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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Art appreciation

Friday, November 13th., London

At the Press View of the New English Art Club, Egyptian Hall.

The New English Art Club (NEAC) was founded in London in 1885 as an alternate venue to the Royal Academy. Young English artists returning from studying art in Paris mounted the first exhibition of the New English Art Club in April 1886. Among them were Thomas Cooper Gotch, Frank Bramley, John Singer Sargent, Philip Wilson Steer, George Clausen and Stanhope Forbes. Early exhibitions were held in the Egyptian Hall. The Impressionist style was well represented at the NEAC, in comparison to the old-school academic art shown at the Royal Academy. For a time, the NEAC was seen as a stepping-stone to Royal Academy membership.

The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, was an exhibition hall built in the ancient Egyptian style in 1812, to the designs of Peter Frederick Robinson. In 1905 the building was demolished to make room for blocks of flats and offices.

About ten people, half women, in the one gallery sparsely hung with eccentric landscapes imitative of early Italian and Dutch work, a few soft hazy portraits, a few intelligent originalities, a few sterile meaningless absurdities, and one striking, shouting, insistent, dominant nude by Wilson Steer.

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) was the son of a drawing teacher, and studied at an art school in Gloucester before attending the Academie Jullian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was much influenced by both Whistler and Monet, and exhibited his work mostly at the New English Art Club which he and his friend Sickert founded in 1886. His sunny landscapes, worked with a palette knife, established his reputation, although he also painted portraits and still-lifes. He is one of the most important of the English Impressionists, and in many ways his attitude is very like that of the French Neo-Impressionists, but towards the end of his life he reverted to painting more in the style of Constable, with broad brush-strokes and contrasts of clouds and sunshine. However his last watercolours are more in the manner of Turner, with increasingly diffused colouring and poetic imagination.

In the centre of the gallery a table with sandwiches, wines and cigarettes, which everyone carefully avoided in spite of whispered invitations from a middle-aged male attendant.
Seated in front of the nude - a slim woman of 30, with full breasts and red cheeks sitting up in a very large bed - were a man and woman talking in very loud Kensingtonian tones which outraged the prim silence of the gallery. Near them an old and shabby art critic, to be seen everywhere, was writing in a notebook, his red nose and small peering eyes bent down close to the page. After a long time he joined in the conversation of the other two, and they began even more loudly to discuss the nude, dispraising it in a few light easy sentences of condemnation. It certainly was not a masterpiece, with its hard laboured, unreal flesh painting, but the manner of this condemnation almost made me like it.
When I next turned round, the art critic had withdrawn and the other man was elaborately raising a silk hat from his grey head to the departing woman. She left him to talk to another woman in a corner, and then stood alone staring round the gallery. She was a well-developed woman of 34 or less, with the face and bearing of a Sunday-school teacher; her thick mouth worked in that calculating contemplative way that I have noticed in Sunday-school teachers with a passion for gossip at sewing meetings. To see her in the street none would have dreamt that she was a professed art critic, capable of discussing - however foolishly - an uncompromising nudity with her male acquaintance for half an hour at a time.
The total conglomerate effect - loud voices falling coarsely on the silence; untouched sandwiches; silk-hatted man; dowdy-ish, self-possessed woman; innured quiet art critic practising his trade in the spirit of a tradesman; and the rank, calm, supercilious, harsh nudity - the effect was bizarre and memorable.

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