AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
Published March 24. 2013 4:00AM
Many Americans are quite familiar with Edwardian England, thanks to the British TV series "Downton Abbey." Fans caught between seasons of the popular show might find inspiration at the newly opened exhibition at Yale Center for British Art titled "Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the 20th-century."
And yet, this is not simply a showcase of the art and objects of this early period of conspicuous consumption that fell between the Victorian era and the Great War (1901-1910).
It is a large, varied and thoughtful exploration of a time that, in some ways, valued tradition and resisted modernization, and in other ways could not help but adapt to the onslaught of political, social, economic and cultural changes occurring throughout Great Britain.
As co-curators Angus Trumble (senior curator of paintings and sculpture at YCBA) and Andrea Wolk Rager (visiting assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio) point out in their introduction to the exhibit's hefty 415-page catalogue, "This theme of temporal duality, of nostalgic longing and revolutionary modernity, weaves its way through 'Edwardian Opulence' in tandem with another prominent dyad, that of the leisure class and the aspiring bourgeoisie."
Paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, jewelry and decorative arts by British as well as international artists and designers fill two floors of exhibition space, emphasizing the many cultural conflicts in a period that lasted less than decade, yet included "the push for women's suffrage, the rise of the labor movement, the rapid evolution of cinema and recorded sound, the spread of motor tourism, advances in quantum physics and organic chemistry, and the attainment of engine-propelled flight," according to Trumble and Rager. The curators note that these were just some of the developments that would have revolutionary implications.
For example, the first bay of the exhibit "includes three remarkable portraits and one dress that represents the full breadth of the Imperial elite at the turn of the 19th century, early 20th century," said Trumble on a recent tour.
The portraits of two women are by rival artists Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent. Boldini's flamboyant "Portrait of a Lady" is of Mrs. Lionel Phillips, who was born of modest means and became one of the era's most socially ambitious women, while Sargent's "Lady Evelyn Cavendish" is a more formal portrait of a woman born into wealth. Together they epitomize "the established aristocracy and rising middle class," and "the tensions and duality that marked the Edwardian period," Trumble said.
The lavish gown, crafted by the House of Worth in Paris, features hand-embroidery with silver and gold thread completed by artisans in India.
"It combines the English ruling stance with the exotic," said Rager, referring to the gown. She added that although the show focuses on Edwardian England, "it has a very global scope (including) the people behind the scenes and it really explores the mythology of the period."
Another interesting pairing in the exhibit, a nod to the new age of electricity in Britain, are exquisite little Faberge bell pushes intricately decorated with gold and gemstones that were used to alert servants at Buckingham Palace. These are positioned next to a simple flower-shaped brass table lamp that would have been affordable to the rising middle class.
Rager noted that the arts and crafts design principles were applied to both but in different ways and that nothing is concealed in the lamp while everything is concealed in the bell pushes-perhaps a metaphor for the closed wealthy aristocratic culture resisting opening up the coming modern age.
There are a number of masculine-themed paintings by artists who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, such as "Columbus in the New World," an enormous oil by Edwin Austin Abbey (on loan from Yale University Art Gallery across the street). Known for his ambitious, theatrical paintings, in this extraordinary and ambiguous scene, the wind blows in one direction, while a flock of seagulls fly aggressively in the opposite direction.
In another dramatic Abbey painting, "The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester," based on a scene from Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part 2" Eleanor is alone among a crowd of men, prior to her banishment for witchcraft. As mentioned in the catalogue, the painting is a reflection of one of the challenges the suffragettes faced in publicizing their cause-the socially unacceptable practice of women "making a spectacle of themselves."
"It's important to remember how bitter and divisive the push for women's suffrage was during the Edwardian period," Trumble commented.
"Edwardian Opulence" is fascinating-not only for the impressive research that went into gathering the nuanced stories behind the many carefully chosen works in the exhibition, but because it gives the viewer a big window into what, in the greater picture, is a small slice of history.