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Inquisitive Eyes

Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex


Gwen Yarker


Bristol: Sansom & Co, 2016

Paperback. 132 p. 112 ill. ISBN 978-1908326850. £24.00


Reviewed by Kenneth McConkey

University of Northumbria at Newcastle





In a celebrated passage in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, his precocious ‘milkmaid’, with her ‘sixth standard’ insight gives voice to ‘the ache of modernism’. ‘The trees’, she says to Angel Clare, ‘have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?’(1) That sense of the observer observed, of nature’s reply, was uncanny in the Freudian sense. Such notions would have been brushed aside a generation earlier by the ineluctable logic of Comte-ian Positivists, but now, at the end of the century, the observer blushed with sudden self-consciousness. The tables were turning. Nature, picked, botanised, classified, indexed and schematised with Linnean logic was answering back and Hardy’s world, his Wessex copses, streams and fields of corn, so vividly alive in characters like Tess, defied pedestrian illustrators. For the visual equivalent of the trenchant social commentary of his essay The Dorsetshire Labourer (1883), one has to look to the home counties of George Clausen and by the time of the publication of Tess …in 1891, it was Clausen’s Essex, not Wessex, from which the artistic correlatives came.(2) Arthur Meade and Frederick Whitehead, the native Dorset painters, do not quite measure up. We wait until the new century before the Dorset landscape finds artists of drive and originality.

In the present volume, associated with an exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol (until 12 June 2016), Hardy’s omniscient nature, comes under the scrutiny of painters associated with the Slade School of Fine Art. Many of its students and staff escaped from Gower Street for that magic stretch of coastline between Poole harbour and the Isle of Purbeck, taking their painting kits with them. The assumption is that arriving in the Hardy country, theirs are the ‘inquisitive eyes’. Protected from self-consciousness by the twin filters of training and talent, they set about describing its contours in many overlapping and interconnected expeditions – numerous and varied enough to justify Gwen Yarker’s survey in the present volume. But it was not the author of Tess… who specifically drew them.

Yarker’s central figure is the now neglected John (Herbert) Everett, a ‘Sladite’ in the class of 1897. A clergyman’s son from Dorchester, he ran away to sea in his second year at art school but was pinned down in his third when his eccentric mother, Augusta, also joined the class, much to the chagrin of her teacher, Henry Tonks. Their house, at 21 Fitzroy Street, London, a few blocks from the school, became a popular refuge. Brilliant fellow students – William Orpen, Augustus John and Ambrose McEvoy – came to kip, trailing behind them, the dissolute Charles Conder and the spikey little Rothenstein brothers, William and Albert, with their respective girlfriends. The ménage is fascinating, with Everett’s gaunt first floor studio, often more animated than it appears in the paintings of Orpen. But it is a far cry from the rolling downs of Purbeck and it pulled Everett away from his youthful mentor, Meade.

Luminous oil sketches, few more than 14 inches high, followed. Some, like that of Swanage are positively Whistlerian, while others call upon a longer lineage of Victorian sea painting, stretching back to Henry Moore and Charles Napier Hemy, both of whom sailed the self-same straits.

Yet despite Yarker’s proselytising Everett remains a shadowy figure in artistic terms – never quite anchoring himself to a particular spot for long enough to make an impact. A painter of beautiful morceaux, knocked off in an instant, it is as if Whistler only produced pochades. There were too many old friends to oblige, too many clubs, too much sailing and a dreaded domesticity – his wife, Katherine and two sons to run from. It is not surprising that this middle-class bohemian and his Wessex world was a magnet for freeloader friends. Visiting Swanage, where the Everetts had taken up residence, Conder painted the swimming platform that attracted bathers even on the dullest of days.(3)  By the time these canvases were painted Heidelberg naturalism and Val de Seine Impressionism were waning and were slowly being replaced by fancy and fêtes galantes of the type that informed his room decorations for the Thaulows and the Pickford Wallers, and which we see in the Watteauesque Spring by the Sea (Tate) – his best painting. With all his wayward interests, prodigious alcoholic consumption and tales of Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin, and the Moulin Rouge, Conder made a deep impression on the others – especially the young Orpen, as a newly discovered suite of drawings indicates. Here and elsewhere in John’s drawings for Walpurgis Nacht, an over- ambitious and unrealised project, there are vague connections with the Celtic Twilight of Yeats.(4) But these remain inchoate and it is for Orpen’s Fitzroy interiors, splendid portraits of John and Everett, and two rendezvous on the French coast that the interlude is remembered.(5)

