ISABEL ON ART; PHOTOGRAPHY; and DESIGN
HER VIEWS ON ART - AT THE TIME
Isabel did some writing about art while she was still a professional painter. In 1880 the editor of the new monthly magazine The Artist and Journal of Home Culture put out a call for artists to send in news items and short articles on their working lives. Isabel was one of those who responded. Between 1880 and 1882 the magazine also published several of her letters, including one on the morality of artists’ models which – she thought – got her into trouble with the Royal Academy and the Society of Lady Artists. The Artist also mentioned Isabel’s talk (in 1881) on Art and the Supernatural, which she gave at the British National Association of Spiritualists; though it didn’t elaborate on what she had said.
Isabel wrote two signed contributions to The Artist..’s ‘the roving artist’ column. Her first followed a summer (probably 1880) spent in Brittany. She described Brittany as “cheap and agreeable” and thought it would repay “a couple of months’ work” but not more. She appreciated the fact that the Bretons, being used to having painters in their midst, “do what artists most prefer – leave them alone” and she did think that her trip had been worthwhile. She strongly recommended artists to go to Carnac and “the mysterious sea of Morbihan”; and she was intrigued by the “mysterious cave of Gavr-inis” which had carvings on its walls - “wandering lines where the eye loses itself” - images whose meaning was now lost.
Isabel’s second ‘roving artist’ contribution was on Fontainebleau and Barbizon, which I think she visited in the summer 1881. She arrived already in a state of mind to find fault: originally she had intended to spend the summer in the West Country, but the weather had been so bad she’d had to move on, and probably spend more money than she had intended. At Fontainebleau the forest scenes had not inspired in her any desire to paint: to her mind, they were not picturesque. Moving on to the well-known artists’ colony at Barbizon, she’d been disgusted with the village itself - “inexpressibly ugly dirty” and – its biggest crime in her eyes - “modern”, a place full of “disorder and dulness”. The chief inn was expensive, with rooms that hadn’t seen much cleaning lately. She gave up the idea of painting in either place and I think (from other sources, she doesn’t say so in the article) moved on to Paris. She suggested to The Artist...’s readers that unless they had an urge to paint “dirt and dunghills”, they go elsewhere.
Sources for The Artist and Journal of Home Culture
It has a wiki, naming the editors from 1882 but not the editor from 1880 to 1882. It may be a function of the issues google has access to, but I haven’t found any articles by Isabel in The Artist after mid-1882.
At www.victorianperiodicals.com: there’s a short history of the magazine, which was published from its first issue in January 1880 to September 1883 by William Reeves. In the autumn of 1883 Reeves sold it to Gardner, Wells, Dalton and Co and they appointed their own editor.
Dictionary of 19th Century Journalism Ghent: Academia Press p25 entry for The Artist… has more on William Reeves. His main business was a retailer of artists’ supplies, so perhaps Isabel was a customer of his; but the Dictionary says that while he was its publisher, The Artist… actively cultivated women readers – hence the subtitle of and Journal of Home Culture. Isabel was a great magazine reader so she needn’t have been a customer of Reeves to have come across it.
As none of the sources above give the name of the magazine’s editor from 1880 to 1882, I assume it was William Reeves himself.
The request for articles by artists:
The Artist and Journl of Home Culture volume 1 1880 issue of 1 August 1880: p304.
The Artist and Journl of Home Culture volume 2 1881 issue of 1 March 1881: p93 The Roving Artist: Isabel on Brittany. Issue of 1 May 1881 p158 Isabel’s talk at the BNAS. Issue of 1 October 1881 p301 The Roving Artist: Isabel on Fontainebleau and Barbison. And a ‘roving artist’ NOT by Isabel: Issue of 1 April 1881 p125 Roving Artist: the delights of Capri. Isabel had certainly visited Capri by 1886 but I’m sure she wasn’t the author of this piece: it’s anonymous and she always signed her work; and it’s a very enthusiastic piece in a bubbly style – not like Isabel at all!
There was something by Isabel on pp142 of this volume but I haven’t been able to read that page as yet; pages 142 and 143 were not available via google when I searched, and paper copies of The Artist...’s earliest years are hard to find.
HER VIEWS ON ART – LATER IN HER LIFE
In Memorabilia (written between 1910 and 1925) Isabel expressed very frank opinions on art, its purpose and the role of the artist. To her, art - and music as well – should never be seen as expensive superfluities in society; they should be the foundation of any person’s existence. That meant that artists had a particular duty to be “searchers after ideal beauty”, an ideal that – inevitably – was always out of reach. Isabel’s view of what ideal beauty in a painting actually was required artists to show an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface – an aim that needed effort; not just inspiration. Whatever the artist painted, it had to be the highest quality work the artist was capable of. In 1878 she wrote that it was better to paint a cockroach well than an angel badly. Later, she thought she hadn’t expressed her meaning very well because of course, an artist would never paint a cockroach. She thought they shouldn’t paint peasants, either; but of course even when she said they shouldn’t (in 1881), they were doing so.
