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.
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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

(Via Gurney Journey)

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