Edwardian Opulence – Catalogue Review


Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager, ed. Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Yale Center for British Art; Yale University Press, 2013).

The last couple of years have witnessed an upsurge of interest in art of the Edwardian era. Recent months have seen a special edition of Visual Culture in Britain dedicated to ‘Edwardian Art and its Legacies’, the launch of the Tate-based Camden Town Group in Context, and the first part of Yale’s Edwardian project, The Edwardian Sense (published in 2010). Now we have Edwardian Opulence, the four-hundred page catalogue to the exhibition currently showing at the Yale Center for British Art, and the culmination of a decade’s research into early twentieth-century British culture.

Long seen, in the wonderful words of Edwardian Opulence curators Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager, as ‘an indolent coda drifting behind the long Victorian era’, the first decade of the twentieth century has struggled for some time to find its own voice, with many commentators holding onto the cliché of the ‘long summer afternoon’ or the ‘country house garden party’. This trope has not been accepted by all: Samuel Hynes, in his 1968 book The Edwardian Turn of Mind, was one of the first to call attention to the darker undercurrents of the age – an idea taken up with gusto in the field of art history by the 1987 exhibition The Edwardian Era. Indeed, it is fair to see both of these as foundational texts to which this current influx of Edwardian surveys owe a large debt. The title – and bold, Boldini cover – of Edwardian Opulence, however, suggests a slight shift in interests. Whilst it is very important that we do, to quote the title of our up-coming conference, seek to get ‘beyond the garden party’, it is of course equally important that we don’t lose sight of it. It wasn’t all glittering opulence and luxurious splendour, that much is evident – but these things were still there. The ‘gilded world of the English country house party’ did exist, in some form, and is clearly worth reconsidering.

This is not to say that Edwardian Opulence ignores what the curators call the ‘colossal torrent of political, social, economic, and cultural change’; rather that it accepts that many products of the Edwardian art world do not reflect these changes, or if they do, they do so quietly. As such, this exhibition shows little hunger for images and objects that self-consciously reveal the concerns of marginal figures (a key feature of The Edwardian Era), preferring to chip away at the veneer of more familiar representations. It argues, in fact, that in trying to ditch the opulent aspect of Edwardian life, and searching for more obviously ‘modern’ alternatives (represented, perhaps, by the Camden Town Group, or British responses to Post-Impressionism), we overlook the nuances of the former.

To take an example: Pamela Fletcher’s essay on ‘Victorians and Moderns’ contradicts a central, and increasingly tiresome conceit of British art historiography in claiming that the Edwardian Royal Academy was not as backward as everyone would have it. Fletcher argues instead that paintings exhibited at the RA during this period grapple ‘with some of the most pressing social and moral issues of the age’. The moment of change signalled by Virginia Woolf (in what must be one the most-quoted and least understood phrases of its time) is, she rightly points out, a misleading one, best shelved for now. We have got so used to the idea of Roger Fry saving British art from the doldrums that we have forgotten to actually explore those doldrums. And believe it or not – they’re more fertile than you might think. Interesting things were going on at the Edwardian Royal Academy, for all the death knolls that had been ringing around it since the late nineteenth-century.

A similar case is made by Imogen Hart for history painting and by A. Cassandra Albinson for grand manner portraiture: two genres that modernists are more than happy to dismiss. Likewise the Edwardian nostalgia for the French ancien régime, explored in Elizabeth Mansfield’s fascinating essay. Nostalgia, in fact, takes centre-stage throughout the Edwardian Opulence exhibition and catalogue; not just nostalgia for the Edwardians, but Edwardian nostalgia for previous periods – and even for themselves. In light of this, a certain dreaminess is evident in many of the art works, exemplified by the work of the Anglo-Australian Charles Conder, the only artist to have his own section in the exhibition catalogue. This seems fitting: Conder is just the kind of Edwardian artist that art historians have struggled to place in recent years. In his 2000 essay ‘A walk in the park: memory and rococo revivalism in the 1890s’, Kenneth McConkey, one of the leading authorities on art of this period, described Conder’s Edwardian paintings as ‘pale and substanceless’. The Edwardian Sense, meanwhile, appeared to cast Conder’s decoration for Pickford Waller (seen in the background of William Nicholson’s The Conder Room, which reappears in this exhibition) as a sad remnant of a broken dream; a outmoded form that Nicholson’s painting seemed almost to be mocking.