In part, Isabel’s views were a reaction to what she called the “deadness” of the Evangelical and commerce-orientated atmosphere in which she grew up, in 1830s and 1840s Liverpool. But I think they were also a reflection of her own personality, something that may have come out best in the paintings she did whose titles suggest the influence of western esotericism; in which she tried to portray “mysterious corners of the world, the sealed books to science”.
Perhaps it’s already becoming obvious that Isabel never reconciled herself to modern art, with its focus on “formal structure and surface pattern” and its portrayal of everyday subject-matter to that end. Modern art’s “chance creation” of a work of art out of ideas coming up from (Isabel’s quotes) the “inner consciousness” was not what she thought art was about at all. Its “chaotic scribbling and daubing” was also the end of the art created by the Renaissance.
Isabel wasn’t venting her opinions on the basis of no real knowledge. She had seen and read about a great deal of the modern art ‘isms’; though in Memorabilia she never mentions any of the ‘expressionisms’ or surrealism so she may not have known about those.
The earliest modern art movement that Isabel wrote about was the Barbizon group. It had come together around 1830 and stayed active until around 1870; so when Isabel visited the village it was named after, in 1881, she arrived some years after its heyday. Formed of people who were influenced by the landscapes of John Constable, the group became known for its paintings of peasants working in typically French rural landscapes. An exhibition of Barbizon-group paintings was on when Isabel arrived in Barbizon, so she went to see it “Art there was none”, she wrote of the paintings on display. The artists were “daubers of stupid vulgar subjects”, she wrote; and she mixed up the names of the group’s most well-known artists - Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau – to produce one called Théodore Millet. Looking back when writing Memorabilia Isabel did spare one Barbizon painting from this general indictment: she thought Millet’s The Angelus – which portrays two peasants in a field, in a moment of religious enlightenment – to be a very spiritual painting: spirituality in art was something she could appreciate.
Although she doesn’t specifically say she saw any of his work, I think Isabel must have seen murals and perhaps paintings as well, by Puvis de Chavannes: in Amiens (works done in the 1860s and 1884); and in Paris (works from the 1870s). Puvis de Chavanne was one of the early symbolists. His work struck Isabel as another unwelcome challenge to the ideals of the Renaissance she held dear: unlike Greek sculpture which portrayed Nature at its best, Puvis de Chavannes painted Nature at its worst.
Isabel knew about impressionism – which she described as an “illness”; and about cubism and its British descendant, vorticism; but viewed them as expressing feeling and nothing else. By 1921 she had read what she described as van Gogh’s memoirs. She had “rejoiced” in his “mystical autobiography” and agreed with his emphasis on the importance of showing the beauty of objects by portraying them plainly. However, when it came to the “maniacal juxtapositions...dazzling to the optic nerves” that were his paintings, she thought they just showed how far he had failed to achieve his aims. Cubism she seems to have been more puzzled by than condemning of: she thought it was the static, canvas equivalent of moving pictures. Perhaps she was right!
I’m not quite sure where Isabel would have seen examples of art from post-Revolutionary Russia. She may only have read about it. She certainly realised that it was the antipathy of what she thought art should be. Soviet art focused on materials (particularly modern, industrial ones), on art for mass production, and on the functional rather than the beautiful. Isabel thought the Bolsheviks were doing their best to kill art altogether, by insisting that it represent a political stance, rather than the Truth.
All the ‘isms’ Isabel commented on with such dislike bordering on despair were art coming out of Europe; Isabel was not alone in feeling a great deal of hostility towards them on that account. Apart from Vorticism’s brief mention, she didn’t have quite so much to say about art trends within Great Britain; but she did have something to say about the influence of Ruskin on British art in the 19th-century, and he was not spared from criticism.
Isabel had read the early work of John Ruskin before she was 18 (that is, before 1854) but hadn’t liked its criticisms of the Old Masters. She didn’t appreciated Ruskin’s arguments until she finally read his later work, long after his influence on British art had made way for the ideas of Rossetti and William Morris. While admitting from the vantage-point of the early 20th-century that Ruskin’s writings had led to a new way of looking at nature, she thought they also showed the kind of “sickly sentimentalism”. She particularly disliked the sentimentalism of “Miss Kate Greenaway and her chubby little children in their pretty green gardens” - an artist Ruskin was a supporter of.
