T he first item you see when visiting the Yale Center for British Art’s lush, lustrous new exhibit Edwardian Opulence is a fancy “bodice, skirt and train” dating from 1900-1903, created by the eminent Paris fashion firm House of Worth.
It’s a very fitting image, because the Opulence exhibit could just as easily be titled “House of Worth.” It’s largely about Britain’s then-elite, both established and upstart, and what they valued at the crest of their nation’s global empire.
Edwardian Opulence is subtitled British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, but it’s really about culture and society. The paintings, while magnificent, are important for what and who is in them. Same with that welcoming bodice/skirt/train, which was specially embroidered in India in that country’s Mughal style, and thus represents England’s colonial acquisitions.
The exhibit, which requires two floors of the museum to hold all its opulence, is high on heroism (from an image of St. George to a sculpture of the original Boy Scout) and celebrity (George Bernard Shaw comes up a lot. So does the polymath William Nicholson, who is the subject of some paintings in the show and the painter of others).
The period’s penchant for self-analysis is grandly shown in a series of “problem pictures” by John Collier and Charles Moxon Quiller Orchan, which depict vague scenarios based around pressing social and moral issues, subjects intended to spur debate. After the heavy melodrama of the problem pictures, the bright bucolic landscape paintings of Alfred East and the aforementioned William Nicholson couldn’t be more refreshing.
To those who don’t define eras of history based on which British king or queen was on the throne, the Edwardian era might be more easily described as beginning at the start of the 20th century and lasting until just before the Titanic sank. These are the times that shaped the characters on TV’s Downton Abbey (which depicts British life from 1912 into the ’20s). It’s also seen as a relatively blissful period preceding World War I.
Connecticut can relate to the period, since it follows a similar time of peace, prosperity, industry and affluence in the United States which roughly took place from the 1870s up to 1900. This period was dubbed “The Gilded Age” after the title of a satirical book penned in 1873 by Mark Twain and Hartford Courant editor-turned-novelist Charles Dudley Warner.
In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald would write (in his short story The Rich Boy): “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” But their possessions and attitudes seem pretty darn familiar, if you compare the British portraits found at the Yale Center for British Art and American ones found across Chapel Street at the Yale University Art Gallery or at other museums. The great New England portrait artist John Singer Sargent gets into this show, but you’d think of his work anyway, because the artist who strongly influenced him, Robert Brough, is in it, too. Brough and Giovanni Boldini—whose “Portrait of a Lady (Mrs. Lionel Phillips)” is the poster image of the exhibit, are the mainstream examples of the pomp-filled portrait art here. But wilder spirits such as Augustus John and William Orpen add freshness and sauciness to the lineup.
The exhibit itself is a multi-media feast, with film projections of London street scenes in 1902 and a glowing display of tinted “autochrome” photos. There are sound snippets of celebrity writers (Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster) and actors (Sarah Bernhardt, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Henry Irving) and composers (works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, Frank Bridge).
And there are related events that take place outside the gallery areas, from concerts to film series to a festival May 2-4 celebrating the music of Edward Elgar.
On March 9th at 2 p.m., the YCBA is screening examples of films made between 1897 and 1913 by the prolific Mitchell & Kenyon company. Many of the films, which depict major news events, everyday scenes and sports matches, were only recently rediscovered and restored.
Between March 23 and April 27, the center is also hosting a weekly “Edwardian Opulence on Film” series of movies set during that eventful and elegant time period. This includes comedies such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, dramas such as the Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, and children’s fare such as the 1970 version of E. Nesbit’s adventure serial The Railway Children.
Talks and lectures will cover how women and children fared in the early days of the 20th century (April 2 & 9), the concept of “National Identity in the Edwardian Era” (March 26) and “The Edwardian Infatuation with Ostrich Feathers” (May 21).
Up with Opulence!
Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm and Sunday 12-5pm through June 2nd.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.