The Somerset School of Victorian Artists

During the tenancy of the Thornes the manor, known then as Halsway Court, became the centre of a group of painters sometimes referred to as the Somerset School although the association was shortlived and did not develop. An artist, John North, found Halsway in 1860. He lodged with Mrs Thorne for long periods over the following years.

Illustrations by North in various books of poems and prose as well as other paintings contain scenes that include the manor and its surroundings. At times other artists joined North, among them were George Pinwell and Robert Macbeth, but probably the most distinguished of the group was his close friend, Frederick Walker. In letters to his family and friends Walker wrote fondly of the manor and obviously enjoyed being there. When the house was sold North moved with the Thornes to Woolston Moor with Walker a frequent visitor.

It was while living at Woolston, in February 1870, that Walker painted what is considered to be his finest work, The Plough. Now in the Tate, the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870. Painted direct in the open, often in appalling weather, it dramatically depicts the rigours of winter ploughing. Against the background of an old quarry the ploughman steers the heavy wooden plough, two plough horses lean into the harness while the ploughboy urges them on.

Frederick Walker’s death in 1874, in the prime of his career was a great loss to the art world and the Somerset school developed no further.

North remained in Somerset, marrying a local girl in 1884. He painted many scenes of the Somerset landscape, often adapting them for book illustrations, and was greatly respected as a colourist by the critics of the day, who considered him a master of watercolour technique. The manor, as background, featured in many of his illustrations and was the subject of many works, among them The Haystack: Halsway Manor Farm (1864), A Young Lover (1867), Halsway Court and The Gardens at Halsway Manor. A familiar figure in the district for over fifty years, he died, aged 78 in 1924. His grave is in the churchyard at Nettlecombe.

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