Despite the growth of interest in Conder in recent years (led by Ann Galbally’s research, as well as recent essays by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu and Barbara Pezzini), he has never seemed like the obvious candidate to take a central position in a major survey of Edwardian culture. And yet here he is, in all his strange glory. Conder’s inclusion, of course, owes a certain amount to convenience: Yale happen to own his Nine Painted Panels. All the same, to have created a show in which Charles Conder belongs is a statement in itself, a refusal to be taken in by the rhetoric of modern art historiography, or by other passing fashions. This typifies the approach of the exhibition as a whole. Familiar narratives are not to be taken at face value, the usual oppositions cast aside in favour of readings which foreground the ‘duality’ of Edwardian culture, caught as it was between ‘nostalgia and longing and revolutionary modernity’; between ‘tradition and transformation’.

If the Edwardian period was, to introduce another old chestnut, an era of ‘transition’, then Edwardian Opulence feels in some ways like a transitional text; one that goes in many directions at once, seeking to muddy the waters as much as it does to provide clarity. Angus Trumble prefers a more material metaphor, describing his opening essay as ‘merely one of many stout warp strands that support the many wefts through this book’; a book that represents ‘a fabric… shot full of contrasts’. This is an interesting and appropriate analogy, as fabric (usually of the expensive kind) appears throughout the catalogue – most obviously in Andrea Wolk Rager’s essay, which examines some of the glittering dresses belonging to Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India.

Indeed, one of the clear strengths of the catalogue (and, I suspect, the exhibition) lies in the range of material under discussion. Though the collection seems, for the most part, happy to side with high society, it avoids tedium by presenting a plethora of distinct – and in some cases peculiar – objects. Beyond the customary paintings and prints (ranging from Conder’s delicate watercolours on silk to Byam Shaw’s gaudy oil study for an act drop) there are several different types of photograph (including a selection of gloriously evocative autochromes), a generous sprinkling of sculpture (featuring Frampton’s multi-media Lamia), as well as fans, vases, earthenware dishes, glasses, tiaras, pendants, designs for hotel interiors and, last but not least, three Fabergé bell-pushs (probably the poshest doorbells you will ever see). The curators have a wonderful knack for surprising the reader: you turn the page with little sense of what may be coming up next. Lo and behold you find yourself looking at a series of black-and-white photographs of rich men and women standing proudly next to their cars, or a flying-flamingo-filled painting by Edwin Austen Abbey.

How these objects work together in the gallery space can only be imagined here, though the book certainly throws up some intriguing juxtapositions – my favourite, perhaps, being the pairing of Charles Moxon Quiller Orchardson’s A Problem in White and Walter Sickert’s What Shall We Do About the Rent?, two paintings haunted by the ghost of James McNeill Whistler, but in very different ways.  Frederick Henry Evan’s architectural photographs, tackled earlier in Andrey Nemerov’s intriguing and inter-disciplinary essay, offer a contemplative case study towards the end of the catalogue, leading to a brave closing image, William Orpen’s To the Unknown British Soldier, which is also discussed in detail in Angus Trumble’s opening essay.

Despite this, the eleven themes of the exhibition do not always sit easily with one another – at least, not from the perspective of the catalogue. Another way of putting this is to say that there are many items, and ideas, that do not really suit the theme of Edwardian Opulence. The section on ‘Town’, to give an example, seems unfocussed. There are some wonderful works included here: Lund’s Heart of the Empire, for instance, or Coburn’s atmospheric photogravures, but the connections between the works are not always clear. One senses, perhaps, that the curators were anxious not to repeat the findings of Camden Town Group in Context. As it is, the comparison between Harold Gilman’s The Kitchen and a collection of “Dewdrop Glassware” feels out of place: thrown together rather than neatly matched.

The sections on ‘Country’ and ‘Landscape and Memory’ work better – and are well supported by Tim Barringer’s extended catalogue essay – though this sometimes feel like another, smaller exhibition tagging along with the more obviously ‘opulent’ sections. More could be said about Edwardian representations of country life (and I was surprised to see no mention of the Barbizon School here, so popular in London at the turn of the
century), but ultimately the subject requires a bigger stage – preferably one in which the starring role has not already been given over to fabulous flamboyance.

To conclude, this is clearly an important exhibition – and a very valuable catalogue, crammed with great examples and ideas. Excepting a couple of illustrations (Nicholson’s The Conder Room, for instance, which is curiously blurred), it is gorgeously produced – and generous with its comparative images. A larger bibliography might have been produced under the circumstances, but there is no doubting the scholarship that has gone into this project.

If the catalogue raises as many questions as it answers, this is not to be criticised. A slew of publications on Edwardian art is no more than the subject deserves – and though it may feel a little overwhelming at present, the reality remains that there is still a lot to be written on this period. Edwardian Opulence points the way in many regards, opening up all sorts of avenues for further research, and reminding us – most importantly –  that for all that was going on ‘beyond the garden party’, we’d be fools to eschew the party itself.

Samuel Shaw, March 2013

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