Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display
This pair of topographical panoramas are rich in colour, pattern, rhythm and, above all, detail, offering a fascinating and rare insight into rural life in the early 18th century.
In the first painting visitors are arriving by carriage to the manor house door to be welcomed by Squire Higford and his family. The squire is a farmer, like generations before him, and his sheep, cattle and pigs are lovingly depicted. Beyond the manor a wonderful patchwork of fields draws the eye to the Severn Valley, and beyond to the hills of Wales.
Country around Dixton Manor or The Dixton Harvesters, as it has become known (pictured right), offers a view looking towards Broadway over larger fields.
This is the time of the hay harvest and the fields are filled with lines of men with scythes and women with rakes working to the tune of the musicians, while children play and morris men dance. As the eye follows the rhythms and patterns of the painting, we cannot help but pause to investigate pockets of activity - carts being loaded, pipers playing, boys dancing around a village girl, women carrying food in parcels balanced on their heads.
It is likely that the paintings were both commissioned by the Higford family to be displayed in their 16th-century manor house. Part of the house still stands, five miles away, and the style suggests that the pictures are by the same person.
The highly-skilled, though unknown, artist has used a limited palette of deep greens and reds, pale blues and black and white. The pale blue and black give form to the contours of the fields and the white shirts and aprons of the workers sparkle with the late afternoon sun, while black crows circle above.
These huge canvasses are among the most popular in Cheltenham's collections. They may be used by imaginative teachers as the starting point for all manner of educational work in art, history, geography, music, dance, drama and creative writing.
Paul McKee is an ex-teacher of art and drama and now curator of fine art at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Clarence Street, Cheltenham, Glos GL50 3JT. Tel: 01242 237431