Views of the Edwardian era have swung between seeing the period as a golden summer afternoon of imperial and elite complacency and the starkly conflicting depiction of the decade as one of intense political, economic, and artistic instability leading up to the chasm of the First World War. The magnificent Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century explores themes of power and a contrasting lightness of touch through the distinctive architecture, interiors, and decorative and fine arts of the time.
To coincide with the recent opening of this fascinating exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, here’s a specially chosen excerpt from the catalogue Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century — edited by the Angus Trumble and Andewa Wolk Rager, published by Yale University Press — introducing the Edwardian figures and ideas that continue to haunt our imagination. Meanwhile, on the Yale University Press facebook page there’s a special sneak preview of images from the catalogue.
‘Every social status has its own interest, and to the artist it can be just as compelling to show the ways of a Queen as the habits of a dress maker’.
– Marcel Proust, 1903
‘”What are the gaieties of the Rich, the splendours of the Powerful, what is the pride of the Great, what are the gaudy pleasures of High Society?”
The voice, which had risen in tone, questioningly, from sentence to sentence dropped suddenly and boomed reply. “They are nothing. Vanity, fluff, dandelion seed in the wind, thin vapours of fever. The things that matter happen in the heart. Seen things are sweet, but those unseen are a thousand times more significant. It is the Unseen that counts in Life.” Mrs. Wimbush lowered the book. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said’.
– Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow, 1921
The challenge of defining the Edwardian era prompts a deceptively simple question. When, in broadly cultural and artistic terms, did the twentieth century really begin? This seemingly self-evident query has persistently vexed the historiography of modern British art and culture for the past one hundred years. Virginia Woolf famously heralded a new and ferocious avant-garde in London by proclaiming the birth of modernism only at the close of the Edwardian era, declaring, “on about December 1910, human character changed.” Woolf was referring specifically to Roger Fry’s hurriedly assembled loan exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries, an event that was then, as now, sorely tempting to regard as a watershed. In Woolf’s influential formulation, the Edwardian era is cast as little more than indolent coda drifting behind the long Victorian era. Nineteenth-century values persisted, while a more viably modern twentieth-century Britain was effectively postponed. The trauma of the Great War did much to further solidify the sense that the twentieth century only really got under way in its grim aftermath, with the Spanish influenza pandemic accomplishing whatever human devastation the war had not.
Yet historians have also long recognized that Britain, in the first decade of the twentieth century, was borne on a colossal torrent of political, social, economic and cultural change, continual and unstoppable. The push for women’s suffrage the rise of the labour movement, the rapid evolution of cinema and recorded sound, the spread of motor tourism, advances in quantum physics and inorganic chemistry, the attainment of engine-propelled flight – these developments are but a few that had especially revolutionary implications throughout subsequent decades. This alternate view seems almost diametrically opposed to the one from Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, which, after all, was a literary and artistic milieu no less elite than the world of John Singer Sargent and Charles Wellington Furse, from which it vigorously sought to differentiate itself. Similarly, Aldous Huxley’s first novel Crome Yellow, quoted above, is a veiled portrait of the Bloomsbury hostess and patron Lady Ottoline Morrell, in which the character of Mrs. Wimbush interests herself in horoscopes, spiritualism, so-called new thought and the occult. However, her home, modelled on Morrell’s Garsington Manor, is in every other respect the conventional setting for an Edwardian country-house party, with its long gallery, chintzes, austere antiques, and Chinese porcelains.
As Huxley suggests, the competing vision of Edwardian Britain outlined above have proven so intractable in part because they originate within the period itself, an age characterized by divisive tensions and marked dualities. As this exhibition and catalogue assert, the Edwardian period draws its enduring fascination from the productive interstices set between diametrically opposed binaries: tradition and technology, languor and speed, rural and urban, local and global, nation and empire, conservation and progressives connoisseurship and consumerism, high art and popular culture, the leisure class and the ascendant bourgeoisie hedonistic luxury and chivalric sacrifice, the burden of history and the boundless possibilities of the future. Both from our own vantage point and from the perspective of the Edwardians themselves, it was a time poised on the brink of destiny, self-consciously aware of a momentousness that would later be sustained by the onset of disastrous events.
– From the Introduction to Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century