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1926 Interwar London and Race

Explore the 1926 catalogue

In 1926, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition became the subject of much British and international media attention. This was due to the inclusion of The Breakdown by John Bulloch Souter, which, though exhibited at the private preview night on 30 April, was just over a week later withdrawn from public view (Fig. 1). In The Royal Academy Illustrated catalogue, held in the Royal Academy Archive, a copy of the painting is reproduced but someone has written in pencil below the image: “not exhibited—withdrawn at request of Colonial office”.1 This same information was included in the space where the picture had been hung.

On 1 May 1926, the morning after the press night, The New York Times described the piece:

A broken statue of the Goddess Minerva is shown lying on the ground. On her gigantic helmet there sits the familiar figure of the negro jazz musician playing a saxophone. Before him there dances the nude figure of a white girl with an Eton crop and a fashionable boyish figure. A wisp of flesh-colored stocking hangs over the statue’s broken arm and there is also the hint of silk lingerie hastily discarded, and in the foreground a rejected green leather evening shoe. As a protest against the jazz age the picture seems undoubtedly effective.2

The North China Herald reported on The Breakdown that the white woman dancing was modelled on Marita Ross, “the well known Chelsea model” and the depiction of the Black musician was not based on a particular sitter but was Souter’s “own creation, assisted by some casts in the anthropological section of the Natural History Museum at Kensington.”3 During the inter-war period, various sitters of African heritage appeared in British fine art paintings and drawings including famous jazz musicians living in London. For example, Alexander Stuart-Hill’s portrait of musician Turner Layton was included in the 1927 Annual Royal Academy Exhibition.4 However, representations of Black people in art also consisted of caricature, and could be drawn from the artist’s imagination or by looking at racialised anthropological studies, as in the case of this painting.

Immediate press reports on the Summer Exhibition preview focused primarily on Souter’s painting and the response of the attendees. H.K. Reynolds in The Olean Evening Times wrote that it was “easily the sensation of the academy preview”,5 while a reporter in The New York Times stated, “this year’s problem picture seems likely to excite a controversy, and suggestions are already being made that it should not have been hung.”6 The Olean Evening Times reported on the divergence of opinion in relation to the piece, stating:

those who have seen the picture in the pre-view are inclined to condemn it as “too jazzy” to be shown along with royal portraits and other more sombre works in the exhibition. Others criticize the work as verging too close to the racial question, while Souter’s defenders maintain that he has caught the spirit of jazz, rendering in paint the abandon of modern syncopation.7

Significantly, The Devon and Exeter Gazette linked the reaction to the picture to the General Strike, which started at midnight on 3 May. On 4 May, the newspaper wrote that it was “a curious coincidence that just at this rather haggard national emergency Mr. John Souter’s Academy picture, ‘The Breakdown’, should be causing so much fuss.”8

By 8 May, the painting had been withdrawn from view. What were the reasons for the removal? A correspondent to The North China Herald commented that members of the general public did not believe the story about the Colonial Office request. They stated,

The attendant in the main was besieged on Monday by a crowd of puzzled visitors who had searched the walls in vain for John B. Souter’s picture “The Breakdown”. A great amount of explanation was necessary to convince them that it had been withdrawn on the request of the Colonial Office who disapproved, from the Colonial standpoint, of the subject—a negro playing jazz for a nude white dancer. A photograph of the picture is displayed in the front hall.9

The initial contemporary newspaper reports reflected on (to a certain extent) their understanding of the intention of the piece—as a “protest against the jazz age”—and mentioned it in terms of the “racial question” in relation to the piece. They did not, however, more explicitly understand the painting and its reception, in relation to the sexualised racism against people of African heritage within the British Empire and the United States of America. When it came to depictions of jazz players specifically, in inter-war Britain, there was a diverse Black presence during the 1920s across the middle and working class, and Black musicians often played in jazz clubs and musical revues in Soho and the West End. The jazz age influenced a number of white artists and musicians, including members of the “Bright Young People”, who invited Black musicians and performers to their parties and social events. However, within these circles, Black artists and performers were often exoticised. The racist caricatures of Black men in the “jazz age” within Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 Decline and Fall are one example of the racism exhibited within these social circles.10

The meaning of the painting was debated at the time, but it must certainly be understood in terms of racist and exoticised Western discourses about African artistry and culture—one idea often invoked at the time, for example, was that Black art, in particular jazz and sculpture, should be understood as being in opposition to “Western civilisation”.11 Souter stated in an interview with The Daily Mail that the painting was “intended to suggest the fascination exercised by the primitive and savage upon the over-civilised”. He described the white woman, dancing nude, as symbolising “the return to the primitive”, arguing that “she has thrown off the trappings of civilisation while the negro has acquired them”.12 Although the painting was destroyed by Souter, a later painting was made by the artist in 1962 based on the original sketches. It was recently shown in Rhythm & Reaction, an exhibition curated by Catherine Tackley at Two Temple Place.13

Although the original work no longer exists, the removal of The Breakdown from the walls of Burlington House was a significant moment in the history of the Academy Summer Exhibition and inter-war Britain. It provoked much discussion in relation to art and race, and ideas of British “decline” and the concurrent General Strike, while revealing that other institutions of the British establishment, such as the Colonial Office, could exercise their influence at the Academy to remove exhibits from public view.

  1. The Royal Academy Illustrated (London: Walter Judd Ltd, 1926), 16.↩︎

  2. “Distinguished Crowd at London Art Exhibit: Ramsay MacDonald Views Portrait of Himself—Mrs Baldwin Sees One of Premier”, The New York Times, Special Cable to the New York Times, 1 May 1926.↩︎

  3. “The Academy”, The North China Herald, 19 June 1926.↩︎

  4. For more information, see the Drawing over the Colour Line database, created and written by Caroline Bressey and Gemma Romain,↩︎

  5. H.K. Reynolds, “Painting Arouses Storm”, The Olean Evening Times, 30 April 1926.↩︎

  6. “Distinguished Crowd at London Art Exhibit”, The New York Times, 1 May 1926.↩︎

  7. H.K. Reynolds, “Painting Arouses Storm”, The Olean Evening Times, 30 April 1926.↩︎

  8. “A Simple Problem”, The Devon and Exeter Gazette, 4 May 1926.↩︎

  9. “Our London Letter: Souter Picture Banned from Academy. Offence Taken in the Colonies”, The North China Herald, 19 June 1926.↩︎

  10. In the Penguin Modern Classic “Introduction” to Decline and Fall, editor David Bradshaw states that:

    it is likely that Waugh introduced a liaison between a white woman and a black musician into the novel because he was aware that such a union had provoked heated controversy at a time in 1926 when the possible decline and fall of England itself was the hottest of topics.[fn]David Bradshaw (ed.), “Introduction”, in Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (London: Penguin, 2001 [1928]), xxi.↩︎

  11. Catherine Tackley, an expert on the reception of jazz music in early twentieth-century Britain, states, “the corrupting influence of jazz as a black music is clearly implied in this painting”. Catherine Tackley (née Parsonage), The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880–1935 (London: Routledge, 2017 [2005]), 188.↩︎

  12. “‘The Breakdown’: Not a Problem Picture. Mr Souter Explains his Painting”, The Daily Mail, 3 May 1926, 7, cited in Bradshaw (ed.), “Introduction” to Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, xxii.↩︎

  13. Maev Kennedy, “Racist Undertones of Britain’s Jazz Age Explored in Exhibition”, The Guardian, 24 January 2018,↩︎

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Explore the 1926 catalogue