First Impressions: Robert Polhill Bevan ‘Showing At Tattersalls’, c1919


This pleasing composition has two groups at the sides of the painting, which lead out towards the viewer, creating between them a space for the viewer, psychologically inviting them into the painting.  This could be seen as typical of the Camden Town Group’s desire to create paintings for the people, which they could empathise with or in a sense participate in.  The piece is made up of smooth planes and dark, thick outlines around the figures and objects.  Figures are not particularly detailed, largely obscured by their long coats and hats.  Where we so see their faces, they present cartoon-like but serious expressions, deftly represented.  There is individualisation, as the two men we see most of are quite different, the man on the right thinner and longer nosed, whilst his equivalent on the left is broader and fuller.  This gives us a greater sense of being in the scene, and evokes the mood.  Details in the painting are appropriate to the scene, not over emphasised or simplified.  The horses however are near perfect in their anatomical details.  Long brushstrokes on the trotting bay align with muscles and their movement, so Bevan effectively gets across a sense of the horse’s musculature, without having to go into an unrealistic and uncharacteristic level of detail.  Some of the angles on the horses are perhaps a little too sharp, but this minor issue can easily be accepted within the bounds of Bevan’s personal style.  The horses’ legs are depicted highly realistically, each tendon seems to be understood, and the hooves are similarly well executed, and realistic to the angle of the legs, which show us, one side together, the apart, that the horse is trotting, demonstrating its movements to the prospective buyers who look on.  Tattersalls was one of the most important horse sales in Britain at the time, where the elite of the racing world went to trade horses and search for the next Grand National winners.  In the level of care he has paid to the horses, Bevan concisely puts across the sheer strength, and indeed huge monetary value of these fine animals.

The brick flooring takes on an almost pattern like appearance as it recedes into space at an angle.  Its soft peachy pink is a pleasing colour, but the dark lines marking the division of bricks seem almost too even, and it is not quite clear how the figures and animals fit into this perspective.  However shadows are naturalistically depicted, they are coloured, and seem to reflect the shapes that cast them.  The backdrop is a simple yellowish building that can easily be imagined as stables.  Backdrop is quite an appropriate term, as it seems that it acts as a stage setting for the horses to be displayed against, while the audience, the buyers, are set back closer to the viewer, who takes on the position of part of this audience.  The chestnut horse is distinctly outlined in black against the red door behind it.  This simple scene uses a subtle palette, and crisp depictions to evocatively portray a world that is now much changed.  Robert Polhill Bevan has created a charmingly simple piece, whilst still maintaining an appropriate level of realism so as to allow the viewer to almost step into the painting.  The painting is bereft of unnecessary details, and in this it vividly conjures the mood and energy of this elite world for the everyday viewer.

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