DETAIL : John Singer SARGENT, The fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy 1907, The Art Institute of Chicago, American Art Collection DETAIL : John Singer SARGENT, Almina, daughter of Asher Wertheimer 1908, Tate, London, presented by the widow and family of Asher Wertheimer in accordance with his wishes in 1922
Left Arrow Graphic Essay

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

London & England what a mighty thing it all is … London seems even too large & almost beyond the management of the capable men now directing it — the rate of its growth increases each day — its wealth stupendous … any man who can work any trade, can earn good wages — but there’s a demand for more — more men — men come to the city … Salisbury’s speeches, often end up with a kind of ‘be on your guard’ ‘prepare’ etc.1

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.

In 1901, the year Victoria died and Edward became king, Rupert Bunny painted An idyll and Streeton depicted Venus and Adonis, safe images that wrapped the nude in the classical past. Throughout the 19th century artists had used traditional themes and classical forms to elevate their subjects, by placing their nudes within an imaginary timeless world. Bunny and Streeton were working in this Victorian tradition.

Rupert Bunny An Idyll 1901 Collection of the Art Gallery of Aouth Australia
Rupert Bunny
An idyll
Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia
Click image to enlarge

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

John Singer Sargent
Lord Ribblesdale
Collection of the National Gallery, London
Click image to enlarge

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.

John Lavery
Anna Pavlova
Collection of Glasgow Museums: Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum
Presented by Nicol P Brown 1924
Click image to enlarge

Cultural city
In 1900 London was the largest city in the world with a population of around 6,480,000, almost double that of Paris at that time. The energy of London attracted artists, musicians and writers from all over Britain and Ireland, America, Australasia and Europe. The Australian opera diva Nellie Melba was at the pinnacle of her success, singing in La Traviata at Covent Garden with the tenor Enrico Caruso in 1902, when Rupert Bunny painted his impressive portrait of her. In 1906 Percy Grainger, the Australian musician best known for his Country gardens had just started work on collecting and arranging English folksongs, pioneering the use of the Edison wax cylinder recorder, when the anglophile French artist Jacques-Emile Blanche painted his portrait. During her 1910 and 1911 London seasons at the Palace Theatre, the ‘feather-like flight’ of the celebrated Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, seemed ‘to defy the law of gravitation’ and James Lavery painted her in a bacchanalian dance. In 1912, the English author and pioneer of modern literature Virginia Woolf was working on her first novel; Vanessa Bell created� a vivid image of Virginia quite unselfconsciously ‘being herself’, seated indoors in a large armchair, focusing on her knitting.��

Afternoon tea
Afternoon teas in the garden offered a break from the customary rigid dining etiquette that was an established part of Edwardian social behaviour, and images of such teas provided a change from the formal portrait. Compared with the 12 highly structured courses of the Edwardian dinner, tea in the garden was a liberating experience. Harold Knight painted In the Spring soon after he and his wife Laura moved to Newlyn, Cornwall, when he was experimenting with painting out of doors and using a lighter and brighter colour. Such was the joy of easy outdoors eating that many artists were drawn to this subject, from the French Impressionists to E Phillips Fox in Alfresco 1904 and Déjeuner c. 1910.

Harold Knight
In the Spring
Collection of Laing Art Gallery
Tyne and Wear Museums
Click image to enlarge

The end of an era
Edward VII died on 6 May 1910, and his son George V became king, but the hedonistic atmosphere of the Edwardian era continued for a few more years. They were times of both hope and strife: Roger Fry offered a new vision with his display of works by the Post-Impressionists in London in 1910 and in 1911 fashionable London fell in love with the performances of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at Covent Garden. In 1912, when the ‘unsinkable’ luxury liner Titanic went down after hitting an iceberg, it brought home the shocking realisation that wealth did not make one inviolable. And in hurling herself in front of galloping horses at the Derby in 1913, the suffragette Emily Davidson demonstrated how seriously she and her colleagues believed in their cause and that they were prepared to die for it. But in August 1914 these events became as nothing, as the secrets and desires of so many people were smashed to smithereens by the horrors of the First World War.�

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.
2 �JB Priestley The Edwardians Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 2000, p. 67.
3� Michael Harrison Rosa: Rosa Lewis of the Cavendish Corgi, London, 1977. Michael Harrison suggests that Ribblesdale kept rooms at the Cavendish until his death in 1925.

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