In the summer of 1913, Harry Becker, his wife Georgina and daughter Janet moved from a densely populated area of London with few open spaces to Wenhaston, a small isolated village in the north east of Suffolk where most people worked on the land and few rarely left the county, let alone East Anglia.

For the next 15 years, Harry would observe the slow turn of the agricultural year and emerge as one of the most remarkable interpreters of the English countryside.

Landscape, Suffolk Meadows

Landscape, Suffolk Meadows

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Victor Batte-Lay Foundation

He was 34 years old when he first arrived to paint at Wenhaston, the same age as his father Charles had been when he had arrived in England. Charles had served as an army surgeon at Sevastopol, having begun his military life as a 14-year-old in the Mexican-American War, served as a field surgeon with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria and later was attached to the British Light Division as a field surgeon in the Crimean War.

Before the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Charles was evacuated to Colchester in Essex where, after being given British citizenship, he married his wife Henrietta. All his children were raised in the town, including Harry who was born in 1865.

Harry's artistic education began as a 14-year-old student at Antwerp's Royal Academy in 1879. The Academy, like the Académie Julian in Paris, was an important focus for many British students who were disaffected by academic teaching in both England and Scotland, and who were drawn to forms of rustic naturalism associated with French painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Millet.

After three years under the tutorship of Charles Verlat, Becker returned to Colchester in the summer of 1883 after receiving a scholarship to train with the Royal Academician Sir Hubert von Herkomer at his art school at Bushey in Hertfordshire.

After Bushey, he trained in Paris with Carolus-Duran, a close friend of Manet and Henri Fantin-Latour. Here, Becker was taught how to master paintings 'which express truth'. Duran enthused his pupils not just to paint life, but to paint from life, an instruction continued by his famous pupil John Singer Sargent.

Head of a Man, Study for 'The Sower'

Head of a Man, Study for 'The Sower'

red chalk touched with black chalk by Harry Becker (1865–1928)

After his studies in Paris, Harry returned to Essex and his trajectory through the 1880s was the traditional route of submitting pictures to various art institutions and societies. In 1888, he moved into a cottage and studio at Valley Farm overlooking Flatford Mill in Suffolk, the scene of so many of John Constable's paintings.

A report in the East Anglian Daily Times from April 1892, describes Harry as a 'devoted admirer of John Constable'. He had two works accepted for the Royal Academy show that year. One, A February Day, was described by the East Anglian Daily Times correspondent as having 'a rich depth in the treatment relieved by a suggestion of that sparkle of which Constable was so great a master'.

In 1894, Becker moved to London to be nearer to art galleries and dealers and use the capital as a staging post to explore the countryside outside of East Anglia – Kent was a favourite destination and he went to sketch and paint in Holland, where he had relatives.

He was also continuing to experiment with lithography and etching, skills he had learned at the workshop of Auguste Delâtre in Paris in the late 1870s and where he was taught the practice of 'artistic' printing, leaving thin veils of ink selectively on the plate to change the mood of the image.

An etching from 1895 showing a ploughman and a horse team (certainly a Suffolk scene) and now in the collection of the British Museum, is a gem of a picture.

Three Women Harvesting in a Field

Three Women Harvesting in a Field

1908, lithograph with some off-setting on the verso, engraver's proof by Harry Becker (1865–1928)

As the 1900s moved on, Harry's career and domestic life changed. In 1901, he began teaching a select number of artists on a private basis; after graduating from the Slade, George Sheringham had a three-year apprenticeship with Becker before going on to study at the Sorbonne.

In 1902, Harry married the artist Georgina Waddington who he had first met at Herkomer's Bushey School of Art. Although an accomplished painter, there is just one piece of Georgina's in a UK public collection, at Whitby in Yorkshire, near to where she was born. She probably painted very little after her marriage to Harry.

A few months after their wedding, Harry and Georgina moved to 11b Beaumont Road Studios, a small enclave of artists' studios behind West Kensington station in London where they would remain for the next decade and where their daughter Janet was born in 1903.

Study of a Head of a Woman

Study of a Head of a Woman

mounted lithograph printed in red ink by Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Two years later, Harry had his first solo show made up of 30 lithographs of rural life at John Baillie's gallery at Bayswater in London. It was this show which effectively launched him as one of the leading printmakers of his day.

The British Museum bought three lithographs, the first in a collection which now amounts to over 60 works. The following year he exhibited work at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, alongside Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Signac.

Buoyed by his success in France, it was at the New English Art Club's 1907 autumn exhibition which brought Becker, what at first appeared to be a career-defining commission. Gordon Selfridge, whose department store was to open on Oxford Street in London in 1909, singled out Harry to paint a series of nine panels featuring themes of rural life and work for the entrance of the store.

Sadly, the commission came to nothing after Becker, who had based the murals on drawings of farm workers in Suffolk, objected to Selfridge's idea that the murals should be less 'rustic and more Pre-Raphaelite'. Putting the row with Selfridge behind him, he showed work at the first exhibition of the New Association of Artists at the Goupil Gallery in February 1908 and their second and final exhibition in 1909.

As Becker's artistic reputation continued to grow, his domestic life was one of great sadness. A son, named Theodore, died at six months of age and the following year (1910) Charles Becker died, news of which was published as far as Australia.

In 1911, just as his painting Dutch Peasant Women Gathering Potatoes was chosen as one of the Royal Academy's pictures of the year, he decided to sue the Earl's Court Fun Fair which was held each summer near to his studio.