Sources; most of which are Memorabilia
Wikipedia on Barbizon group; Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98); van Gogh (1853-90) and where Isabel could have seen examples of his work; Vorticism; Ruskin. Website www.theartstory.org for art in the Soviet Union in the years after the revolution.
The modern art aesthetic of “formal structure and surface pattern”: I saw this quote on wall at the Sargent Watercolours exhibition Dulwich Art Gallery 24 August 2017. The exhibition was making a good case for Sargent’s watercolours as definitely in the modernist camp.
- on the Evangelicals: p45.
- on the nature of art and the aims of the artist: Memorabilia p3, p35, p111, p129, p86 and The Artist and Journal of Home Culture volume 2 1881 p93: Isabel on Brittany.
- modern art as scribbles and daubs: p11.
- on the Barbizon group: The Artist and Journal of Home Culture volume 2 1881, issue of 1 October 1881 p301. On second thoughts about The Angelus: Memorabilia p164.
There are plenty of reproductions on the web of Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus: oil; 1857-59; now in the Musée d’Orsay.
- on impressionism, cubism and vorticism: p110, p290.
-on Soviet art: p132.
- on van Gogh: p130. Vincent van Gogh died in July 1890 and as early as 1891 Isabel could have seen some of his paintings on exhibition. In 1901 there was a major retrospective in Paris; and in the years up to World War 1 his work was shown widely in Europe and the USA. I can’t find a Memoir by van Gogh that Isabel could have read. She may be meaning The Letters of a Post-Impressionist translated from the German and with an introduction by Anthony M Ludovici. London: Constable and Co 1912. Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo weren’t published in English until after Isabel’s death.
- on Ruskin: p36, p38, p123. Ruskin’s Modern Painters will be the early work Isabel read in her teens. Published London: Smith Elder and Co; volume 1 in 1843, volume 2 in 1846. In volume 1, Ruskin championed Turner against his critics and against the way the Old Masters painted landscape. In volume 2, Ruskin linked the aesthetic with the divine. In mid-century, Ruskin was a defender of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Isabel doesn’t have much to say in Memorabilia about photography as such. I don’t think she ever learned to take photographs and develop them and she probably lived rather too early to appreciate the possibilities of it as an art form. She did realise that for an artist, it was a useful practical tool. Several times in Memorabilia she mentions in passing that she had a photograph of this or that painting, and I wonder if she had all her art works photographed, as a matter of course. On at least two occasions, she worked on a painting using a photograph as the basis for the design. Particularly during the period that she was influenced by Alma-Tadema, she might have collected photographs of classical architecture, like he did, to help with painting backgrounds; though she does not say she ever did this, she only mentions using her own sketches.
Photography brought portraiture (at least in black and white) to the mass of the population who couldn’t even dream of commissioning an artist to paint them. Isabel, of course, could have painted her own portrait; and did so in a particular way, in her old age. However, she also had herself photographed several times. One of the illustrations to Memorabilia is the portrait she had done around 1880, with paint brushes and easel in hand and staring challengingly at the camera, very much the professional artist.
Isabel was a spiritualist, she believed in the existence of both ghosts and spirits. She thought they looked like humans. She thought they could be painted - I wish I knew whether she painted any herself! - and that they could be photographed. Consequently, when she thought she had seen the same spirit in two different photographs, one recent and one from 20 years ago, she wrote to the spiritualist magazine Light to tell its readers of this curious coincidence. What an uproar her letter caused! Although she had not implied anything of the sort, Isabel was accused of suggesting that the more recent photograph had been faked. The photographer’s friends were up in arms and the current owner of the earlier photograph – GD member John William Brodie-Innes – became very angry at demands that he make his photograph available for their inspection, demands that he thought were implying he had faked it himself. In fact, the more recent photograph was found to have been faked: you could see the wires, apparently. Isabel’s letter had been instrumental in causing the photographer’s methods to be investigated; not what she intended at all. I think she might have been quite disappointed that in one case at least, the ghost or spirit she thought she saw in the two photographs wasn’t actually there.
Isabel’s photographs of her paintings: Memorabilia p159, p279.
Isabel using photographs as the basis for a painting; they were both rather special cases: Memorabilia p141, pp177-179.
The reappearing ghost/spirit:
Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research. Published London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Isabel’s letter: volume 14 1894 number 708 Sat 4 August 1894 p370. Replies and accusations: see the next two issues. The more recent photograph that Isabel had seen was mentioned in Light volume 14 1894 number 679 Sat 13 January 1894 p19: it was the frontispiece of a book, The Veil Lifted. The book was mainly the publication of a series of talks on spiritualism, particularly one given by Mr Traill Taylor on 8 March 1893 to the London and Provincial Photography Association. Light’ s editor described the frontispiece as the “very beautiful face” of a spirit/ghost photographed by Mr Glendinning with Mr Duguid acting as medium.
