Transcript: Picking Stones Podcast

Picking Stones podcast

An interpretation of Brian Hatton’s Painting, Stone Picking at Jim Powell’s Farm, Warham

by Robin Thorndyke

Stone Picking at Jim Powell’s Farm, is a simple but powerful image.  It shows only two bent and hunched figures intent on their work, in an open field with a strong line dividing the land from the sky. There is no background and very little colour.

Out of the entire surrounding countryside, so green and rich in oak, ash and elm trees, standing in the towering hedgerows above the curve of the river running through the water meadows, Brian chose to depict a bleak, earthen field, looking up to a hard sky-line, against a bland sky.  Two figures occupy the space in the foreground, faceless and anonymous, their backs turned.

Compare this with ‘The Gleaners’ by Jean Francois Millet, also showing poor agricultural workers intent on their work, without revealing their facial features.  Millet’s companion painting, ‘The Angellus’, representing the dignity of labour, was equally famous and would have been known to Brian.

In northern France, where Millet worked, there were wide horizons, huge featureless fields and an absence of hedgerows.  It is clear that Brian was influenced by Millet.  ‘The Sower’, by Millet, uses a restricted palette and is low-key in colour.  The strong sky-line is the same angle as ‘Picking Stones’ It’s certain that when he saw this field profile in Warham, Brian thought of Millet and of his respect and sensitivity towards the impoverished workers. 

Brian chose two Gypsy women as subjects, picking stones from the fields to allow the crops to grow unhindered.  The Gypsies lived nearby on Green Lane and supplied the surrounding farms with seasonal workers, both male and female.  The romantic, outlandish dress and the bold characteristic look of the Gypsies, provided Brian with visual stimulation and he completed a number of works with local Gypsy models.  Some of his most sensitive and sympathetic drawings, depict the Gypsies working in the fields at Warham Farm pulling turnips by hand; cold and hard Winter work.  The women wore long skirts and hob-nailed boots in the fields, the men bound their trousers beneath the knee with cord to keep the rats out.  Sitting round their campfires in the evening, the Gypsies drank tea from basins to keep their hands warm. 

The travelling work-force represented by the Gypsies has gone, the manual work has been replaced by mechanisation.  The Gypsies have dispersed, fruit picking and market gardening labour is now provided by migrant workers, who are bussed in from Eastern Europe.

It is simple to find this field today, if you know where how to look for its profile.  One man and a combine, harvested the entire field last week, no hard labour was required. 

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