In his legal arguments, Becker maintained the constant loud noise from the thousands of people who daily attended the fair, prevented him from painting and was having a significant impact on his mental health.

Harvesters, Suffolk

Harvesters, Suffolk

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: Colchester Collection

To add to his poor psychological state, more stress was heaped upon him after the case was taken up by the press – each day in court was brutally summarised in the next day's national and provincial newspapers. Although Becker won the case and was awarded £25 plus legal costs, he faced accusations of letting his 'artistic temperament get in the way of people having fun'.

That summer, Harry travelled with his family to Wenhaston to prepare for his largest one-man show, arranged for the winter of 1912. He was becoming increasingly enamoured of the peace and quiet, the friendliness of the people he met and the freedom he felt – it was a retreat from the year's personal and professional pressures.

By the end of that autumn, he had completed 41 paintings and 15 lithographs for 'Field and Lane', at the Meryon Gallery in London's Mayfair. The exhibition was originally planned to last until the end of December but demand for entry was so great, that it was extended to January 1913.

Thirteen of Harry's paintings in the exhibition (including A Man Hedging) were reproduced in William Beach Thomas's The English Year, which also featured work by a number of senior Royal Academicians including Sir Alfred East and Sir George Clausen.

A Man Hedging

A Man Hedging 1913–1928

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

In previous stories of his life, writers have Harry leaving stage left for Suffolk before his show at the Meryon Gallery was taken down – however, electoral registers and newspaper reports show he was still living in London at least until the early summer of 1913 and among the final drawings he completed at Beaumont Road was a travel poster for Acton station on the London Underground.

When he finally did make the move to Suffolk, he wasn't yet at the height of his career – his style of work was starting to become looser, his expression greater.

The Senefelder Club, named after Alois Senefelder, who had invented lithography in Munich in the late eighteenth century, helped fund Harry's removal expenses by encouraging collectors and public art galleries to buy his work. Harry had joined as a member of the club in 1908 when it was limited to artists who were freemasons – he had become a freemason in 1888 at the age of 22.

Becker continued to work much as before at his new address of Old Hall Farm, just outside the village of Wenhaston. Although he was preparing a record of the farming year that had changed little in a thousand years, it was unconscious because Becker neither looked ahead, nor indeed, looked back. His commentary was of the present, and this is what makes his work so compelling.

Cutting Chaff in the Open

Cutting Chaff in the Open 1913–1928

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

As a landscape artist whose style found its true source in what he witnessed, Becker's work rate increased (he sketched obsessively). At the same time, he gradually withdrew from opportunities to sell his work and to earn a living.

He sent just one watercolour to the Whitechapel Gallery's 'Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements', in the summer of 1914 and was due to show 15 lithographs the following year at the Leicester Galleries and although the prints were destroyed when a railway truck rode over the parcel, he sued the Southwold Railway Company and received 20 guineas in compensation.

Two Men Clearing Banks

Two Men Clearing Banks 1913–1928

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

His second commission for the Senefelder Club in 1915 was a four-foot-wide lithograph of sheep on a roadside bank as a campaign to recruit women to work on the land. The crowds became so numerous when it was exhibited at Euston Station in London that it had to be taken down to ensure public safety.

Harry continued to submit work to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions in 1915 and 1917 and work to the Royal British Society of Artists, which he had joined several years previously, but then the trail goes cold until 1923 when he sent a study of one of the panels designed for Gordon Selfridge to the Royal Academy's Winter Exhibition of Decorative Art.

It is a puzzle why Harry decided to stop sending work to exhibitions. In his Suffolk period, he was known to buy back pictures he had already sold because he couldn't bear to be parted from them.

Cattle by a Dyke

Cattle by a Dyke c.1913–c.1928

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

One reason for this might be that at first, he was a summer holiday witness to farming, but when he was living in Wenhaston and later Darsham he had a personal and practical involvement with the people he painted. At times he was so poor that he rarely had the money to buy materials to create work he didn't want to sell.

Adrian Bell, who published a trilogy of novelised memoirs of his time farming in east Suffolk in the 1930s (among the best English rural literature of the twentieth century), said when he came to choose a painter to illustrate his work he looked for an artist who could make men and horses the embodiment of the landscape. The artist he chose was Harry Becker.

Writing in Everybody's Weekly, in 1945, Bell wrote that Becker never went anywhere, never saw anybody, apart from his family and the men of the fields:

'He was with them, day by day, summer and winter. He suffered chronically with asthma. He froze; he burned; but he painted. Those men loved him. He could talk to them about everything; about the mud or about God.'

Farm Buildings in a Landscape

Farm Buildings in a Landscape c.1913–c.1928

Harry Becker (1865–1928)

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

When Harry died from pneumonia in Ipswich Hospital in 1928 just shy of his 63rd birthday, a memorial exhibition was arranged by the Redfern Gallery at the Alpine Gallery in London.

Paul George Konody, the much-respected art critic and historian, wrote of Becker's work: 'His subjects, of course, often those of Jean-François Millet, but he is more lyrical in his statement, more optimistic in his outlook. Millet dwells with epic power on the hopelessness of Man's struggle with the forces of nature. In Mr Becker's pictures Man is as much in spiritual and in pictorial harmony with the surrounding nature. He is the conqueror, not the slave.'

You get the sense that some artists who die early have said all they had to say, while others outlive their talent. Not so Harry Becker.

Richard Morris, art historian

Further reading

David Thompson, Becker, The Wildlife Art Gallery, 2002