Wednesday, February 20, 2019

395. Ricketts and Shannon as Old Masters of the Future

About a week ago Brill publishers (Leiden/Boston) published Art Crossing Borders. The Internationalisation of the Art Market in the Age of Nation States, 1750-1914, edited by Jan Dirk Baetens and Dries Lyna. For this compilation 'our' contributor Barbara Pezzini wrote an essay entitled '(Inter)national Art: The London Old Masters Market and Modern British Painting (1900-14)', addressing the themes of national versus international art, and old masters versus modern artists, and in particular how British artists of around 1900 dealt with the European art of the past. 

Art Crossing Borders (2019)
Barbara Pezzini currently is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Visual Resources, working on research projects for the London National Gallery and ArtUk. 

The book Art Crossing Borders is published in open access and all essays are available for free on the Brill website. In her essay Pezzini examines the situation in London at a time when once expensive late Victorian paintings had lost a large deal of their financial value, and in which a new generation of painters sought to associate themselves with either modernism and Italian, Dutch or French paintings from the Renaissance, while all around them a diverse range of artistic endeavours by the likes of academic historical painters, symbolist artists, and impressionistic painters coexisted. 

Pezzini argues that the information networks of artists, critics and dealers were involved in a debate about the historic British school of painting and the relationship of modern art to 'modernity' on the one hand and to art history as a whole on the other. Work by modern artists such as Wilson Steer, William Rothenstein, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon was, for example, shown at the Carfax gallery alongside Italian, Flemish, French, Dutch old master prints and paintings (Pezzini reproduces an advertisement from The Burlington Magazine, March 1903). Likewise, writers about old masters also wrote about modern artists, and these artists were seen as connoisseurs and experts.

Those writers were invariably active as curators of exhibitions of museums (Charles Holmes for example), others were artists themselves (such as Ricketts), and most of them combined professional roles as scholar/artist and curator/art adviser for dealers. Today's professional integrity was not an issue yet. Most art galleries and shops had turned to old masters as a source of income after the decline in value of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Art critic and museum director Charles Holmes advised collectors to invest in modern artists who would become the old masters of the future (see his work Pictures and Picture Collecting, 1903, second edition 1910).

Ricketts and Shannon belonged to a group of artists, Pezzini argues, that acquired a cosmopolitan view of art; they were trained in Paris or travelled around Europe. They gathered in new societies, and showed their view of French paintings (Charles Conder is an example) or Venetian art (Charles Shannon). Ricketts fused 'Spanish and Italian mannerism' in his painting 'Crucifixion' (c. 1908).

Charles Ricketts, 'Crucifixion' (c.1908) [© Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum]

El Greco, 'Crucifixion' (1604-1614)
Pezzini writes about Ricketts's painting that it 'finds in El Greco's Crucifixion (Toledo, Museo de Santa Cruz) [...], published by Cossío in 1908, its principal reference. Yet the torn drapery, dark sky and dramatic palette give his work a much more sombre atmosphere that hints towards a novel psychological despair and torment.'

The work of these relatively young painters - Ricketts and Shannon were nearing forty - was seen as 'reasonable in price' and 'a very safe investment' according to Holmes. The Burlington Magazine often mentioned modern art in commercial terms, and made comparisons with the art of the old masters, as was the case with Charles Shannon's tondo 'Hermes and the Infant Bacchus' that was likened to a work by Titian, and thus to an extremely valuable painting.

Pezzini asserts that the traditional interpretation of the backward glances towards old masters automatically dismisses these artists as old fashioned, nostalgic, parochial, and anti-modernistic. However, according to Pezzini, another possible reading based on her analyses of 'the intertwining of the art market, scholarship and artistic practice'  indicates that these artists 'aimed to live up to the comparison with the old masters and created a diverse cosmopolitan language'. It was not modernist art, still, it was art that dealt with topical concerns.

The same week that Pezzini's essay was published, another attempt to revalue the work of artists such as Ricketts arrived in the post. It appeared in the book historical review Book History (volume 21 for 2018, published January 2019) and was written by Anna Wager who won the Graduate Student Essay Prize for this essay on 'Photographs, Pens, and Print: William Morris and the Technologies of Typography'. Wager quotes Ricketts's remarks on type and argues that Morris who was in favour of manual processes didn't completely turn away from modern techniques, instead he used them to understand manuscript letters better during the formative processes of his new printing types.

These essays are sure signs of a renewed interest in the period around 1900, invoking alternative ways of looking at the past.