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The Beginning of an Era

Paper given at symposium The End of an Era? New Perspectives on Edwardian Art,

Yale Center for British Art, May 11, 2013

Michael Hatt


I want to pick up on Morna O’Neill’s point about the problem of Edwardian as a specifically art historical term. This is, I think, the central theoretical and methodological question we face. Art history tells very different stories about the Edwardians from other histories, political or economic, and we need to address that difference.

The key question remains: were they modern? The fact that this symposium is titled ‘End of an Era’ reflects that very squarely. My contention will be that the Edwardian decade does produce a distinctive modernity that it still recognisable to us today, but that for art historians it is not easily addressed. It cannot be glimpsed in the glam and glitter of high-end culture; nor is it to be found in modernism. The narratives of modernism tend to assume that modernity and modernism simply do fit together; and even where there are attempts to pull them apart, there still tends to be a desire to define modernity and what it leaves behind in terms of surface and effect. I think we need to conceive modernity as structural rather than experiential or aesthetic or stylistic; or at least, as something that cannot be defined purely in terms of our dreams about historical experience, and must pay heed to structures and politics, not simply as context or background, but as what modernity is. (And this is something that permeated our discussions in The Edwardian Sense from the very first meetings when we sat down with Chris Breward, Lynn Nead and Andrew Stephenson to sketch the shape of the project.)

So what is most distinctive, most modern about the Edwardian era?

First and foremost, it’s a new conception of the state and its relationship to the individual; in particular, the New Liberalism of Hobson and Hobhouse, enacted in the Liberal reforms of 1906 and afterwards, creating a new model of the interventionist state. This is, in part, a response to opulence and wealth, to both gentry and plutocracy and the growing gap between rich and poor, the instabilities of the economy in terms of employment, wages, cost of living, increasing industrial unrest (as well as public health, response to rise of Labour Party, and the growth of Germany and America alongside the decline of the British economy).

This major shift also brings into being a form of parliamentary democracy that we might recognize as our own. Modern politics is also evident in the fact, for instance, that in 1906 only 30 MPs were returned unopposed, while in 1900 it had been 165, and many more than that through Victorian years. This is symptomatic of a moment when class starts to structure politics. Class difference was not simply something upon which those in power reflected and managed, but the root of an electoral cleavage between richer and poorer, because of the rise of Labour of course, but also because of changes to Liberalism.

Second, there is a social lacuna in the scholarship, which is the rise and significance of the lower middle class, and here I would suggest, at the risk of being horribly reductive, that if there an author who most profitably leads us into Edwardian culture, it’s H. G. Wells. There is no clearer map of the Edwardian cultural landscape than The History of Mr. Polly or Tono-Bungay. “Lower-middle-class” is a problematic term. Harold Perkin calls it ‘a product of definitional despair’ and it covers at least two distinct groups (white collar, clerks etc. and shopkeepers, self-employed tradesmen). But that definitional despair is symptomatic of the fact that broadbrush accounts of class and culture fail to describe the complexities of social formation. While cultural politics might change – as Morna has pointed out - one thing has been constant: an antipathy to the lower middle class, from the disdain of Hobhouse to film-maker Mike Leigh’s disgraceful and meretricious sneering. The LMC have been seen as culturally absent, but it’s rather a question of the specific ways in which these constituencies participated in and shaped culture: for example, in local councils, the success of university extension classes, the Labour Church, as well as jingoism. And, of course, the suburbs, which for many are a liberation from the city, which was seen as dirty, dangerous, oppressive and overly public.

