2 February 1996

Images in homage

to Bakewells work

THE image of a large head mounted on a wall lingers long after a visit to the Robert Bakewell exhibition* in Leicester.

Its not a bust of the 18th century farmer himself, but the head of a Longhorn steer called Tariff Reform which won the Birmingham Fatstock Show in 1908. It is there because it is with the Longhorn that Bakewell conducted much of his pioneering work into livestock breeding and improvement.

"Its very striking," says Fred Hartley, who is co-ordinating the exhibition for Leicestershire County Council. Staged to commemorate the bicentenary of Bakewells death, it will appeal to others besides Longhorn enthusiasts.

The exhibition explores Bakewells development of the New Leicester sheep, from which many of the native British strains are descended, and the wide range of artefacts gives a unique glimpse of farming at a time of rapid change.

One of the highlights is a picture by Thomas Weaver, himself the son of a Shropshire farmer. On loan from the Tate Gallery, it shows ram-letting at Dishley Grange, Bakewells home near Loughborough.

"It was painted in 1810, which is 15 years after Bakewell died," says Mr Hartley.

Bakewells achievements are all the more notable when one remembers that he was a tenant and, at times, a penniless one. He was even declared bankrupt, only to be saved after a subscription list of voluntary donations was opened. Among the contributors was the Duke of Rutland who gave 200gns.

Despite his humble origins, his establishment in 1783 of the Dishley Society, the forerunner to the Leicester Agricultural Society, brought him further into contact with the gentry.

"I had an hours conversation with the King on the subject of breeding and he seemed pleased with, and listened to what I said with great interest," he wrote in March 1788.

Mr Hartley hopes the exhibition will rekindle interest in the man and in the development of agriculture generally.

"Not just among farmers, but in the wider community, too," he says.

Overall, he describes it as an "art-historical" exhibition. He was keen to include a wide range of three-dimensional artefacts: Hence Bakewells favourite chair, his memorial slab shattered by the collapse of the now-ruined Dishley chapel and the head of Tariff Reform, recently restored and on loan from Warwickshire Museum.

Beside Tariffs head hangs an 1823 picture of Sir John Palmer with his prize Leicester Longwools.

"The fact that farmers wanted to have their stock included in paintings of themselves shows how much pride was taken in the animals in those days," remarks Mr Hartley.

Many things may have changed since Bakewells day, but farmers pride in their stock is not one of them.

Tim Relf

*Open daily in Leicester Museum and Art Gallery until Mar 8. Inquiries (0116 255 4100).

Development of the New Leicester sheep was another Bakewell achievement.

Artefacts in the Bakewell exhibition

at Leicester Museum include a cut-out figure of the great man and his own chair with a history on the back.