The Purbeck terrain only truly comes into focus with the summer visits of Slade staffers, Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer. Both were alive to its unique features, described in the former’s Lost Path of 1905 in which two elegant women seek directions from a country lad who points them in the general direction of Poole harbour, glistening in the distance. The implication is that such a trail will take them down a quiet lane, under blossoming trees past friendly cottages and old manor houses of the kind rented by the Everetts. It is not surprising that when Tonks retired from the Slade in 1930 it was to read Proust. But back again in this haven in 1908, he was distracted. He saw Katherine Everett picking a rose and told her to hold the pose, then her baby son appeared, and while he rehearsed his theories about Pre-Raphaelitism and Impressionism, this too seemed a worthy addition. Summer would be his chef d’oeuvre. But, alas, it was not, and Katherine was surely correct in describing it as a ‘confused failure’.(6)

When he first sought her help in finding suitable lodgings, Tonks made the stipulation that it must be ‘within easy reach of a good landscape for Steer to paint’.(7) This was the priority, and although he was initially unimpressed when they got to the ‘enchanting country’ between Corfe Castle and Studland, Steer ‘stood entranced’. He brought much greater lucidity to these rolling hills than Tonks. Ten years earlier he had abandoned Impressionist dogma for the freedom and picturesque certainties of Turner and Constable. The Liber Studiorum was ever to hand, and it merely required updating at Knaresborough, Ludlow, Chepstow, Hawes, Richmond, Barnard Castle and other famous sites, before he arrived at Corfe, and while it is useful to have sketches as The Lime Kiln near Corfe Castle and Moon rising over the Downs reproduced for the first time we need to see the splendid Corfe Castle and the Isle of Purbeck (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) with its limp lurches of paint and sudden caesuras in Yarker’s illustrations. This study for the machine du salon, the masterpiece of the series, Corfe Castle 1909, needs to be seen for that remarkable freedom of handling noted by Jane Munro.(8) The final summation, (101.6 x 142.2 cm), part of the foundation collection in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, until last year only available as a grotty black and white in Frederick Wedmore’s Some of the Moderns (1909), works up to the intensity of a Constable six-footer.

Others were already lining up in front of Corfe Castle in emulation of Steer, and what had become, according to DS MacColl, the ‘Authorised Version of English Landscape’.(9) When treated by Arthur ‘Smike’ Streeton (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) its rugged splendour becomes iconic.(10) Why is this not illustrated? Indeed Streeton nudges us towards one of the important questions about Edwardian landscape painting that could equally be asked about a score of Royal Academy and New English Art Club exhibitors who were turning their backs on European Modernism. It was foremost in JB Manson’s mind when he tried, unsuccessfully at first, to promote the interests of Lucien Pissarro to Geoffrey Blackwell, the patron who had purchased so many of Steer’s landscapes. Pissarro fils had impeccable Impressionist credentials; he did not appear backward-looking. The correspondence, now in the Tate Archive, was conducted in the wake of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions, and it is apposite. It suggests that if we are to argue for Steer’s chalk pit and lime-kiln pictures, it will not be on the basis of any modernist dogma. That had been tried and exhausted back in the 1880s, and what was different now? The new was lurking in the old. The proud relics of a glorious past had become central imperialist tropes, but now was the time, as Walter Sickert remarked, to ‘unload Steer, and load up Roger!’.(11)

John’s return to Dorset in 1911, en famille, provides a new vision. Unlike Everett, whatever we make of him, children were one of the Welsh painter’s vital sources of energy, and running wild at Alderney, David and Caspar would be snapped in the brilliant shorthand that evaded Tonks. At the same time there were visits to the blue pool in the disused clay pit at Furzebrook which fuelled his monumental Lyric Fantasy (Tate).(12) Yarker usefully reminds us that the intense colour of the pool depended on the specific geology of the area. Were it not the case, John would have invented it – along with the fabrics in which Dorelia draped herself. Walpurgis Nacht had dawned to a golden Arcadie.

An even more radical transformation occurs at Studland Beach with Vanessa Bell. Her haunting scene with its crouching children and blank bathing tent leaves us breathless. Was it Gauguin, or Maurice Denis that provoked it? It matters little for this remarkable vision had more need of the swathe of silver sand and heavy steel-blue sea to make it possible. Their precise hues, placed side-by-side are remarkable. We are haunted and hemmed in by the tide. Nature is answering back. Like Steer’s Girls Running, Walberswick Pier, a generation earlier, Studland Beach demands new descriptors. No doubt Fry was there at her elbow, but her beach scene easily outclasses his. He makes something of the scene, but only after tying himself down with a rigorous cloisonné structure and the results are those of an ideologue. He and Tonks had more in common than either would care to admit.   

