Description: signed l.l.: EA FORBES oil on canvas
Dimensions: measurements note 122 by 97 cm., 48 by 38 in.
London, Royal Academy, 1909, no. 275;
Judith Cook and Melissa Hardie, Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth Forbes , 2000, no. 35
Literature: Royal Academy Pictures, 1909, p. 36;
Pall Mall Gazette 'Extra', Pictures of 1909, 1909, p. 97;
Judith Cook and Melissa Hardie, Singing from the Walls, The Life and Art of Elizabeth Forbes, 2000, illus. p. 154
Provenance: London, Dicksee & Co, by 1909
Notes: On a bank in a woodland glade, his dogs obediently by his side, sits a barefoot boy, reading. Bright sunshine, which falls on the nearby meadow, is deflected from his page by the overhanging trees. The scene is one of peaceful concentration.
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With the spread of mass literacy following the Education Act of 1884, books for children were a new, rapidly proliferating sector of the publishing industry. This phenomenon, associated with the classics of Rudyard Kipling, JM Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and Francis Hodgson Burnett, depicted fantasy worlds of eternal sunshine, abundant nature and brave boys and girls whose virtues were those upon which the Imperial adventure was founded. Alec Forbes, whose half-term holiday provides the opportunity for the present work, was one such hero.
The son of Elizabeth Adela and Stanhope Alexander Forbes, Alec was born on 26 May 1893 at Newlyn in Cornwall. He was to be their only child, described by Mrs Lionel Birch as 'that little fair-haired son, whose future fills so large a space in his parents' hopes and aspirations'. Prior to his birth, Elizabeth and Stanhope moved to a larger house, Trewarveneth, on the fringe of the village, where they remained for eleven years. During these years, Stanhope Forbes, painting fisherfolk, land workers and local gypsy camps, became a mainstay of the Royal Academy and the acknowledged leader of the Newlyn School. Elizabeth, a talented Canadian who had studied with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students' League in New York, also exhibited regularly, her work drawing upon the rich imagery of Cornish myth and legend.
Elizabeth Forbes painted her infant son's portrait on many occasions. Alec Forbes, a full-length, painted when he was four, and shown at the Academy, was one of the earliest and most ambitious.
The paintings and watercolours which follow indicate an idyllic childhood, similar to that portrayed in the work of fellow Newlyn painters, Harold Harvey and Thomas Cooper Gotch. Elizabeth clothed the boy in fairy romance. She held two solo exhibitions at the Fine Art Society and the Leicester Galleries in 1900 and 1904, both on themes of children. She also published the lavishly illustrated King Arthur's Wood, which tells of the childhood adventures of Myles, a boy based on Alec, who comes to live in Cornwall. The volume was dedicated, 'To my little friend and comrade, Alec. This book is dedicated with his mother's love'.
Alec was evidently a contented child, happy to sit while his mother painted - as the watercolour, Alec Reading (sold in these rooms, 14 December 2006, lot 168) indicates. From 1904 he attended Bedales, a progressive school founded by John Haden Badley in 1893, for the purpose of educating artistic children. He passed the Oxford and Cambridge certificate in 1911 and went to the Architectural Association School in Westminster to train for the profession. As he was completing his studies and had won a Travelling Scholarship, war broke out. In May 1915 however, he decided to suspend his career and join the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry as a sub-lieutenant. Sadly, he was killed in action in 1916.
Not long after the completion of the present work, Elizabeth Forbes became ill with what was first diagnosed as tuberculosis. During 1909 there were frequent visits to London and an extended rest cure at Vence in the south of France. By 1911 she and Stanhope Forbes were commuting regularly from Newlyn to London for more consultations with specialists, as it had been determined that Elizabeth was actually suffering from uterine cancer, which had reached an advanced stage. She died in June 1912. However around 1908 the Edwardian summer had not yet ended. In April of that year she wrote an article for The Studio describing an art students' painting holiday in 'a valley where the sun is held all day in a cup of golden gorse'. Her 'happy Bohemians' were exultant and, painting en plein air, they delighted not only in the landscape but also in its birdsong and gipsy fires. Questing deeper into the valley, 'leaping from tussock to tussock', she found herself in a setting not dissimilar to that where the barefoot Alec reads his book ('An April Holiday', The Studio, vol 43, 1908, pp. 191-9). Forbes controls the light and shade with great skill. Purples and greys of the foreground bank are complemented by the bright greens of the sunlit meadow. Although the impression is one of open air naturalism, a study for the terriers indicates that this portion at least was likely to have been painted in the studio (see Cook and Hardie, 2000, p. 177, no 4.16b, mis-identified as a study for An Attentive Companion). There may indeed be echoes of Sargent's On his holidays, 1901 (National Museums on Merseyside) and Frank Bramley's Jock and Cupid, 1907 (unlocated), both of which show boys on holiday from school. However neither of these commissioned works shares the intimacy of The Half-Holiday. Neither could convey the special relationship which existed here between artist and model. We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.