Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1910 The Politics of Portraiture

To many observers, the Edwardian era appeared to be one of crisis, from the contentious resolution of the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 to the fiercely contested general elections in 1910. These forces, alongside anarchist bombs and militant suffragettes, challenged the established order. Upon his ascension, Edward VII ruled one-quarter of the globe, yet his sovereignty over the geographical entity known as “the British Empire” seemed less secure, and thus “Edwardian” remains a potent term to evoke the vicissitudes of political consensus or the dangers of imperial complacency. The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1910 was not isolated from this contentious time.

Explore the 1910 catalogue

Reviews of the Exhibition are wistful, with The Art-Journal longing for the displays of the 1890s, while the critics from The Studio and The Times worried about the “paucity of ideas” in an exhibition that “contained nothing to around enthusiasm.”1 It was as if the walls of the Academy were hung with good intentions rather than paintings. The art critic A.C.R. Carter lamented that artists in 1910 had abandoned ideals. Instead, they painted to catch the eye of millionaire buyers who usually seek to acquire the art of the past: “many brave contemporary artists have steadily plodded on, determined to be the old masters of to-morrow.”2 One artist managed to balance a popular subject with the air of an Old Master was Edward Stott, whose Good Samaritan treated the biblical parable of charity with “mystery” and “truth”, two aspects considered appropriate to a religious subject (Fig. 1).3 Such pictures were an exception rather than a rule in 1910, with portraiture, especially portraits of men, predominating at the Exhibition.4

Hubert von Herkomer showed four portraits of men at the Exhibition, and his subjects represent the changing landscape of wealth and power in the Edwardian period. The Rt. Honorable Sir Hudson E. Kearley, Bt, was a grocer who later became a politician and was elevated to the peerage in 1910 as Baron Devonport. The sitter in The late Marquess of Ripon, K. G., Chancellor of the University of Leeds, was a long-time Liberal MP, who came from a political dynasty (he was born at 10 Downing Street) and was key in Liberal governments. A vocal supporter of Irish Home Rule, he was governor-general of India from 1880 to 1884. Lord Burnham, a portrait of Edward Levy-Lawson, featured the newspaper magnate who owned The Daily Telegraph. These men demonstrated that business, political, and media power had come to equal, if not replace, the traditional ideas of authority rooted in the aristocracy and landed gentry.  The final portrait further confirmed this shift: Sir Julius Wernher, Bart., a three-quarter length portrait of the prominent Randlord, one of those bankers and businessmen who had earned their wealth in diamond and gold mining ventures in the Witwatersrand or “the Rand” in South Africa (Fig. 2).

Wernher was also among those millionaire art buyers derided by the critic Carter. Originally from Darmstadt, Germany, Wernher began his career with a French mining venture before working with Alfred Beit and Cecil Rhodes to establish De Beers Consolidated in 1888, and he conducted business in London through his firm Wernher, Beit & Co. He was appointed a director of the Union of London and Smiths Bank from 1896–1912.5 Wernher collected art to decorate Bath House, his London residence in Piccadilly, and to adorn Luton Hoo, his country house in Bedfordshire. Although his taste in painting was typical of men of his rank and class, including eighteenth-century portraiture in particular, Wernher did make some unlikely purchases, such as Albrecht Altdorfer’s Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (ca. 1520) when that artist was little known and religious works of this type were unfashionable.6 

But Wernher was not taking any artistic chances with his portrait. He sought out the venerable Royal Academician Hubert von Herkomer, even though he had commissioned the younger, flashier John Singer Sargent to paint his wife, Alice Wernher, in 1902. That painting was shown at the Academy in 1903, and it was singled out for praise in reviews.7 Perhaps Wernher was drawn to Herkomer as a fellow German who had adopted England as his homeland. He might have recognised that the artist was also a fellow business man. With the help of studio assistants, Herkomer painted more than 400 portraits and managed as many as three portrait sittings a day from the 1880s onward. 

It is also likely that he was drawn to the artist’s belief that portraiture could be a form of history painting, as Herkomer once said: “great indeed is the art that can satisfactorily portray history-making men.”8 The three-quarter length portrait presents Wernher as a serious man of business in his black frock coat posed in front of a dark, indistinct background: The Times noted that the portrait was unusual in its “straightforward” approach, with the sitter “in the costume of everyday”.9 In addition to highlighting his face and hands, Herkomer draws attention to the gold watch chain in Wernher’s waistcoat, as the sitter fingers a loupe, a small magnifying glass used in the jewellery trade. Herkomer, thus, manages to allude to the source of his sitter’s wealth in gold and diamond mining, while avoiding the ostentatious displays of wealth often associated with the portraiture of Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent. 

Carter, writing for The Art-Journal, noted that Herkomer’s four portraits on display in 1910 were “striking” examples of the character of each sitter.10 This judgement, however, was not necessarily praise. Herkomer had first gained fame as an artist in the 1870s alongside Frank Holl and Luke Fildes through his interest in social realism, exploring subjects of poverty and social inequalities with paintings such as Hard Times (1885). Critics noted that Herkomer seemed to abandon these ideas when it came to portraiture. As early as 1885, a critic took him to task for his “merchant princes” like Wernher “who smile smugly over a commerce on which the sun never sets.”11

Such questions of aesthetics and empire occupied Wernher around the time of this portrait due to his involvement in the efforts to establish a municipal art gallery in Johannesburg. Lady Florence Phillips, the wife of fellow Randlord Sir Lionel Phillips, had arranged for the art dealer Hugh Lane to select works for the gallery, funded by wealthy South African donors, including Wernher. These paintings, like Herkomer’s portrait, became tangible reminders of the way in which mineral wealth can be extracted, examined, and transformed into cultural capital. Perhaps it is fitting that Wernher eventually donated this portrait to the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

When the Academy Summer Exhibition closed in August 1910, many artists and exhibition visitors were not aware that Roger Fry was planning “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” to open at the Grafton Gallery in London. That exhibition opened on 8 November 1910, and Fry organised it to introduce the visual idiom of French modernism to an English audience. Reflecting on the event in 1924, Virginia Woolf conceptualised the exhibition as a watershed moment, declaring that “on or about December 1910 human character changed”, alluding to the reaction of London audiences to the Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and their peers. Yet Hubert von Hermoker’s portraits suggest that human character—and Edwardian society—had already changed.

  1. “The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1910”, The Studio 41, no. 161 (July 1910): 3; and “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 30 April 1910, 10.↩︎

  2. A.C.R. Carter, “The Royal Academy: A General Survey”, The Art-Journal, June 1910, 163.↩︎

  3. A.C.R. Carter, “The Royal Academy: A General Survey”, The Art-Journal, June 1910, 164.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, Saturday 30 April 1910, 10.↩︎

  5. As discussed in Youssef Cassis, City Bankers, 1890–1914, trans. Margaret Rocques (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 144–145.↩︎

  6. As discussed in James Stourton and Charles Sebag Montefiore, The British as Art Collectors: Form the Tudors to the Present (London: Scala Arts Publishers, 2012), 265–267.↩︎

  7. C.L.H. (C. Lewis Hind?), “Art: A Choice Among Many”, The Academy and Literature, 9 May 1903, 467.↩︎

  8. As quoted in Lee Edwards, Herkomer: A Victorian Artist (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1999), 87.↩︎

  9. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 30 April 1910, 10.↩︎

  10. A.C.R. Carter, “The Royal Academy: A General Survey”, The Art-Journal, June 1910, 169.↩︎

  11. “The Decline of Art: Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery”, Blackwood’s Magazine 138 (1885): 17, as quoted in Edwards, Herkomer, 87.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1910 catalogue