Wednesday, December 30, 2020

492. The International Fine Arts Exhibition in Rome, 1911

Following the series of blog posts about the 1911 exhibition 'A Century of Art, 1810-1910' (blog posts 487, 488, 489, and 490), Jan Piggott authored the article below about the largest competing exhibition that year. 

The International Fine Arts Exhibition in Rome, 1911

In March 1911 Ricketts, home from Egypt, made frustrating preparations for his 'Century of Art, 1810-1910' exhibition, so full of character, at the Grafton Galleries on behalf of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. The Globe reviewer (quoted in Post 490) mentioned one special difficulty the organisers had coped with: severe demands on lenders from 'huge' exhibitions of British art elsewhere. 

1,232 oil paintings, sculptures, watercolours, prints and drawings were consigned to Rome that year as the British Section of 'The International Fine Arts Exhibition', under the government aegis of the Board of Trade. This indigestible largesse included an oil-painting, a sculpture and a pen-and-ink drawing by Ricketts, and two oil-paintings by Shannon; three of these five works were lent by the artists themselves.

British pavilion's portico designed by Edwin Lutyens:
'The Main Entrance of the British Fine Art Palace'
(from: International Fine Arts Exhibition Rome 1911. Souvenir of the British Section)

This Fine Arts 'Expo' at Rome marked the fiftieth Jubilee of the Kingdom of a reunified Italy. It ran from April 29th to November 19th, with 7,409,145 visitors; this attendance, diminished by a cholera epidemic and poor weather, disappointed the organisers. Meanwhile at Turin, the 'Esposizione Internazionale delle Industrie e del Lavoro', its ambitious twin enterprise, which also featured competitive national displays, attracted just over four million visitors; at Florence a horticultural exhibition made it a triple commemoration.

The obvious sources have not yielded any reference as to how Ricketts and Shannon proceeded in this Roman venture, and what they thought of it. My source, the British Section Souvenir – perhaps rather too grandiose, and definitely weighty – is in effect a 656-page catalogue, liberally illustrated with photographs of the British galleries and many select exhibits, including one painting each by Ricketts and by Shannon. The Souvenir, printed at the Ballantyne Press, was published by the British Board of Trade, appointed agents by a Royal Commission of many distinguished participants. 

An Executive Committee selected the exhibits, chaired by Sir Edward Poynter, President of the Royal Academy. One member was the Vice-President of the International Society, William Strang, an old associate of the two artists from The Pageant and the Society of Twelve. The short biographical entries in the Souvenir for both Ricketts and Shannon mention their membership of the International Society. Ricketts had played an important part in its organisation; the Rome project was obviously relevant to its ideals. The Society perhaps administered the submission and the loans of their works from the two artists. 

Photograph of the portico of Sir Edwin Luytens, 1916
Home for the British School at Rome

The British Pavilion

Adjoining the grounds of the Villa Borghese, twelve national pavilions were erected, temporary white structures. These were in the familiar early twentieth-century Expo manner, but nothing like the wild national architectural flourishes at the vast Paris 'Exposition Universelle' in 1900: they neither anticipated Disneyland, nor were truly magnificent. At Rome the sober 'Palaces' were of concrete, rolled steel, and cement, with plaster façades; they resembled the wonderfully boring facsimiles of Parliament Houses, reduced in scale, built for the 'Festival of Empire' at the Sydenham Crystal Palace that same British Coronation year of 1911. 

The great exception, however, among the Roman pavilions was acknowledged on all sides to be the British, designed by Edwin Lutyens in the 'English Baroque' manner. The portico reproduced the upper order of Wren's St. Paul's cathedral; the pediment asserted the royal coat of arms in relief, supported by a splendid lion and unicorn. Lutyens's design was so much admired by the mayor and people of Rome, history relates, that they gave the site to the British nation and even rebuilt it in permanent materials during World War One. It now houses the British School at Rome, the famous research institute. The other foreign pavilions were those of Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Spain, Russia, the United States and Japan; Italy itself filled the remaining three. 

The British works, borrowed, catalogued and consigned to Rome, were elegantly displayed in twelve spacious galleries, divided as 'Old Masters' and 'Living Artists'; the rooms were papered in red, the dado and doors painted black. This was (and surely still is) the most comprehensive display of British art ever seen on the Continent; the Foreword to the Souvenir claimed it was also 'admittedly unsurpassed either in artistic importance or historical completeness by any other nation'.

Charles Shannon, 'The Man in a Black Shirt' (1898)
[Self Portrait: London, National Portrait Gallery]

The Paris Expo 1900

The display was significantly larger than the British art exhibition at the Paris Expo in 1900. Among the 397 paintings by 292 old masters and living artists on view then was Shannon's self-portrait, 'The Man in a Black Shirt'; he and William Rothenstein had been awarded silver medals, while Walter Crane and Sir John Lavery got bronze. Ricketts did not submit, though invited. Ricketts thought the Modern British Art section at Paris 'singularly lifeless'. The selectors had been 'too democratic' and tried to include everyone. In The Art Journal book commemorating the Paris Exposition Joseph Pennell in the course of a review, 'Black-and-White at the Paris Exhibition', complained about the omissions in the prints and drawings section: 'To judge by the exhibition C.H. Shannon might never have made any lithographs, William Morris and his followers might not have done anything for the decoration of the book' (The Paris Exhibition 1900, ed. D.C. Thomson (London, The Art Journal, 1901, p. 335).

