Follow the Yellow

Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Art School

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Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Painted Dragon

The third book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, The Painted Dragon, takes us into a new area of Edwardian London. In this story, we are plunged into the city’s art world – meeting art students, celebrated painters and art collectors – and going behind the scenes at exhibitions, auctions and museums, as well as art school the Spencer Institute.

Whilst the Spencer Institute is fictional, it was partly inspired by a real-life art school, the Slade, which still exists in London today. Forming part of University College London, the Slade was founded by lawyer and philanthropist Felix Slade in the 1860s. In the late 19th and early 20th century, an incredible number of famous artists studied there – including Augustus and Gwen John, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and (a little later, at around the time  The Painted Dragon is set) the likes of Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer.

This group of young artists – together with their wider circle of writers and intellectuals – were something like the Young British Artists of their day. They enthusiastically embraced exciting new artistic movements such as Futurism and Vorticism and they led unconventional Bohemian lifestyles. They enjoyed wearing wild and unusual clothes – like Dora Carrington, who was one of the ‘Slade Cropheads’, a group of female students who dramatically rejected ideas of Edwardian beauty by cutting off their long-hair into short boyish bobs.

In all these ways, the art students rebelled against the conservative, traditional old-fashioned culture of the Edwardian era – and opened the door to the exciting new possibilities of modernism, taking their inspiration from the avant-garde artists of Paris and Vienna.

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Dora Carrington and some of her fellow ‘Slade Cropheads’

In The Painted Dragon we see this world thorough the eyes of aspiring artists Leo and Jack, as they start their first term at the Spencer Institute. Like Leo, Jack and their friends at the Spencer, the real-life students at the Slade in the 1900s would begin their studies by spending lots of time in the Antiques Room, drawing from copies of plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculpture. Here, they would be carefully watched over by the strict Professor Henry Tonks – a rather terrifying figure, who was both respected and feared by his students! He was famous for his stinging criticisms, which sometimes made students weep – and rarely praised anyone. (Professor Jarvis, the stern drawing teacher who appears in The Painted Dragon, certainly owes a little something the real-life Professor Tonks.)

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An Edwardian drawing class

Only when Professor Tonks considered them good enough were the art students allowed to graduate to the Life Class, where they would draw real models. Male and female students had separate life classes, for reasons of decorum! But in general, the art school was a place where the strict rules of Edwardian society were relaxed. Students came from many different backgrounds: the Slade welcomed both students like Mark Gertler, a talented sixteen-year old from the slums of East London; and well-off young people, such as Richard Nevinson, who came from a middle-class background and had previously attended an expensive public school. Outside classes, the students enjoyed socialising at bohemian cafes and restaurants like the famous Café Royal – which also makes an appearance in The Painted Dragon.

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The Cafe Royal in 1901

These young artists were dedicated to their work, producing everything from portraits and still-lifes to landscape paintings. They played an important role in influencing – and unsettling  – the art and culture of their time. But in 1914, the outbreak of war changed everything. The First World War, in which so many of them fought and died, had a shattering affect upon this young artistic community. Today, it’s sobering to reflect on what they might have been able to achieve under different circumstances: as Randolph Schwabe wrote: ‘Much talent and some genius was born into their generation, and their loss… is deplorable in its tale of waste and fulfilment.’

If you’d like to read more about the Slade and these young artists, I’d highly recommend A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young Artists and the Great War by David Boyd Haycock. Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939 by Virginia Nicholson also provides a fascinating insight into artistic and bohemian life in the early 20th century, including the importance of places such as the Café Royal.

For fiction, Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy of (adult) novels are partly set at the Slade and focus on a group of young artists. I’d also highly recommend Ruth Elwin Harris’s YA novels The Quantock Quartet (now sadly out of print) about the artistic Purcell sisters – in particular Frances’s Story which follows ambitious older sister Frances to London to study at the Slade.

Today, you can see paintings by some of the artists who studied at the Slade at Tate Modern. For more of an idea of what the Edwardian art world would have been like, I’d also recommend visiting the grand Royal Academy (the heart of the Edwardian art establishement – the opening of the famous Royal Academy show each year was a highlight of the London Season) and the Wallace Collection, a beautiful gallery which includes lots of the kinds of paintings that might be found in Mr Lyle’s art collection – including ‘The Swing’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which Lil helps bring to life in The Painted Dragon. You can also still visit the Café Royal on Regent Street, though today it looks very different to the bohemian cafe of the 1900s!

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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