One hundred years ago, the western world was experiencing dramatic change. The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires will provide a new look at the broad range of art that artists were creating during these exciting times, from 1900 to 1914. This brief essay previews some of the many splendid works that will be assembled from collections around the world for the exhibition.
An era of change
When the Australian artist Arthur Streeton wrote this in January 1901, Queen Victoria was ill and dying; London and England and the British Commonwealth were on the brink of change. Two weeks later Victoria died and people began to re-think old ideas and explore new ways of living. Edward VII enjoyed being king and changed the whole look and appeal of the monarchy. He was a tolerant and good-natured man of the world, in contrast to his rather priggish parents; he was an extrovert with a zest for pleasure, and encouraged others to enjoy themselves as well. Moreover, he created an atmosphere in which social change could occur and the arts could flourish.
Almost at the same time, William Orpen and Philip Wilson Steer painted two daring and frank nudes. In The English nude Orpen created a sensual image, depicting this nude sitting on crumpled sheets, tousled, relaxed and half asleep, as if she had just enjoyed sex. It is said that Orpen painted The English nude in a dank, dark basement-cellar room, where rats sometimes gnawed at his canvases, but this is not noticeable in the image. In Seated nude: the black hat Steer’s model sits at ease among her discarded clothes, still wearing her hat and in a state of undress that emphasises her nakedness. Neither Orpen nor Steer ever exhibited or sold their paintings, probably considering them too forthright for contemporary viewers just emerging from the Victorian era; certainly Steer’s friends told him that it was improper to paint a nude wearing a hat. But Orpen and Steer took the English nude in a new direction, away from the classical ideal towards the reality of the present, away from unreal, idealised objects and towards everyday, warm, flesh-and-blood people.
Seven years later, in the middle of the Edwardian era, Sickert and the Camden Town artists painted their nudes in a franker fashion as did the Australian artist E Phillips Fox. In the dark gloom of Mornington Crescent nude, contre-jour, Sickert conjured up a sordid atmosphere. Like Orpen, he depicted rumpled sheets to suggest an afternoon of sex, but he went further to show this nude lying on a sagging mattress and crumpled pillow, emphasising the tawdriness of the scene with her narrow iron bed as opposed to Orpen’s romantic, capacious canopy bed. What is more, the woman in Sickert’s painting is not sitting on the bed, but is lying in it. As with Steer’s nude, her clothes are visibly discarded in a heap. Sickert’s image opened up an aspect of their time that the Edwardians would have preferred not to have seen: a shameful world where prostitutes lived in squalid bed-sits and could be murdered in the then rough North London area of Camden Town.
In After the bath, painted in the year of Edward VII’s death, E Phillips Fox depicted a more comfortable middle-class subject but, like Sickert, he was interested in using thick touches of colour to capture the effects of light. Moreover, like Sickert, Fox wanted to paint everyday subjects of people going about their daily activities. However, rather than portraying the darker, shameful side of life, Fox turned to a more joyous one. His nude, drying her leg with a towel after her bath, has a sense of immediacy, of honesty and a total absence of shame. Like Sickert, Fox did not feel the need to clothe his nude in classical mythology or keep it hidden away in his studio for years, he was happy to portray the natural everyday event of a woman — his wife — drying herself. Painted during the course of the brief ten years of Edward’s reign, these images of the nude reflect a dramatic change from one of artifice to one of honesty. Stylistically these nudes show a transition from a tight handling of paint towards a looser, impressionistic use of paint and concern with the effects of light.
Secrets and scandals
This was a society in which many marriages had been arranged by parents and their lawyers ... Divorce being out of the question, the victims of young loveless marriages could be forgiven if they carried on long secret affairs with the people they ought to have married.2
The Victorian Valerie Susan (‘Susie’) Langdon caused a scandal in 1878 when she married in secret Henry Meux, the heir to a brewery fortune. She was never accepted by her husband’s family because she was not the sort of woman that wealthy men were supposed to marry. Valerie said she was an actress before her marriage, but others suggested that she had worked in a dance hall frequented by prostitutes. The magazine Truth claimed that she had cohabited with a certain Corporal Reece. Henry’s mother, a daughter of Lord Bruce and granddaughter of the Marquess of Ailesbury, was indignant. Valerie defended herself by writing ‘I can very honestly say that my sins were committed before marriage and not after’, without realising that a lady should not acknowledge any sins at all. Whistler depicted Lady Meux wearing a figure-hugging black velvet evening dress with a lavish white sable stole, glittering with diamonds, unashamedly displaying her sex appeal and flaunting her wealth.
The Edwardian, Thomas Lister, 4th Baron Ribblesdale, on the other hand, kept his private life more secret. Publicly, he served as Master of the Queen’s Buckhounds. But, when in 1911 his first wife died, he moved to the Cavendish Hotel run by Rosa Lewis (the ‘Duchess of Duke Street’), and lived there for at least eight years.3 In all likelihood he was Rosa’s lover, as had been the king himself when he was the Prince of Wales. In Sargent’s image he is alert, upright, a man with a strong physical presence, immaculately dressed, but with an expression that suggests he had the potential to be truculent. He is the epitome of the Edwardian aristocrat: a sportsman, soldier, courtier and landowner. While Sargent revealed everything about his subject, in another sense he gave nothing away — he presented Ribblesdale’s public face not his private life.
The end of an era
Anne Gray Assistant Director, Australian Art
1 Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, 8 January 1901, in Ann Galbally and Anne Gray Letters from Smike: the letters of Arthur Streeton Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 85–6.
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