'The Clou of the Whole Art Exhibition'

At Rome in 1911 the British press (quoted at length in the Souvenir) was comically chauvinist: the Palace dominated all the others, on the finest site; it crowned the whole Expo; a foreigner had called its contents 'the clou of the whole art exhibition'. Again, the British Palace was 59 cm taller than the German, and 97 cm taller than the principal Italian one. Joseph Comyns Carr, the influential art critic and a founding Director of both the Grosvenor and the New Galleries, wrote for the Souvenir itself a discursive historical and critical introduction, explaining how this enterprise was 'the first time in any exhibition overseas a serious endeavour had been made to illustrate the progressive movement of the English School of painting'. In a particularly expansive section explaining the Pre-Raphaelite School (which was very well-represented on the walls) he pointed out that their works had only been known in Rome till now from reproductions. The exhibition was well enough established by the time the Souvenir appeared to record in it the 'sensation' actually made by their work at Rome, and likewise by Aubrey Beardsley, whom the Souvenir called 'a marvel' and generously illustrated. 

Charles Shannon, 'The Bath' (1908)
[said to be part of the Sydney Gallery collection c. 1920;
sold at auction in 2014; whereabouts unknown]

The catalogue entry for Shannon tells us he is an Associate of the Royal Academy, a 'painter in oil and lithographer'. He lent 'The Bath' and 'Portrait of the Artist' (now untraced), the latter reproduced in the Souvenir. This was also known as 'The Marble Torso' (see blog post 458): Shannon is looking at a portfolio of lithographs, the maimed classical statue behind. 

Ricketts is described as a 'painter in oil, sculptor, draughtsman and engraver on wood, book-printer of eminence'. His oil-painting was 'The Betrayal', lent by 'His Hon. Judge William Evans' (now at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, bequeathed by Gordon Bottomley) and it was reproduced in the Souvenir. The sculpture was a bronze, 'The Tragic Man', lent by himself. 

Charles Ricketts, 'The Betrayal' (1904)
[Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle]

Lewis Hind, in 'Charles Ricketts. A Commentary on his Activities', in The Studio for January 1910 (see blog post 375) tells us this represented 'a Christ before the people, known as The Tragic Man, a modern version of the Laocöon'. Hind wrote, 'I have spoken of Mr. Ricketts as modeller, not as sculptor, for sculpture seems to denote something larger than the little bronzes which it is his delight to fashion. The penalty of producing works of this nature, so charming and sensitive to those who take the trouble to seek them out, is that in a large gallery they are apt to be overlooked by the cursory visitor. Mr. Ricketts exhibited four at a recent exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers'.

Black and White Drawings

The British 'Black-and-white Drawings, Etchings, Engravings' gallery, with work by living and deceased artists, showed no wood-engravings or books, although there were drawings for illustrations by Beardsley (out of six, four for Salomé) and by two other artists. Here the intriguing (presumably lost) item by Ricketts was a pen and ink drawing, 'Invitation Card for a "Black and White" Smoking Evening.' This was lent by Marion Harry Spielmann, brother of Sir Isidor Spielmann, Commissioner General of the British Section. Spielmann, author of the 1898 life of Millais, was a prolific writer. He was also the editor of The Magazine of Art from 1887 to 1904, very hospitable to black-and-white work by Ricketts (from 1890), among it an especially fine Shakespearean songs series. The same goes for Black and White, a Weekly Illustrated Record and Review (1891-1912) that had contributions by Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Jerome K. Jerome, and Samuel Levy Bensusan, brother-in-law of Lucien Pissarro. (For Ricketts's early illustrations in Black and White, see blog post 45).

Ricketts and Shannon are unlikely to have been happy with the company their works kept among very many of the 255 British paintings by 235 'Living Artists' on view. Ricketts would most likely have thought pusillanimous decency and fairness once again spoiled  an official selection of British art for the Continent, just as it had been in Paris in 1900: The Times (6 May 1911) put it that 'The lions of the New English and the International have lain down with the lambs of the Royal Academy and the R.W.S. [Royal Watercolour Society]; all have worked together, and the result is that justice has been done to everybody'. However, associates and friends brightened the British Section: Edmund Davis lent Rossetti's wonderful drawing 'Paolo and Francesca'; Glyn Philpot (who was 26) showed 'Manuelito, the Circus Boy' (reproduced in the Souvenir), William Rothenstein (of The Pageant and the Society of Twelve) showed two oil-paintings, and Alphonse Legros a portrait etching of Charles Holroyd.
                                                                                                                   Jan Piggott