Other lesser lights get left in the hedgerows along the way. How interesting it would be to pursue the redoubtable Sir Herbert Edwin Pelham Hughes-Stanton who painted at Corfe in 1905 (Brighton Art Gallery), or look at George Spencer Watson, who went regularly to Purbeck in the pre-Great War years before acquiring Dunshay Manor in 1923. But these byways take us back into the all-enveloping world of the quiet country lane. Naturalist painters born around the mid-century – Steer had been one – were set on this course by Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French painter who enjoined his followers to return to their provincial roots – to intimately examine the life and landscape of their coin de terre. It was one of the primary motivations of the Newlyn School and the artists’ colonies in Brittany and Fontainebleau, facilitated of course, by the railway timetable and the Channel packet. The Purbeck corpus is qualitatively different. The authenticity conferred by diurnal routines is missing, as are Hardy’s day-labourers. These new turn-of-the-century ex-Slade school visitors experienced the tourist’s awe at ‘august-site motifs’, stone quarries and the splendid sweep of Poole harbour.(13) Sand carts – pace Yarker – are no more ‘industrial’ than Constable’s haywain. And if they stopped a while and then moved on, that was no more than what we should expect of Bell’s ‘Sladites’. When she took a day trip to Corfe, Bell expected to find them, but it was too late in the year. One might still paint out-of-doors, but the weather was less predictable, a distant school bell had sounded and there were trains to catch.

In Steer’s Corfe, John’s Blue Pool and Bell’s Studland… there are compelling visions, but the justification for Yarker’s voyage of discovery is more eclectic and more diverse. It chances upon a hinterland, risks entanglements and opens new questions. It shows that these familiar artistic landmarks were not without precedent, and the tide that floats them, washes other now neglected picturings to the shore.


(1) Thomas Hardy. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891 (Macmillan, pbk ed., 1974 : 163).

(2) During Clausen’s lifetime, comparisons were made between his work and the scenes in Hardy’s novels, one describing him as ‘a  very keen psychologist’ and his pictures of labourers as being ‘on the lines of Thomas Hardy in literature’; see Kenneth McConkey. George Clausen and the Picture of English Rural Life. Atelier Books, 2012 : 191. Hardy and Clausen joined forces in 1899 in a pressure group to stop the sale of Stonehenge when a wealthy American purchased it and wished to transport it to the United States.

(3) For further discussion of Conder at Swanage, see Ann Galbally. Charles Conder : The Last Bohemian. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2002 : 217-219.

(4) David Fraser Jenkins. Augustus John : Studies for Compositions. National Museum of Wales : Exhibition catalogue, no. 12, 1978.

(5) Bruce Arnold. Orpen :  Mirror to an Age. Jonathan Cape, 1981 : 57-70.

(6) Katherine Everett. Bricks and Flowers. Constable, 1949 : 108-109.

(7) ibid. : 107. 

(8) Jane Munro. Philip Wilson Steer, 1860-1942. Arts Council Touring Exhibition (exhibition catalogue), 1986 : 60.

(9) DS MacColl. Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer. Faber & Faber, 1945 : 80. See also Ysanne Holt. ‘Nature and Nostalgia : Philip Wilson Steer and Edwardian Lansdscapes’. Oxford Art Journal 19-2 (1996).

(10) Ann Galbally. Arthur Streeton. Australian Art Library, 1971 : 106 (plate 71); Ann Galbally & Anne Gray. Letters from Smike : The Letters of Arthur Streeton, 1890-1943. Oxford University Press, Australia, 1989 : 116.

(11) Robert Emmons. The Life and Opinions of Walter Richard Sickert. Faber & Faber, 1941 : 269. From 'Lines to an Expert', a doggerel written by Sickert around this time.

(12) Lisa Tickner. Modern Life and Modern Subjects : British Art in the Early Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2000 : 70-77.

(13) The phrase ‘august-site motif’ is taken from Walter Sickert’s ‘The New English and After’. The New Age (2 June 1910); reprinted in Anna Gruetzner Robins, ed. Walter Sickert : The Complete Writings on Art. Oxford: University Press, 2000 : 242.   



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