Beyond the Garden Party: Introduction

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‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ by Gwen John (1907-09)

[Many thanks to all those who attended ‘Beyond the Garden Party: Rethinking Edwardian Culture’ in Durham and York on the 12th and 13th of April. The text below formed part of the introduction given by the organisers on the opening day]

This conference is the inaugural event of the Edwardian Culture Network, which we founded in the summer of 2011. Our primary reason for creating the network was the simple fact that it didn’t already exist. One of the frustrating things about working on the Edwardian period is that you tend to find yourself either tacked onto the end of the Victorian era or incorporated into the beginnings of Modernism. Like many scholars in this field, we have found ourselves appearing at conferences organised by Victorianist and Modernist networks, and this raised the question: why isn’t there an Edwardian Network? The strict Edwardian period of 1901 to 1910, or what we’re calling the ‘long Edwardian era’, which spans 1895 through 1914, are years of rich and varied cultural, political, religious and social activity that deserve to be explored in their own right. To be sure, we don’t seek to compartmentalise the period 1895 to 1914 entirely, and it remains vital that there is on-going dialogue between Victorianists, Edwardianists, and Modernists. Yet it seemed to us that it was necessary to create a dedicated space for those working on Edwardian culture to come together and share their ideas: in person and on-line.

The launch of the Edwardian Culture Network coincides with a moment of renewed interest in Edwardian culture. During the last few years several scholarly publications have placed Edwardian culture centre stage, with highlights including the 2010 publication, The Edwardian Sense, edited by Michael Hatt and Morna O’Neill, a special edition of Visual Culture in Britain entitled ‘Edwardian Art and Its Legacies’, edited by Andrew Stephenson and published earlier this year, the online resource Camden Town Group in Context, run by Tate Britain, and of course the exhibition Edwardian Opulence, currently running at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. In popular culture, too, the Edwardians seem to be having another moment, fuelled by programmes such as Downton Abbey, which we must confess that neither of us have seen. I’m not sure whether this is a dereliction of our duties as Edwardianists, or a point in our favour. I leave that one to you to decide.

It is fair to say, however, that the ‘romantic haze’ cast over the Edwardian period by film and television has proved difficult to shift. Even those publications that have sought to draw attention to less glamorous aspects of the age have found themselves beholden to the stereotypes. For example, The Edwardian Era, the pioneering 1987 exhibition at the Barbican, which took on the ‘white, imperialist and patriarchal visual mythology of tranquil upper-class leisure and working-class fun’, and included sections on ‘Working Women’, ‘Black entertainers’ and ‘The Edwardian office’, nonetheless chose John Singer Sargent’s ‘The Sitwell Family’ to grace the catalogue cover. Sargent reappeared again on the cover to the 2004 exhibition, Edwardians: Secrets and Desires. The Edwardian Sense, meanwhile, opted for an enigmatic work by William Nicholson, whilst Edwardian Opulence has gone all guns blazing with Giovanni Boldini. In all images the female figure, elegantly dressed, is central.

When the floppy hat has been tossed aside, it has tended to be replaced by an equally stereotypical image: the ostrich feathers morphing into the suffragette banner. When the Edwardians are not decked up in genteel finery, sipping tea and enjoying a spot of croquet, they are presented as politically restless activists campaigning for socialism, suffragism, vegetarianism, and a host of other causes ending with the same suffix. What of the ground that lies between?

The Edwardian period has emerged out of recent scholarship as an increasingly distinct span of time; a period that deserves to be seen as more than an ‘indolent coda’ or a ‘time of transition’. The very idea of a transitional era seems to us to be flawed, based as it is on retrospective narratives and the presumption that history has certain destinations in sight. In actuality, all eras are transitional; or, all eras are destinations. One of the key debates or challenges in Edwardian scholarship at the moment seems to be: if there was such a thing as a distinctly Edwardian era, then what were its characteristics and how else might the period be defined?

We should state at this point that the Edwardian Culture Network is not merely for cut and dried Edwardianists; anxious Edwardianists are particularly welcome too. We ourselves have some misgivings about being termed ‘Edwardianists’. Not only do our interests stretch much wider than this, but the very word is, like all such terms, a troublesome one. To what extent is it appropriate or useful, we might ask, to tie these years to the name of King Edward VII? Is this a misleading, out-dated connection? What, then, of the alternatives? Turn of the century, fin-de-siècle, pre-modern, post-Victorian, the 1900s? Do any of these terms deserve precedence, or do they all have their faults?

This leads us onto this conference, which seeks to confirm what many of us have long suspected: that there were plenty of things going on both in and beyond the garden party. Indeed, there were so many things going on beyond the garden party that we could have extended the conference for an extra two or three days had we so wished. If the response to our call for papers says anything, it is that there is a lot of wonderful research being undertaken on Edwardian culture at present – and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who did respond, particularly those we were unable to select. Choosing papers was a very tricky task, and it was with great regret that we let many fantastic proposals go. Hopefully some of these papers may be incorporated into future events.

As for what is on the programme, we hope that this will prove a suitably broad selection of papers, crossing various disciplines and issues, from railway marketing and chivalric costume to the eroticism of daffodils and the growth of scientific romance, whilst exploring a range of common themes such as masculinity, entrepreneurship and cosmopolitanism. Familiar figures such as H.G. Wells, Harley Granville Barker and D. H. Lawrence will appear alongside less well-known characters such as Richard Jeffries and Robert Ross. Every attempt has been made to group papers in appropriate panels, though we suspect that there will be plenty of unsuspected connections across the two days, leading to discussions that we couldn’t possibly anticipate at this stage.

Samuel Shaw & Sarah Shaw, April 2013.

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