Knobs, Dots and Grooves

Peter Campbell

  • Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations edited by Alan Wilkinson
    Lund Humphries, 320 pp, £35.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 85331 847 6
  • The Penguin Modern Painters: A History by Carol Peaker
    Penguin Collectors’ Society, 124 pp, £15.00, August 2001, ISBN 0 9527401 4 1

In 1910, Sickert, writing about the newly formed Contemporary Art Society’s plan to buy modern work for public galleries, gave three reasons for thinking it a bad idea. First, it would encourage artists to paint the wrong kind of picture: ‘It will be the exhibition picture that will gain ground and the room picture that will suffer.’ Second, spending decisions which should be personal would be delegated: ‘I notice that the minimum subscription for membership is a guinea. I would beg those who wish to spend a guinea a year to buy a drawing a year by a man whose talent they fancy, at the very beginning of his career.’ Third, the committee would be composed of experts and critics. It would put too much power in their hands: ‘Why should a collector have to ask Mr MacColl if Mr Steer is a good painter?’ (MacColl was on the staff of the Tate.) The Turner Prize is just one piece of evidence that Sickert had a shrewd sense of where things might be heading. There are still adequate, in some cases excellent, livings being earned from room pictures, but big reputations are made by way of exhibitions and the publicity that accompanies them.

Nearly half a century later, Kenneth Clark, writing to Eunice Frost at Penguin about the inclusion of Braque in the Modern Painters series, which had until then featured only British artists, said:

The old scheme seemed to me valuable because it helped people to understand painters whose work they could buy, and it thereby helped the painters . . . The new scheme is entirely different because the painters you propose do not require help and their reputations were long ago established and none of your readers could afford to buy their works.

Sickert’s and Clark’s belief that the health of art in their time lay in modest private patronage was a tacit admission that opportunities for painting’s equivalent of the big production number – altarpieces, history paintings, group portraits in council chambers – were either unavailable or compromised. Even in France, where masterpieces of exhibition painting (like those by Géricault, Delacroix and Courbet) had been produced well into the 19th century, it was the room pictures of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, not the exhibition pictures of the Salon painters, that held sway. It wasn’t just a matter of size. If a picture is to be seen all the time, a degree of disengagement, an absence of overt emotion, will give it a better chance of holding its place. When Modernism of one kind or another suggested new ways of representing things, or of making abstract pictures which were not of things at all, in Britain and France at least it chose a quiet voice and bland subject-matter. Cubists painted still lifes and a few portraits; even Picasso only occasionally took on the grand themes of war, history and morality.

In the tradition that includes Sickert’s ‘room picture’, the focus had shifted from content to style by 1910. It was no longer a case of moral tales for the parlour, erotic pictures for the bedroom and devotional ones for the oratory. The portrait had already been substantially displaced by silver photograph frames arranged on tables. The most successful genres were the landscape, the still life and the (often peopled) domestic interior. Even if they were adventurous aesthetically the private buyers Sickert and Clark wished to encourage would still want pictures of modest size and unemphatic subject-matter. Stanley Spencer painted his potboilers because there was a less ready market for his religious pictures. Critics explained that it was the way the representation (or non-representation) was achieved that made a work of art valuable, not the thing represented.

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