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1889 Pictorial Excellence

In 1889, in response to the growing criticism of its neglect of younger French-trained artists, the Royal Academy Hanging Committee gave Frank Bramley’s painting Saved... 'Oft in a humble home a golden room is found (Fig. 1) a prime place on “the line” (meaning at a height on the wall considered optimal for viewing) in Gallery VII, and placed Health of the Brideby Stanhope Forbes facing it in the centre of the opposite wall. In the previous year, the Chantrey Bequest had funded the purchase of Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn and there must have been great hopes for the twenty-year-old painter. Forbes quickly capitalised on the recognition of his contemporary by publicising the Newlyn School, so named because its members—including himself and Bramley—lived and worked at Newlyn in Cornwall. Previously, Bramley had studied in Antwerp, while Forbes had studied in Paris, where their styles were each marked by exposure to European Naturalism.

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The artist Walter Richard Sickert, who had also been appointed as art critic to the London edition of The New York Herald in spring 1889, objected to the mannered technique Bramley and Forbes had learned abroad, and resented any comparison with his own impressionist group of painters, who emulated the aims and methods of Degas, Monet, and Whistler. He attacked the Royal Academicians who showed “conspicuous ignorance and vulgarity” in favouring Bramley and Forbes and “others of their kind”, meaning Arthur Hacker and Solomon J. Solomon, who exhibited. The Return of Persephone to the Earth and Sacred and Profane Love, respectively.1 He singled out the “absolute untruth” of the “effects of firelight and daylight” in Saved, while describing it and A Hopeless Dawn as “transpontine studio realism” 2 Bramley, he wrote, had taken up the worst kind of painting technique, that resulted in “a superficial realism which falls to pieces on examination at any and every vital point”.3

These harsh words from one young painter to another had their origins in the bitter in-fighting between Sickert’s impressionist group and the Newlyn artists. In the previous year, they had quarrelled at the New English Art Club about the choice of appropriate modern subjects, and their acrimony and respective conviction had not diminished.

Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, a painter and a critic like Sickert, who had been writing for The Saturday Review since 1883, wrote six reviews of the Exhibition, as opposed to Sickert’s two, and shared the latter’s disapproval. Stevenson wrote that Bramley and Forbes used “the same method of brushing”, which gave the effect of a “softened, half melted-looking mosaic”.4 Although he did not find this entirely disagreeable, the same cannot be said of the “great variety of gay purples, reds, creams” used for the effect of daylight and firelight in Saved, which for Stevenson made the picture unbearable to look at. In essence, Sickert and Stevenson thought Saved failed as a painting because it did not satisfy a good pictorial standard. Sickert, however, approved of The Lavoir in a French Village (1888) by the relatively unknown William Tom Warrener, almost certainly because the figures of the washerwomen do not appear posed and because Warrener used a variety of brush techniques to convey the effect of different textures. Stevenson praised Ophelia by J.W. Waterhouse, writing: “Is his realism […] pictorial and broad in its truthfulness? We answer ‘Yes’ to every question.”5

The two critics had much in common. Both campaigned for the reform of the Academy, arguing that it should be truly representative of the “art of the day”, but they also admired the painting of some of the established Academicians such as Frederic Leighton. Sickert had been well schooled by Edgar Degas and James McNeill Whistler, both of whom had exacting standards about picture-making, and Stevenson was close to the “art for art’s sake” critic Sidney Colvin. Stevenson’s use of the term “pictorial”, meanwhile, can be closely connected to English Aesthetic thought, meaning that they were judging a painting on its formal qualities not its subject. This possibly explains why they approved of such diverse painters as Leighton and Waterhouse, but disliked some of the younger painters such as Bramley and Forbes.

Charles Whibley, who was part of the poet W.E. Henley’s circle, and Whistler’s brother-in-law, also used the word “pictorial” in his reviews for TheScots Observer. He was fairly scathing about Bramley’s Saved,which he thought had too much in common with A Hopeless Dawn, and also Forbes’ The Health of the Bride, which was not “a pictorial success”, advising that on the whole their pictures were “seldom pictorial”.6 Even a more middlebrow critic like Claude Phillips, who was not part of the networks to which Sickert, Stevenson, and Whibley belonged, and therefore not privy to this shared vocabulary, objected to Bramley’s treatment of light in Saved, and his use of “the full resources of a modern technique” “to dish up again in a new combination the elements of a popular success.”7

All of these critics had formulated a distinct criterion for judging what they believed to be good painting, which centred on the technique used for applying paint to the canvas. In Stevenson’s case, an exemplar was The Prodigal Son (1888) by John Macallan Swan, which Whibley also liked, writing that it was proof that “the Academy of 1889” has at least “one memorable picture” (Fig. 2).8 Both must have approved of its “impressionistic” effect and variety of brush techniques, a quality it shares with The Close of a Day, a rural landscape by the little-known Arthur Lemon, which Sickert liked for the way these techniques and the play of colour created an effect of light that he believed had none of the “glaring untruths of value” seen in Newlyn’s painting.

If we sample reactions to these pictures from other critics, the distinctiveness of the critical stances discussed above becomes clearer. The critic of The Observer, for example, thought that Saved was one of the best examples of “pathetic genre” in the Exhibition, praised its effects of light, and thought that its great merit was “the character of the figures, the hushed anxiety of the saviours, and the collapse of the saved.”9 It uses the subject as its only benchmark for success and takes no account of the pictorial changes in British painting displayed on the walls of the Academy in 1889.

  1. Anon [Walter Sickert], “The Royal Academy [Second Notice]”, The New York Herald, 16 May 1889; cited in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 49.↩︎

  2. Anon [Walter Sickert], “The Royal Academy [Second Notice]”.↩︎

  3. Anon [Walter Sickert], “The Royal Academy [Second Notice]”.↩︎

  4. Anon [R.A.M. Stevenson], The Saturday Review, 4 May 1889, 537.↩︎

  5. Anon [R.A.M. Stevenson], The Saturday Review, 11 May 1889, 565.↩︎

  6. Anon [Charles Whibley], The Scots Observer, 18 May 1889, 717.↩︎

  7. Claude Phillips, “The Royal Academy”, Academy,25 May 1889.↩︎

  8. Whibley, The Scots Observer, 18 May 1889.↩︎

  9. Anon, “The Royal Academy: Second Notice”, The Observer, 19 May 1889, 5.↩︎

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