The great earthquake and fire of 1906 which devastated San Francisco also decimated the thriving artistic community it had so successfully nurtured, in which Hunter had enjoyed a central and prominent role. It was to be a crossroads in his life, and resulted in his return to his family in Glasgow. He had already established a love affair with Paris on his earlier travels to the city, and the period from 1907 to the outbreak of WW1 was punctuated with frequent, long visits to France. There, as in San Francisco, the arts were valued and artistic activity supported and encouraged by the infrastructure.
Though this period is quite thinly documented in terms of Hunter’s precise whereabouts and activity, it has been suggested by Bill Smith, author of the authoritative monograph on the artist, that a tour c.1907 of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s art collection generated the shock to Hunter’s sensibilities that turned him from a solid, traditional painter to a colour-obsessed member of the avant-garde. Étaples, a picturesque town on the Channel which also proved popular with fellow Scots Fergusson and Peploe, was to be pivotal in this transitional period of Hunter’s work during his visits in 1912 and 1913.
We are pleased to present two examples of work created on Hunter’s second trip to Étaples in 1913 in our December 2020 Scottish Paintings & Sculpture auction. Smith, who illustrates ‘On the Beach’ in his book, notes that the influence of Cézanne is strongly evident in the handling of the paint and the marked lightening of his palette, praising the ‘freshness of the sea breeze. . . (and) sense of bustling movement.’ These works are among the first notable evidence of this important shift; the absorption of Post-Impressionist tendencies that were to become signatures of Hunter’s work. Here, nature is no longer approached with naturalism as the priority, and instead broad, fully-loaded brushstrokes are utilised to highlight the intrinsically decorative patterns created by the shapes and forms of the shoreline and its visitors.
Hunter’s trip was to be cut short however (this being around the commencement of the First World War), when he was arrested as a German spy. A lone figure, strapping and blonde, sketching away at the harbourside perhaps not surprisingly raised a little suspicion! Somehow able to make a dramatic escape from the police station in a panic, Hunter fled back to the safety of Paris.