By the mid 1880s, two artists working in Britain had developed distinctly Impressionist tendencies: Whistler and his former pupil Sickert. At the same time, several young and aspiring painters decided to set up their own exhibitions independent of the Royal Academy, which for well over a century had been dominant, and formed the establishment.
Like the Salon in France, and its academy system centred on the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, London’s Royal Academy, supported by its art Schools, prized academic style and genres such as history and mythological painting. Since the demise of the great British landscape painters Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, that genre had sunk to what they considered to be its rightful place.
The President of the Royal Academy was Sir Frederic, later Lord, Leighton (1830–1896). In about 1886, as the New English Art Club was being formed, he painted this two by four metre (6 x 8 feet) canvas showing the Captive Andromache.
Referring to two classical Greek plays by Euripides, Leighton shows Hector’s widow in black mourning clothes, in the centre. She’s queueing with many other women also captured from Troy, to fill her vase with water from a well, shown at the right. Although others have children and appear to be clustered into groups, Andromache stands in isolation (her infant son Astyanax having been murdered), her head bowed in silent thought.
Wonderful though this painting is, the young artists returning from training in France were full of the up-and-coming artists there, and wanted their own club and their own jury for exhibitions. Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856–1916) had recently completed his time at the Académie Julian, studying under Bouguereau and Robert-Fleury. Although he’d exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists and the Grosvenor Gallery, he was an enthusiastic co-founder and the first secretary of the new club in 1886.
Kennington’s speciality were Naturalist paintings of the urban poor, such as Orphans (1885), as well as scenes from everyday life. It’s claimed that he was influenced in this by Murillo, who is rightly famous for his pioneering paintings of the poor of Seville. However, it would have been very surprising if he hadn’t become familiar with the new Naturalist painting in Paris, led by Jules Bastien-Lepage, who had died suddenly and very young in December 1884.
His Pinch of Poverty from 1889 takes a popular theme of the time, the innumerable young children selling flowers on London’s streets, again centred on urban poverty and deprivation. His skilful use of the surface effects of a wet pavement is reminiscent of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), which Kennington may have seen when he was in Paris.
In his Homeless from 1890, he shows a young homeless and starving boy collapsed on the pavement (sidewalk) in winter. A young woman, who had been carrying a large bundle of washing, so is presumably a servant herself, has stopped to try to revive the boy, cradling him in her arms.
Frederick Brown (1851–1941) was another co-founder of the Club who was clearly influenced by Bastien-Lepage and his Naturalist paintings of the poor, although he’s not thought to have trained in Paris until the winter of 1886.
Brown’s An Impromptu Dance – a Scene on the Chelsea Embankment from 1883 shows a pair of little girls and four young women dancing on the pavement of a London street to the tune of the organ grinder at the right. Brown wrote the Club’s constitution, then in 1893 he was appointed Slade Professor of Art, so joining the establishment himself.
In addition to these Naturalists, the Club attracted those with more landscape and Impressionist leanings.
The wonderfully named Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (1821-1906) travelled extensively throughout Europe from 1858, painting mainly in watercolour and gouache. As he had substantial private means, he did not exhibit his work or try to sell it until late in his life. He lived instead “for Art and Sunshine”, and was a good friend of John Singer Sargent, who encouraged him to show his paintings.
When visiting the city in 1880, he painted this oil sketch of Florence.
His undated gouache painting of Capri is an unusual nocturne, showing a lonely and rugged section of the coast. An isolated villa stands in the bay, steps curving their way from it down to the tiny beach. This could have been painted at any time from about 1858 to 1904, but was most probably made around 1890.
This undated gouache Mountain Landscape is further evidence of his thoroughly painterly and progressive style, which would almost certainly have fallen foul of the Academy.
Walter Sickert joined the Club in 1888, by which time its leading Impressionist was Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942). He had initially trained in London, where he was rejected by the Royal Academy Schools, so studied in Paris between 1882-84. He gained a place at the École des Beaux-Arts there, where he became a follower of Impressionism. Although he exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1883-85, he was a founder member of the Club and an enthusiastic exhibitor.
His Portrait of Miss Rose Pettigrew from 1887 shows his very sketchy style just a year after the formation of the Club.
Steer’s coastal and beach views are among the most overtly Impressionist works painted in England in the late nineteenth century: this is Summer at Cowes (on the Isle of Wight) from 1888.
In the late 1880s, he spent time on the coast of north Suffolk, at two small but popular resorts, Walberswick and Southwold, which are only a mile apart. Among the scenes he painted there are The Beach at Walberswick above, and Southwold below, both from about 1889.
The New English Art Club was thus the venue for the formation of the group of British Impressionists during the late 1880s. But it was mixed company, alongside Naturalists who had a different outlook on painting. So in 1889, Steer and the other Impressionists broke away and formed the London Impressionists, which centred on the Goupil Gallery in the city.