If Isabel did any design work, I have not come across it yet. She was quite clear, however, about the importance of good design, especially in cities; giving good design more importance than other aspects of building a city that people were glad to live in. In Memorabilia Isabel condemns 19th-century Liverpool not for its notorious slums, but for its “dull ugliness”. She rails at several generations of property developers in Liverpool, not for for erecting tenements that were a hazard to life and health, but for building “ugly old streets” with buildings packed in where there had been gardens and trees before. If it seems rather harsh of her, not to seem to care about people’s well-being, her attitude was consistent with her firm belief that art and beauty were as important to human society as drains and fresh air.
Isabel found out about the garden city concept when she went to a talk by Ebenezer Howard. Howard’s book on the subject - To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform - was published in 1898 and launched the garden city movement. Isabel became a shareholder in Letchworth, the first garden city, investing in either Garden City Pioneer Company (founded June 1902 and wound up 18 months later) or in the company that actually bought the land at Letchworth, First Garden City Limited (share issue September 1903).
By the time she was finishing Memorabilia in the early 1920s she may have visited Letchworth to see a garden city for herself. She had definitely been driven around Wavertree, Liverpool’s garden suburb. The design of the houses in Liverpool Garden Suburb was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement – like those in Letchworth. And of course all Arts and Crafts architecture owed a huge amount to the houses of Bedford Park, Chiswick, where Isabel had lived for three years in the late 1880s. She was delighted with Queen’s Drive and Wavertree: “new roads...adorned with trees and gardens and delightful little houses”. It even gave her some pride in Liverpool as her native city – a feeling she hadn’t had for decades – and particularly in the work of City Engineer John Alexander Brodie, designer of Queen’s Drive, in giving Liverpool’s old streets “a most picturesque surrounding of beautiful roads, and in an arrangement which seems to me to suit modern wants and desires extraordinarily well”.
- on Brodie and the garden city suburb of Liverpool at Queen’s Park:
Memorabilia pxx, pp99-100 and pp285-86 though the references read as though Isabel had never met Mr Brodie in person. On Isabel’s drive around Wavertree Garden Suburb: pxxii.
John Alexander Brodie’s engineering work is important enough for him to have his own entry in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, at www.gracesguide.co.uk. In 1889 he invented the football goal net! He was appointed City Engineer of Liverpool in 1898. As well as being engineer in charge of the building of Queen’s Drive (Liverpool’s first ring road) and Wavertree, he also designed some houses in Letchworth.
- on Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City Movement:
Wikipedia on Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928); Una Stubbs is a descendant of his. And these two biographies:
Sir Ebenezer Howard and the Town Planning Movement by Dugald Macfadyen. Manchester University Press 1933. On p20: Howard’s ideas were influenced by a novel Isabel may have known: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, published in the US only in 1888; though this biography says Howard didn’t read it until 1898. The first lectures on garden cities were not until 1898. Garden City Association: pp24-25; Garden City Pioneer Co p38; First Garden City Ltd p39.
Lifelines 18: An Illlustrated Life of Sir Ebenezer Howard by John Moss-Eccardt. Shire Publications Ltd 1973. This biography pp14-15 implies that Howard read Bellamy’s novel much sooner, and worked on the ideas that became the garden city movement for ten years before his book was published. But it doesn’t mention any early lectures on the subject.
At www.rickmansworthherts.com an article: The Effect of Sir Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City Movement on 20th Century Planning. By Norman Lucey. This article also says that Howard’s garden city scheme was developed over many years; but without further details.
The 1898 edition of Howard’s book had an influence out of all proportion to its rather small print-run. The British Library only has the 2nd edition, with its revised name: Garden Cities of Tomorrow. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co Ltd 1902.
Liverpool Garden Suburb at Wavertree:
Design Culture in Liverpool 1880-1914: the Origins of the Liverpool School of Architecture by Christopher Crouch. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2002: p13, p178, p182. The arterial road Queen’s Drive was begun in 1904; 6½ miles around and a minimum of 120 feet across, it was designed by James Alexander Brodie to ease traffic flow while bringing green space into the city; he had in mind that there would be more cars on the roads in future – how prescient that was! It wasn’t part of Brodie’s brief to build a garden surburb near it, but in 1910 the Co-Partnership Tenants Ltd put forward a plan to build such a suburb on land enclosed by Queen’s Drive at Wavertree. Building began in 1910; was halted by World War 1; but continued afterwards.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
19 September 2017
Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: