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1909 George Clausen and the Woman Reading

The 1909 Summer Exhibition opened with the announcement that Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting A Favourite Custom had been purchased for the nation with Chantrey Bequest Funds (Fig. 1). It was a move guaranteed to enrage the Academy’s detractors; not only did the sum of money paid—£1,750—seem needlessly high, but Alma-Tadema, now knighted and well into the autumn of his career (he would turn seventy-two that year) was hardly in need of a boost to his reputation.1 The painting, meanwhile (“a group of very clean-looking ladies in and out of classic costume preparing themselves for the pleasures of the bath”) was perceived as displaying neither contemporary subject matter nor a contemporary style.2

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The apparent chasm between Alma-Tadema’s vision and that of others artists working in 1909 continues to intrigue. A much-publicised feature of Tate Britain’s most recent rehang was the juxtaposition of A Favourite Custom with another painting created around that time, Walter Sickert’s La Hollandaise.3 The paintings are not poles apart: both are centred on the female nude and are, in a sense, as concerned with the play of light as they are with any narrative. And yet there is clearly no way that Sickert’s moody canvas would have ever found itself into that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition, just as Alma-Tadema’s painting would have seemed singularly out of place at the New English Art Club, or at one of Sickert’s more informal exhibitions held at Fitzroy Street.

Focusing on these two examples, nonetheless, distracts us from the work of artists who could have moved between these two spaces without attracting too much attention. One of these figures is George Clausen, a leading light—along with Sickert—in the early years of the New English Art Club; now a full member of the Academy (he was elected at the beginning of 1908) and, since 1904, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools. Clausen showed five paintings at the 1909 Summer Exhibition, one of which, Interior of an Old Barn, was his diploma work.

The paintings Clausen sent to the Academy that year were not terribly different to the work he might have sent to the New English Art Club. Certainly his five Academy pictures bear little comparison with Alma-Tadema—or, indeed, with many of his peers at the Academy. Paintings depicting women posed in interiors were especially common in 1909, but few of them looked much like Clausen’s two contributions to this wide-ranging genre: The Student and Twilight. In both paintings, only one woman is present. In the case of The Student, this woman—probably modelled by the artist’s daughter – is sketching from a small plaster sculpture (Fig. 2). The sheets of paper gathered on the table beside her suggest that she is a diligent student, while her rather plain white dress is out of keeping with the elaborate outfits worn by many of the women seen on the walls of Burlington House.

Likewise, in Twilight, a young woman sits reading in the evening light. Women and books featured throughout the works in the 1909 Summer Exhibition, but this is one of the very few examples in which the pictured woman is actually reading. Elsewhere the book it seems to function merely as a prop: in Briton Riviere’s Miss Jolly, a young woman leaves her book face down on the desk and turns to face the viewer; in George Henry’s Lady Binning and S. Melton Fisher’s In Summer Time: Betty, Thea, and Winnie Lyster, books are held but don’t look as though they are going to be referred to anytime soon. This is not to suggest that the woman being portrayed were not keen bibliophiles; simply that the artists involved weren’t interested in representing them as such, perhaps doubting the seriousness of their intellectual endeavours. Clausen’s student, on the other hand, genuinely does seem to be a student; his reader really is reading. They must have looked strange in the 1909 Exhibition, quietly getting on with their work while all the women represented around them adopted more dramatic poses.

Though Clausen’s paintings were often brightly coloured—the wall behind The Student is a rich, warm orange, while the sky behind the window of Twilight is a vibrant blue—the overall tone of his offerings was austere. Certainly, his interiors were much closer in spirit to those being produced by contemporaries such as William Rothenstein or Gwen John than to anyone working within the Academy at that time (though they lack, of course, the slightly sordid atmosphere of Sickert’s work). It is a wonder, perhaps, that anyone noticed them, considering the company which they kept.4 After all, the Exhibition of 1909 not only attracted more than its fair share of book-holding—if not actually reading—women pictures, but many women who had much better things to do than read books, whether it be testing the waters in a luxuriously marbled Roman bath (in Alma-Tadema’s A Favourite Custom), luring a wild-eyed Ulysses to a watery grave (in Herbert Draper’s Ulysses and the Sirens), or keeping a pack of leopards at bay while holding aloft a bunch of grapes (in Arthur Wardle’s especially fanciful A Bacchante). For every student, it seems, there had to be at least three sirens—even if, as one critic pointed out, with no small amusement, the sirens in question were poorly imagined.

Mr Herbert Draper in his large composition […] shows that he is not quite sure what a siren really is, how she lives or where she locates herself. One of his sirens wears a fish’s tail, another a dainty scarf of seaweed, and a third blue muslin. The last-named sits well up in the rigging, as has not, apparently, arrived by water as her sisters have done.5

  1. £1,750 equates to roughly £167, 000 in today’s currency.↩︎

  2. “Can it be seriously maintained that A Favourite Custom represents the best modern art seen at the London galleries today”, questioned the critic P.G. Konody, pointing towards what he considered equally valuable works of art exhibited in spaces such as the Grafton Galleries: P.G. Konody, “Chantrey Scandal: Sir Alma-Tadema’s Picture …”, The Observer, 9 May 1909, 9. The description of the painting comes from Laurence Housman, “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 1 May 1909, 8.↩︎

  3. Penelope Curtis, “Works of the Week: A Favourite Custom by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and La Hollandaise by Walter Sickert”, Tate Online, 13 May 2013, (accessed 4 May 2017).↩︎

  4. It is worth noting that the hang in 1909 was a little less crowded than usual, with some paintings hung in double tiers, reducing the amount of “skying”: Laurence Housman, “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 1 May 1909, 8.↩︎

  5. Laurence Housman, “The Royal Academy, Second Notice”, The Manchester Guardian, 3 May 1909, 9.↩︎

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Explore the 1909 catalogue