The difficult question then arises of how one thinks about art through this particular modernity. I don’t have an answer, but here are a couple of thoughts:

First, a character like Mr. Polly challenges the psychologising models that have been so prevalent in Victorian and Edwardian studies of late, characterised by the use of the word ‘anxiety’ or exploded into discussion of a homogenous ‘Edwardian mind.’ Mr. Polly suffers not from anxiety but from indigestion, literal and metaphorical. His sense of wonder has been largely destroyed by facts and figures. This is the result of the conflict between his daily life, his business and its demands, and his dreams of aesthetic experience and an alternative engagement with the world. The class fractions predominantly represented in Edwardian Opulence are ones where dreaming and imagination are not hindered, where there is no indigestion. Another exhibition, staged at the National Gallery of Australia was called Secrets and Desires – I didn’t see the exhibition, but the title tells us much about contemporary fantasies about Edwardian Britain and nothing about the distinctiveness of the culture. Perhaps we need an exhibition called ‘Edwardian Indigestion,’ or, instead of ‘Secrets and Desires’, ‘Statistics and Dyspepsia.’

What if the opening image of the exhibition were Mr. Polly sitting on a stile, cross about wearing his felt hat rather than his straw boater, and swearing at his dissatisfaction with life as a shopkeeper in provincial Kent? This alternative Edwardian exhibition might include, inter alia: a filing cabinet, a jug of shandygaff (beer and ginger ale), window dressing in a provincial drapery, plushette roses, a Booth poverty map or a social science survey, a maid’s uniform, Doulton’s popular Blue Children ware. This would be an interesting rather than a beautiful exhibition, and unlike Edwardian Opulence I don’t think one could expect rave reviews. But it might remind us that if something like Gore’s self-portrait aspires to be modern, it does not fulfil modern self-representation in the way that Mitchell & Kenyon films do.

Second, much art is not a symptom of secrets and desires, but a form of opposition to the modern state and its institutions, an opposition to modernity. Landscape is a case in point.

This might be the opposition of the aesthete, and I’m thinking here of Peter Mandler’s influential essay ‘Against Englishness’, in which he argues that images of the landscape are not expressions of state and nation; rather, they are the refuge of those who can no longer find a place in the modern state, those for whom the disappearance of Victorian liberalism removed cultural influence.

To this, one might add that such opposition could be aristocratic: the Duke of Bedford’s book, A Great Agricultural Estate, was a deliberate articulation of aristocratic resistance to government. While painters like Alfred East might be painting the Cotswolds as a pastoral idyll, the Duke deploys the Edwardian penchant for statistics in his explicity anti-state tract, arguing that death duties, taxes, and other financial impositions are ruining the great tradition of the landed gentry. Landscape is not the ideal of modern Britain but, for the Duke and his class, what has been destroyed by the modern state, what the state does not care about.

And another form of opposition: Mr Polly taking a walk in the Kent countryside on a Sunday, his vagabondage a reclamation of his ‘natural liberty’ after a week of bondage to work. It is here that he can find some sense of aesthetic experience. This is not an escape not into a fantasy of nation, but an escape from the urban, modern, rationalizing nation.

What seems significant is that the most decisive and modern transformations are not easily connected to art. Perhaps we should address the irrelevance of art to Edwardian modernity? I do not mean by this that art is irrelevant, but that we need to view it in terms of its often marginal or tangential position. While there has been much discussion of capital and labour, and of the relationship between those seeking justice and those seeking profit, the state tends to disappear from the Edwardian era discussed in history of art and other fields; or, more problematically, there is sometimes an assumption that state, power, capital are all co-extensive.

This is not an injunction for all art historians to stop making stylistic analyses and to start scouring election results, but if we are trying to identify the distinctive modernity of Edwardian Britain and if one is attempting a social art history, one cannot approach art as a transparent index of the era, but must look for the disjunctions between modernity as structural and modernity as the experience of metropolitan glitter and gaiety. I realise that, in the midst of this spectacular and beautiful exhibition, I’m probably coming across as joyless; there’s nothing like an electoral statistic to suck all the pleasure out of a room. But if we are to think about the Edwardians Then And Now, if we are to keep a critical perspective on Edwardianism and a critical perspective on our relationship with the Edwardians, perhaps we have to balance our pleasure with a modicum of distance. We can then see that the Edwardian decade is, rather than the end of an era, a very decisive beginning.