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1944 Pauline in the Yellow Dress and the Lure of Colour

Wartime is often associated with an absence, or at least a muting, of colour. Periods of austerity are synonymous with greyness and a lack of colour: dulled tones of camouflage disguised landmarks and strategic sites across the country, and images associated with the news reporting of the Second World War were largely black and white. Our conventional image of wartime Britain is one bleached of its vibrancy. However, if there was one colour associated with the art world of 1944 it was yellow—an unashamedly bright and cheerful yellow which shone out from one painting on the walls of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition that year. The colour even leaked into its title, Pauline in the Yellow Dress (Fig. 1). Painted by the Scottish-born portraitist and landscape artist Sir Herbert James Gunn (more commonly known as James Gunn), it was widely touted as “picture of the year”.

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Pauline, Gunn’s wife, stares out boldly from the canvas, with a penetrating, enigmatic look and the faint hint of a smile. Among the voluminous folds of her dress, nestle two white lap dogs. The decorated chair and ornate screen behind Pauline give the impression of an elegant environment. But it was the dress that really captured the attention of Exhibition goers in 1944. Folds of the yellow fabric, adorned with black bows and dots, gathered around Pauline’s arms and a length of the material spilled across the floor. Opening in a large V at her chest—somewhat daring for an academic portrait—the gown almost appears to swallow up Pauline Gunn’s slight figure. There is a physicality to these folds, a decadence in its excessive materiality. All these factors contributed to making Pauline in the Yellow Dress one of the most evocative and alluring, if also disturbing, exhibits in that year’s show. Imported from America, the yellow dress had the potential for different interpretations. For some, it signalled that better times were on the horizon. For others, it represented decadence and frivolity when basics, such as food, clothes, and material for clothing, were being rationed.1 Perhaps aware of the potential criticism that meet Pauline in the Yellow Dress, Gunn also submitted a portrait of the king to underline his patriotism.

Discussions of austerity were never far from the Academy’s door in this period and the institution had to deal with its own privations during wartime due to a lack of staff and damage to its buildings. The year 1944, however, did bring some positive changes. For the first time since the outbreak of war, the Academy opened all of its galleries. The Summer Exhibition of that year was on the “scale of any of the peace-time shows” and the art critic of The Birmingham Daily Post marvelled “that so much canvas is still available for independent painters and that so many of them are still free to practice their art.”2 The Exhibition data also indicated that the situation for the art world was improving, even under the conditions of war. Gunn’s painting was certainly the most popular exhibit, but the highest amount realized for a sale was Charles Wheeler’s sculpture Aphrodite II (Fig. 2), which the critic of The Yorkshire Post noted was the most highly priced exhibit to be displayed at the Summer Exhibition since 1941. It was purchased for the Tate through the Chantrey Bequest. The Yorkshire Post also wrote that although the Exhibition had “received its usual dose of criticism from the experts”, from a

strictly materialistic standpoint it promises to be a brilliant success for the exhibitors. Even before the doors were opened to the public 120 works had been sold at the private view …. The Academy has grown steadily in popularity and, unless Allied military operations or enemy activities interfere with the progress of the present display, I confidently prophecise for it a prosperity seldom achieved even in pre-war years. After all there are not so many pleasant objects on which money may be spent to-day.3

Pauline in the Yellow Dress was bought by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, Lancashire, for £1,000 from the Exhibition. The curator, Sydney Pavière, was a dab-hand at spotting the star works at the Summer Exhibitions and snapping them up for his collection, buying this painting within an hour of the Exhibition opening.4 Nicknamed “The Mona Lisa of 1944”, visitors flocked to see the work.5 Over 10,000 more people visited the Summer Exhibition than had done in 1943, despite the continued bombing of London during this time.6 The Summer Exhibition closed on 7 August that year and the painting made it to Preston in time for the August Holiday Week when over 5,000 people visited the Harris on the first day the painting was displayed.7 Gunn’s style epitomised in many ways Academic painting of the mid-twentieth century with his commitment to realist modes of portraiture and the highly finished, polished surfaces of his paintings. However, he waited a long time for recognition from the Academy in London, elected ARA in 1953 and a full RA in 1961, only three years before his death in 1964. His Diploma Work, Pauline Waiting (painted in 1939, given to the Academy in 1961), also used his wife as a model.

The hardships of war were available to view elsewhere in the Exhibition. Grafting an Eyelid by Alfred R. Thomson recorded D.N. Matthews’ pioneering face grafting operation.8 The critic of The Daily Herald commented that such a subject would have been considered too gruesome for Burlington House before the war, but there was now an appetite for such subjects and that the nation wanted to see them visually recorded for prosperity.9 The Academy also emphasised its own contribution to the war effort by displaying the work of the Royal Academy Planning Committee and their “new scheme for linking up communications in the Metropolitan area”—an arterial ring road joining all the main railway stations—which occupied the whole of Gallery X. Yet, it was to Pauline in the Yellow Dress that the visitors flocked, perhaps to bathe in the luminescent glow of yellow that emanated from the canvas, to dream of wearing such a dress once wartime privations had ended, or to admire Gunn’s technical mastery at turning the raw materials of paint and canvas into such an exquisite portrait.

  1. Clothes were rationed from 1 June 1941, until 1949. Laura Clouting and Amanda Mason, “How Clothes Rationing Affected Fashion in the Second World War”, Imperial War Museums, 5 January 2018,↩︎

  2. “Royal Academy Exhibition (First Notice)”, The Birmingham Daily Post, 1 May 1944.↩︎

  3. “Academy’s Good Start”, The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 May 1944, 2.↩︎

  4. ”70 Years of Pauline at the Harris” booklet (Preston: Harris Museum and Art Gallery Press, 2015),↩︎

  5. Daily Mail reporter, “‘A Mona Lisa of 1944’ is Academy Picture of Year”, The Daily Mail, 29 April 1944, 3.↩︎

  6. In 1944, 145,900 people visited, compared to 134,562 in 1943. The sales total for the year was also up by over £10,000. The sales totals for 1943 and 1944 were £11,890 18s. 6d. and £21,992 8s. respectively. See Annual Reports for these year (and link to statistical data provided with the Chronicle).↩︎

  7. “70 Years of Pauline at the Harris”.↩︎

  8. The painting is now in the Imperial War Museum.↩︎

  9. Hannen Swaffer, “Sensation of the Royal Academy”, The Daily Herald, 29 April 1944, 3.↩︎

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Explore the 1944 catalogue