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1931 Photographic Rejuvenation

This year’s Summer Exhibition highlighted the contentious stakes of photography in the Royal Academy. A rejected painting by Reginald Grenville Eves, a portrait in oil that was applied directly to photographic film, prompted debate over the importance of sources in portraiture, and the tension between artist and sitter.1 Reviewing the Exhibition, one critic reflected on the apparatus behind a long trend towards photorealism in the work of Academicians:2 “Many of the portraits justify Mr. Sickert’s remark that the reason certain painted photographs were thrown out with such animosity is that they compete too closely with the photographic methods of the Academy.”3 By the 1930s, a photo-realistic style suffused academic portraiture and the Academicians’ use of photographic material was public knowledge, but anxiety concerning artistic dependency on photography still animated discussion among critics and curators.4 While Eves’ work was perceived to have transgressed in over-reliance on source material, both Walter Sickert and the British Journal of Photography were quick to indicate that: “it is well known that leading painters make more use of photography in their work than has been done in the present instance.”5 Yet for Sickert, and the photo-based painting he submitted this year, what mattered was making a meaningful translation of the image with the tools at an artist’s disposal.6

Explore the 1931 catalogue

The Exhibition of 1931 was both a “typical” year for the Academy of this period, and notable for anxieties about what constituted the idiosyncratic and the derivative in portraiture. The Selection Committee took qualified strides towards normalising a broader range of works, while the display of the Chantrey Bequest also brought late Victorian and Edwardian painters to the fore, such as Walter Greaves and Henry Tonks. The display was noticeably larger than in previous years, and more focused on oil painting, with twenty-two more oil paintings present here than in 1930; and of the total number of accepted submissions, 114 of them were oils.7 However, two of these canvases in particular would focus debate about the place of likeness in the balance between technologies, styles, and subjects.

The “modern masters” Augustus John and Walter Sickert, whose celebrity would lend a quality of the spectacular to the Academy and its events throughout the 1930s, were highlights of this Summer Exhibition.8 The Times’ art critic described the year’s submissions as relatively free from extremes of style: “It is not the best Academy we have seen, and it is far from being the worst.”9 From another vantage, however, the same critic conceded that this was a strong year for marginal artists who circumvented conventional academic training, with the acceptance of more “modern” works: “to say that it is ‘pretty much as usual’, besides being feeble, is felt to be rather subtly untrue … there is less of the ‘plunging’ … into modern art.”10 Rather than “plunging” into modernism, gallery-goers were instead faced with conventional subjects rendered unconventionally: portraits problematising definitions of likeness, and the balance of presence in the work between sitter and artist.

In the South Rooms, Sickert’s Mrs. Robert van Beuren Emmons and Child (Fig. 1) and John’s William Butler Yeats (Fig. 2) agitated the arts press. The Sunday Times described Sickert’s painting with a strong ambivalence shared by many: “incomprehensible to the multitude … a work which must arrest attention but may repel many by the extreme violence of its statement of light and shade.”11 For The Yorkshire Post, John’s portrait:

shows power, but it is a power which lacks restraint, and his habit of skirmishing about the canvas with a brush loaded with paint may produce an effect of vivacity, but somehow it seems lacking in distinction. So too, Sickert’s exaggeration of the high lights [sic] on the face of “Mrs. Emmons” does not err on the side of reticence.12

The News Chronicle even announced that these works signalled that: “The Royal Academy shows signs of distinct rejuvenation.”13

Indeed, these mature “modern masters” cultivated a stylistic aura of youth, but also generated friction by compromising the legibility and likeness of their sitters.14 In some rhetorical extremes, the vitality of the artist resulted in a moribund subject: “[Sickert is] up to tricks … he makes great play with dead white on the faces”;15 and “goes near reducing it to the grotesque.”16 Opinion was highly polarised, with many commentators rejecting the way painterly style failed to cohere or provide stability, whether in John’s “rapid irregular handling”17 or Sickert’s “blurred portrait”.18 For others, however, the verve and “power” of style itself, took the place of a recognisable living being, becoming the vital energy of works that lacked a stable, representational foundation: “The vitality of Mr. John’s portraits more than makes up for anything they may lack in solid virtues.”19 Despite Sickert’s work involving the remediation of a problematic photographic precedent, it was likewise the handling of paint which succeeded or failed to develop its object into a work of living art: “an astounding piece of irresponsible facility”,20 but also “the most original piece of painting on view”.21 It was precisely through the tension between clarity and confusion in the sublimation of the sitter and the photographic referent that John’s and Sickert’s work helped to foster the perceived rejuvenation of the Academy.

  1. Painting identified in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 611.↩︎

  2. Much bemoaned by Kenneth Clark, see James Fenton, School of Genius (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 257.↩︎

  3. Anon, Bazaar, 12 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection, 1915–1937, S/SFC/2/3/2/1/4, 1 Volume, Islington Local History Archives, Islington Local History Centre, Islington, London.↩︎

  4. Fenton, School of Genius, 258.↩︎

  5. “The Hated Thing”, British Journal of Photography, 8 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  6. Richard Sickert, “Paint and the Camera”, The Times, 1 May 1931, reproduced in Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert, 591.↩︎

  7. Our Art Critic, “Royal Academy: Good Works by Newcomers”, The Times, 2 May 1931, 13. The Times Digital Archive, (accessed 16 June 2017).↩︎

  8. It should be noted that Sickert submitted only two works this year, owing to his concurrent exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery. This epithet, “modern master”, was in use by the time of the previous year’s Academy, and highlights the patriarchal role of these two established “modernists” for the 1930s Academy. See “John v. Sickert: Which is the Greater Artist”, Sunday Dispatch, 23 February 1930, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  9. “Royal Academy”, The Times, 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  10. “Royal Academy”, The Times, 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  11. The Sunday Times, 3 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  12. The Yorkshire Post, 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  13. The News Chronicle, 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  14. Sickert is described as “‘The Peter Pan’ of British art” in this year (see The Daily Mail, 29 April 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection), while John’s work continually attracts epithets of speed and liveliness (See “Royal Academy”, The Times, 2 May 1931, 13; and The Yorkshire Post, 2 May 1931).↩︎

  15. Sunday Dispatch, 3 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  16. Bournemouth Daily Echo, 9 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  17. “Royal Academy”, The Times, 2 May 1931.↩︎

  18. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  19. “Royal Academy”, The Times, 2 May 1931.↩︎

  20. The Daily Mirror, 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

  21. Daily Dispatch 2 May 1931, in Press Cuttings Book, Sickert Family Collection.↩︎

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Explore the 1931 catalogue