Genteel Edwardians

The Edwardian years from 1901 to 1914 were as scored by social and international violence, and by upheavals in every realm of art and science, as the rest of the twentieth century would become. Yet, the Modernisms created at that time remain ‘caviar to the general’. For instance, more people still want to look like a George Lambert portrait than one by Picasso. Galleries in Canberra and Adelaide were banking on that majority to flock to ‘The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires’.

Defined by time and place, ‘Edwardian’ evokes a style of living as much as an aesthetic precept. In particular, ‘Edwardian’ summons up a degree of sanity before the onslaught of war and revolution.

The gap between ‘how it really was’ and how those times have been re-imagined is now immense. The past has been tamed to conform to what the literary critic Al Alvarez called a ‘gentility principle’. He equated this constriction of English culture with a ‘belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less decent and more or less controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good’. He could have called the condition Edwardianism. That sensibility clung to the Beatles as Teddy Bears, not Teddy Boys. It was the Stones who got their satisfaction by smashing through judiciousness in performance, as noise and finally for lyrics.

An Edwardian smudge had also settled over public life. The patrician Harold Macmillan was still Britain’s Prime Minister almost seventy years after his birth in 1894. When Donald Horne published The Lucky Country in 1964 he identified R. G. Menzies, also born in 1894, as an Edwardian relic, emblematic of an English amateurism that was losing out to U.S. expertise.

Saville Row re-cut the Edwardian cloth in reaction to the austerities of World War Two and the subsequent socialism. Gentlemen had abandoned that affordable elegance before cashed-up proles took it over. The weapons that those Teddy Boys allegedly concealed up their sleeves were a reprise of the violence rife throughout the Edwardian summer.

The Edwardian era was no house-party with ‘the hum of bees and the popping of champagne corks’, to quote George Dangerfield. His The Strange Death of Liberal England (1936) told of a four-pronged rebelliousness between 1909 and 1914 of the Tory Peers against taxation, the Suffragettes, the workers and the Ulster Unionists. The latter’s insurrection had carried the United Kingdom to the brink of civil war when hostilities with Germany were declared on 4 August 1914.

English artists were nowhere as tumultuous as their polity, yet Edwardian portraitists caught some of newer ideas about the human condition. By posing high-society subjects like store dummies, John Singer Sargent inclined his portraits towards still life. That touch of the weird came close to what Marx had called alienation and Freud the ‘un-homely’. The look of Sargent’s ‘Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire’ (1902) also exposed how haute couture covered a multitude of sins in a class society, just as Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) mocked the power of accents to determine one’s station in life.

The imported arts were more subversive,as for example, the eroticism of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. The first London survey of Post-Impressionism in 1910 had included no English work. The 1912 sequel displayed nine English artists. The first of those exhibitions provoked Virginia Woolf to muse that ‘On or about December 1910, human nature changed’. She was reflecting on a creative mentality, not everyday behaviour.

Disturbances in politics, the arts and the sciences before 1914 support the observation by the French critic Paul Valery that the impact of the Great War on European civilisation had been so severe because of ‘the patient’s condition when she was overcome’.

Four years of slaughter fractured two more Edwardian assumptions. The first was that war made nations stronger. The other conviction to perish was the liberal delusion that it would be possible to wage war without hatred. That hope was so far from the truth that, since 1919, it has proved impossible to make peace without promoting hatred.

After the war and Bolshevism, Woolf wrote that ‘All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature’. Those changes did not run all in the same direction, still less towards the most advanced ideas. Destruction and mutilation did not attract the bulk of gallery-goers to a DADA smash-up of forms.

Before 1914 people had hoped for better times, remarked a character in Martin Boyd’s The Montfords (1928), whereas, in the 1920s, he went on, they hoped merely ‘to avoid disaster’. In keeping with that loss of confidence, the middle-classes grasped after what they supposed had been Edwardian certainties, just as many respectable folk sought security in fascism.

In the visual arts, C.R.W. Nevison exemplified a turning back to Edwardian charm in reaction against brutality. Nevison had been a leading Vorticist, the only tendency in English art to approach the ferocity of the Italian Futurists, who had urged war as a creative force. In 1914, Nevison’s ‘Returning to the Trenches’ portrayed the battlefront as a mechanised field. Before 1918, he had slipped into depictions of an English Pastoral.

Australian officials continued their wartime censorship to keep the moral and political infections of Europe out of the ‘one country still to make’. No quarantine, however, could repair the rupture between common sense and science, or between the common reader and the avant-garde, that had spread during the Edwardian years.

Robert Browning could disturb Victorians because they understood what he was alleging about the relativity of truth in human relations. By contrast, Einstein not only left all that had seemed solid melting into air, but dissolved the premises on which the layperson had been taught to reason. H. G. Wells could no longer explain scientific breakthroughs for readers of Sunday papers. They followed his Science Fiction more easily than the hypotheses of quantum physicists.  

Thus, the Edwardian era initiated a new kind of elite, one based neither on wealth nor lineage, but on a refinement of the intellect as much as on any sensibility of the emotions. In painting, a stylised naturalism would serve for the many, while Modernism distracted the unhappy few.

This break between advanced thought and conventional wisdom coincided with a commodification of popular culture through the Northcliffe press, the cinema and then the wireless. In response, the avant-garde moved to shelter its innovations from being mass produced as kitsch. That defence entrenched the new intellectual divide behind the old snobbery.

Each domain of culture was being split horizontally. On top of the ancient divide between the classes and the masses, the pre-1914 experimenters had installed a barrier between high-brow experts and the middle-brow majority. Menzies spoke up for those ‘forgotten people’ when, in 1937, he disparaged the Modernists for talking ‘a different language’ from that of ‘great art’.

Few critics would bestow the accolade of greatness on many of the Edwardian painters. Their appeal remains in their appearing to be ‘more or less’ safe, sensible, balanced, decent, comprehensible and coherent. In short, the Edwardians summoned values that were slipping out of their society’s grasp.