, with the two horses being led away, symbolizes the replacement of horses by tractors. Finally, top right, are wild animals on the edge of a jungle; nearby a tractor is being driven by a figure in a straw hat. Spencer erred here in that giraffes do not occur in Asia.

Although Spencer wrote in his autobiography that ‘...Lord Alastair Gordon introduced me to a director of Massey Ferguson with the idea that I should paint a picture to advertise their machines’, Massey Ferguson have no record of any correspondence about this.

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

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