Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: Edwardian Opulence

"Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century" is the catalog for the exhibition that just opened at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. 

It is the fruit of over ten years of work for Angus Trumble, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art and the team of art historians who have joined forces on the book and the museum show. The book itself is a massive production: 10 x 12 inches, 420 pages, and weighing six and a half pounds.

(Above: The Two Crowns, 1900, by Frank Dicksee)

The period of the reign of King Edward VII lasted from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 until Edward's death in 1910. The exhibition follows an eclectic approach, examining not only paintings and photographs, but also costumes, jewelry, silver pieces, sculpture, furniture, and ephemera. Seen and studied together, these various treasures evoke the spirit of the times.

(Above: "His Master's Voice," 1899, by Francis Barraud)

 The introductory essays, written by eight different academic scholars, mostly from Yale, explore topics such as "The Glittering World: Spectacle, Luxury, and Desire in the Edwardian Age," and "'That's the Life for a Man Like Me,' Rural Life and Labor in Edwardian Art and Music."

(Above: Sigurd, by Gilbert Bayes, 1910.)

The catalog describes 115 objects, divided into themes of Imperial Splendor; Grand Design; The Great World; Charles Conder; Men of Mark; Town; Country; History, Myth, Pageant; Problem Pictures; Landscape and Memory; and War, Sleep, and Death.

(Above: The Kensington gardens are in London, where the King lives," 1906, by Arthur Rackham)

The text is authoritative and well researched, and what emerges from the book as a whole is a thoughtful view of Edwardian era from a variety of contemporary perspectives. The downside of the eclectic "visual culture" approach to curating is that the paintings and the artists inevitably receive less attention. The stories of the artists, their training, and their working methods, is scarcely addressed.

The artwork selected includes some of the greatest masterworks of the era, and it is well reproduced in color, but I only wish that it had been reproduced larger. Unfortunately most images are no larger than postcard size despite the generous dimensions of the book. If I had my way, every art book would start with the artwork as big as possible in the layouts, and then a relentless editor would trim the writing to be concise enough to fit in the remaining spaces.

(Columbus in the New World, 1906, by Edwin Austin Abbey)

In the painting above, Abbey portrays Columbus in armor plants his sword in the New World as he worships at an outdoor mass, with sails and flags and flamingos flying in the sky behind him.

Various authors in the book reflect on the Edwardian spirit of nostalgia for the life of previous centuries and the interest in mythology and adventure. 

(Above: Boer War, 1900, by Byam Shaw)
The painting shows the melancholy of a woman whose fiancée is away fighting in the South African conflict, while is the lavish adornment of nature surrounds her, unappreciated.

(Above: The Temptation of Sir Percival, ca. 1894, by Arthur Hacker)

During the Edwardian era, England has been described as "a world asleep on a volcano," poised between a "lingering past and a portentous future." Electricity, telephones, phonographs, automobiles, airplanes, cinema, and color printing were arriving in rapid succession, effacing much of the traditional culture of the upper classes. By the First World War everything was to change forever.
All the works shown in this post are in the exhibition, along with other paintings by Boldini, Brangwyn, Sargent, Poynter, Hacker, Solomon, Collier, Waterhouse and de Laszlo.

Book: Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
Exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art , New Haven, Connecticut, through June 2


Steve said...

If I had my way, every art book would start with the artwork as big as possible in the layouts, and then a relentless editor would trim the writing to be concise enough to fit in the remaining spaces.


Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

"Downton Abbey" fans should be thrilled to have the book.

Thank you for posting the review

E. R. Whelan said...

Hmm, I'd always thought that Byam Shaw's subject was in mourning, as indicated by her clothing. I know his sister posed for the painting and she was mourning a cousin killed in battle. The year 1900 was a particularly gruesome time in the Boer War.
A note of interest: the painting's subtitle is "Last summer green things were greener, brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer" from a Christina Rossetti poem, which adds to the feeling of loss and contrast.

Tom Hart said...

It sounds to me as if this book was a great idea, but in terms of presenting the artwork it apparently was a missed opportunity. I may be jumping to conclusions, but this is my pet peeve about art history. That is, too often the analysis pushes the actual artwork to the margins...and sometimes that's almost literally so!

en_b said...

Really enjoy your art book reviews.

Unknown said...

Unfortunatly, exhibition catalogs assume that you've seen the originals at the exhibit and want to read history and analysis of the works shown. That can be really insightful, but so can larger pictures. maybe the answer would be a two volume set, one with mostly text and bite-sized images, and the other that's more of a feast for the eyes.
And about the Dicksee painting, I really want him to be riding a Parasaurolophus.

Unknown said...

For a less opulent side of that period, please refer to "People of the Abyss" by Jack London, written in 1902