Harry Becker (1865-1928)
Head of a man wearing a cap,
14¾ x 19½ inches
Provenance: Prue Loftus and by descent through the family.
Not for sale
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Becker's portraits of the Suffolk farming community provide a vivid record of the characters that toiled in the fields and farmyards that surrounded him. The identity of this sitter is unknown but there is a similarity to the character portrayed in the oil, Portrait of man in a smock (David Thompson, Becker, p.12). In both pictures, the muscular bulk of the sitter sits squarely in the picture space, but the gaze is set fixedly off to the left. It also bears comparison to the illustration used in Adrian Bell's, Silver Ley entitled Bob was a valued man (opp. p.104). Such studies, vigorously captured in pencil, charcoal or red chalk, provide vivid snapshots of characters weathered by hard graft in the Suffolk elements. They have an immediacy to them that bring to mind photography rather than conventional portraiture.
Harry (Henry Otto) Becker was born in 1865, the fourth of seven children. His German parents had emigrated to Colchester in 1857 where his father established himself as a well respected GP. The young Becker showed early promise and was encouraged and supported by his father. His early training was something of a whirlwind of diverse and highly impressive influences reaped from several north European art schools/studios. At the age of 14, he enrolled at the Royal Academy School, Antwerp. On leaving, his talents must have been considerable, as he was selected to join, not only Herkomer's highly regarded Academy at Bushey but also the atelier of the accomplished portraitist, Carolus Duran in Paris. He somehow managed to attend both, taking inspiration from his tutors and peers but it was from Duran that he took away the life-long habit of plein-air sketching and painting, with its focus on immediacy and rejection of studio re-working.
Becker's adult life can be viewed as having two distinct periods, before and after his move to Suffolk in 1912. In the earlier years, based firstly in Colchester then London from 1894, he followed the conventional path of a professional artist achieving significant success and recognition, exhibiting regularly at the R.A., R.B.A., the N.E.A.C., The Walker Gallery, Liverpool as well as commercial galleries. It was from 1907, however, that there was a series of distressing events in his professional (not least the loss of the prestigious Selfridges commission) and personal life that led to a growing disenchantment with London and his ultimate departure to Suffolk in 1912. Together with his wife Georgina and daughter Jane, he moved to the village of Wenhaston in Suffolk which was to become his home for the rest of his life and the surrounding area the source for his relentless output.
He sketched and painted obsessively, producing thousands of drawings in charcoal and pencil, venturing out in the harshest of Suffolk winters to capture a particular light or scene, a fact perhaps borne out by his eventual demise from pneumonia in 1928. He sold and exhibited very little during these years, the most notable exception being an exhibition in Southwold in 1925 put on by the Loftus family (who tirelessly championed his work, putting on another exhibition at the Aldeburgh festival of 1957).
Becker holds an iconic position in the history of Suffolk painting and it would be easy to mythologise his memory as an eccentric maverick shunning society. However, a lack of embellishment and his total immersion in his environment are what give his work the vibrancy and familiarity that is so immediately appealing. Adrian Bell (author, whose books contain Becker illustrations) summed it up perfectly, "But who am I....to judge art? Have I had any education in art or in art-criticism? None; but I know I am right, because being a farmer I live all day with horses and men at work, and every time I see them moving about those fields he painted I think to myself, "Harry Becker".'
Sources: David Thompson, Becker, 2002 (the definitive study of his life and work, a wonderful book which you can buy here)
Works in public collections: Colchester and Ipswich Museums Collection