A lush exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art explores a critical period in Britain’s past. By Sara Evans
If you, like me, are having severe withdrawal symptoms following the end of Season Three of Downton Abbey, the beautiful Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, has the perfect antidote.
The Center has seemingly endless resources, with both the largest collection of British art from all periods outside Great Britain and a major reference library. The collection was the gift of Paul Mellon, son of the industrial magnate, Andrew Mellon. He was a passionate Anglophile, who spent extended periods of time in England as a child. He bought his first British painting, a George Stubbs, in 1936, and never looked back. He devoted his entire life after graduating from Yale to the study and collecting of British art. In 1966, he donated this impressive collection of paintings, rare books, manuscripts, drawings and prints to his alma mater, along with funds for a building in which to house it, and an enormous endowment that supports not only the YCBA but also two residential colleges and numerous lectureships, fellowships, professorships and scholarships at Yale and in England. It was, and remains, one of the most generous endowments in academic history. The Center is a vital source of scholarship for British art.
The building itself was designed by the great American architect, Louis Kahn, and completed in 1974. His last creation, it stands across the street from the newly refurbished Yale University Art Gallery, the first building he ever designed.
The Edwardian era in Britain was a Golden Age, a glorious time of long, sunny summers, great leaps in technology and industry, economic and global expansion and an explosion of creativity in the arts. Immense fortunes were made from Britain’s colonies. Literature, music, painting and architecture, all literally took off, in a way that was new and distinct, making a point of separating itself from the tight strictures of the Victorian era. It was a time of exuberant recklessness.
The Edwardian era, roughly 1901, when King Edward ascended the throne after his mother’s seemingly interminable reign, to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, was a short one. It was a time of huge social and political upheavals. Socialism was all the rage, labor was organizing and becoming a powerful and vocal force and women’s suffrage was an important issue. People traveled, they bought and drove cars, and the occasional flying machine crossed the skies.
Gold and diamonds poured into the home country, large country estates were built or rescued, and cities all over Great Britain built impressive public buildings. It was a self-conscious era, when people were aware that they were living in a special time, one that carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. The Edwardian era was a ticking time bomb, too good to last. It was a time of enormous and rapid changes, changes that were too big to absorb in such a short period of time. Overwhelmed by so many changes, there evolved a longing for the beautiful British countryside and for the romanticized simplicity of rural life.
This love of the countryside is one of the dominant themes of the exhibition, and was a leitmotif of Edwardian art. It was during this time that the very notion of the English country house was born, a real estate gambit that became a way of life for upper and upper-middle-class Brits.
The Boldoni “Portrait of a Lady: Mrs. Lionel Phillips” says it all. She exemplified the brash newcomer, the outsider, a South African married to an enormously wealthy English owner of South African goldmines, who happened to be Jewish. She is bold and flashy, bejeweled and full of herself. She and Mr. Phillips were the new elite, throwing genteel Britain on its tail.
The exhibit explores all the aspects of Edwardian England, the rich spoils and demands of being the Empire upon which the sun never set. The first section, “Imperial Splendor,” is filled with paintings and jewels, photos and costumes, that demonstrate the reach of tiny Britain’s colonies, dominions and spheres of influence, demonstrating the reach of Empire and the conspicuous consumption that its vast wealth engendered.
“Grand Designs” explores the growth of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the many ways in which design improved and impacted the daily lives, not only of the rich but of the other classes throughout Britain.
The section called “The Great World” explores the explosion of travel and communications, through photography, newspapers, magazines and radio. It takes note of the importance of the social calendar, the increasing ease of travel and the influx of foreigners, who were literally infiltrating all levels of British society. In 1900, there were no fewer than fifty American women (wealthy, of course) married to British peers.
“Town” demonstrates the primacy of cities, where workers poured in, and flats and tenements were built, along with grand townhouses. London was the economic center of the universe, the center of global trade and with commodities pouring in from around the globe.
But it is in the section called “Country” that Edwardian art shows its finest flowering. Children flying kites, playing on beaches, family picnics and women in their gardens, Diana with her whippet, these are the almost chocolate boxy paintings that are so emblematic of the era. They are lovely, a fleeting image of a fleeting age.
Two sections of the extensive exhibition, “Problem Pictures” and “Landscape and Memory” show that all was not perfect in Edwardian Britain. “Problem Pictures” are contemporary in nature, exploring scenes of modern life that are ambiguous and complicated, hard to read and hard to interpret.
“Landscape and Memory” explore the nostalgia for itself that was embedded in the era. These landscapes are somber and filled with portents. They express the Edwardian love of the countryside, and the expansion of plein-air painting, and how painting became a pursuit not just of artists but also of ordinary people who went on painting holidays.
The final section of “Edwardian Opulence” shows how it all crashed and burned. The Great War was the beginning of the end; the end of Empire, of British dominance of all spheres, of the excesses and successes of this charmed decade, the most finite of eras. Edwardian Britain was simply too good to last.
(Edwardian Opulence is on view at the Yale Center for British Art (britishart.yale.edu) until June 2. A beautiful and comprehensive book is available from the Yale University Press.)