‘Psst! Someone’s coming!’ the skinny man with the ragged breeches and the bandaged jaw warns his fat companion out of the corner of his mouth. The two men, busy bundling sticks in a wood, look around apprehensively while a third man up a ladder attacks a tree with a billhook. The three of them are clearly up to no good, and we’ve caught them at it.
The focus of an intriguing little exhibition at the Barber Institute, ‘Two Peasants Binding Firewood’, c.1604-16, (see p31) was once thought to be by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but as it’s one of several copies from the same workshop it has since been reattributed to his son. Pieter Bruegel the Elder didn’t churn them out; with a waiting list of collectors queuing to acquire his paintings, he didn’t need to. But when he died prematurely in his forties in 1569, he left a gap in the market that Pieter Brueghel the Younger filled.
A versatile artist, Pieter the Elder moved with ease between religious subjects and landscape paintings, but the pictures for which he is best remembered are the village scenes of rustic jollity that earned him the sobriquet ‘Peasant Bruegel’ – the scenes Pieter the Younger would go on to establish as the Brueghel brand, cashing in on their popularity with endless copies and pastiches.
‘Two Peasants Binding Firewood’ is a sort of spoof on the pious labours of the month illustrated in contemporary Books of Hours, like the beautiful example by Simon Bening (1483-61) showing legit woodcutters chopping down a tree. But it could also illustrate a proverb, a fashionable subject for paintings at the time. Pieter Bruegel the Elder crammed more than 100 into his much-copied composition ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ (1559), and a version by a follower in the show includes a man with a bandaged jaw just like our firewood thief apparently suffering from proverbial ‘toothache behind the ear’ – a symptom of a malingerer or a cheat.