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1927 Dod Procter's Morning

The frontispiece to the 1927 Royal Academy Illustrated is a bleak symbol of artistic exhaustion: in a portrait by Sir Arthur Cope, the King-Emperor George V sits stiffly with a blank picture frame behind him. The exhibits illustrated speak more of past than present: names prominent in the Victorian era appear still, their work now poignantly at odds with the times. Landscape painters offered visions of the lost “deep England” invoked by the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, as a riposte to a changing world.1 Such beguiling vistas could be found in the paintings of Henry Herbert La Thangue, Arnesby Brown, and Stanhope Alexander Forbes, forming an impression that—despite the First World War, the advent of agricultural mechanisation and the prominence of motor tourism—the life of rural England had continued unchanged. Notwithstanding the extensive presence of women in both urban and rural labour during the First World War, the continuing importance of female labour in agriculture, and the winning of the vote for women in 1918, working-class women appear in the Academy’s “deep England”, if at all, as decorative staffage in a timeless landscape.

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Stanhope Forbes moved to Cornwall in 1884 and spent his career painting in the fishing village of Newlyn and nearby countryside. Around him developed the “Newlyn School” of the 1880s and 1890s, closely connected with the New English Art Club. Its atmospheric works, drawing on the traditions of naturalism established by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, were dedicated to the representation of village life largely untouched by modernisation. A Cornish Village, exhibited in 1927, gestures towards contemporary dress through the bright blue frock and bobbed hairstyle of the girl seated on the bridge; the sunlit street is largely unchanged by time, though telegraph wires trace the course of the winding country road (Fig. 1).

A wholly different representation of the provincial, working-class, female body, and a distinctive new formulation of academic art, emerged in a striking work by Dod Procter, Morning, also exhibited in 1927 (Fig. 2). A young woman, simply attired in a pale cotton dress, reclines on a single bed in the morning sun. Morning takes on the extended horizontal format of the cassone panel to represent the recumbent figure asleep in the raking light. The warming sunshine alludes, perhaps, to the dawning sexuality of the young sitter. Even asleep, the figure bespeaks both a confident physical presence and a subjectivity quite distinct from the feminine norms of earlier decades.

The artist of this striking work was born Doris Margaret Shaw, to middle-class parents who moved during her childhood from Hampstead to Tavistock in Devon, and again in 1907 to Newlyn. There she began her artistic studies with Stanhope Forbes: fellow students included Ernest Procter, her future husband, and Laura Knight, a lifelong friend. She pursued her studies at the Slade School in London and, on the advice of Ernest Procter, at the Atelier Colarossi in Paris. Returning permanently to Newlyn, she married Procter and their careers became intertwined, with joint exhibitions in Cornwall and London, and a trip in 1919 to decorate the walls of the Kokine Palace in Rangoon, Burma.

After her return to England, Procter took as her main subject young women, represented with an elemental, sculptural simplicity that bears comparison with the contemporaneous work of Paula Modersohn-Becker in Germany. In 1923, as her work increasingly explored questions of female identity and sexuality, she began exhibiting under the gender-neutral name of Dod rather than Doris. Her exhibit at the Academy in 1927, Morning, was immediately recognised as a breakthrough. Frank Rutter, in The Sunday Times found in the work “monumental plasticity of form without any mannerisms or eccentricities,” its success owing to the “sheer power and beauty of her painting.”2 The model was the sixteen-year-old Sarah (Cissie) Barnes, daughter of a fish merchant of Newlyn, who posed for Procter almost every day for five weeks.3 Though she did not actually work on the boat, Cissie later posed for photographers “in one of her father’s fishing smacks” wearing sou’wester and oilskins. Procter’s Morning offers a view of the female body as solid, muscular, and healthy, as if honed by physical exercise rather than harsh labour.4 Turning aside from pastoral conventions, Procter deliberately reduces the woman’s surroundings to the simple elements of clean, white sheets and a modern bedroom chair.

The features of the model’s serene, broad face depart from conventions of refinement. Among Procter’s contemporaries at the Slade School, there was great admiration for Giotto. The Italian painter’s emphasis on the solidity of the human form may lie in the ancestry of Procter’s mature style, which acknowledges also the bold forms of Gauguin, while eschewing the invasive primitivism of Gauguin’s treatment of Polynesian women.

Cissie Barnes in Morning stands as the polar opposite of the exoticism of the representation of three nude figures in The Judgement of Paris, a decorative panel exhibited by Ernest Proctor in the same Academy Exhibition in 1927.5 Dod Procter’s celebration of a rural Englishwoman’s body, made in Newlyn, home of heart of the rustic naturalist tradition, by a female artist trained in that town, formulated a bold and impassioned claim for a new British art, and a new role for women within art and within British society. David Peters Corbett ascribes to the work a “willingness to introduce the flavor of modernism into the academic cuisine” which “may well have satisfied the Royal Academy and the Daily Mail but was questioned elsewhere.”6 But Procter’s painting offers a distinctive and pointed feminist riposte to the long tradition of recumbent female forms from antiquity to Manet’s Olympia (1863) and beyond.

Morning caused a sensation at the Academy and was voted “picture of the year”. The Daily Mail bought it “for the nation” on the first morning of the Exhibition.7 When Procter returned to Newlyn after the opening of the Academy, a brass band joined the artist for a procession through streets hung with bunting to celebrate her achievement. Morning toured twenty-three regional galleries in Britain, and was seen by more than 60,000 visitors in Birmingham alone during February 1928. On its return from being exhibited in New York, The Daily Mail presented it to the Tate Gallery. In 1929, the Academy rejected Procter’s painting Virginal, a full-length nude considered too graphic for public exhibition. Despite this setback, Dod Procter was elected ARA 1934 and a Royal Academician in 1942.8

  1. The sounds of England … the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the Empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England.

    Stanley Baldwin, “What England Means to Me”, speech to the Royal Society of St George, 6 May 1924, reprinted in Stanley Baldwin, On England, And Other Addresses (London: Philip Allan, 1926), 6–7.↩︎

  2. Frank Rutter, The Sunday Times, 1 May 1927, quoted by Alison James, A Singular Vision: Dod Procter, 1890–1972 (Penzance: Penlee House, 2007),↩︎

  3. The Daily Mail, 4 May 1927, quoted in Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr, and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 2 vols (London: Tate Gallery, 1964), Vol. 2, 535. Thomas Barnes, fish merchant and curer of Newlyn, is listed in Castle’s Wholesale and Retail List of the Fishing & Allied Trades, (Hull: Castle’s Publishing, 1907), 23.↩︎

  4. Cissie Barnes, unlabelled cutting, probably from The Daily Mail, 5 May 1927. See Courtesy of Annie Barnes.↩︎

  5. Ernest Proctor, The Judgement of Paris—A Decoration, Royal Academy Illustrated, 1927 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1927), 115. The work was sold at Christie’s South Kensington, Sale 4079, “Peter Langan: A Life with Art”, 18 December 2012, lot 28.↩︎

  6. David Peters Corbett, The Modernity of English Art, 1914–30 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 199.  Corbett spells Procter’s name incorrectly (as Proctor) and mis-dates the “picture of the year” award to 1926.↩︎

  7. James, A Singular Vision, 78.↩︎

  8. Reproduced in James, A Singular Vision, 88.↩︎

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