Book Review: Edwardian Opulence

Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Centuryedwardian opulenceby Angus Trumble & Andrea Wolk RagerYale University Press, 2013The Yale Center for British Art's exhibit Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, is on view until early June, and the book it's spawned is a suitably gorgeous thing: oversized, meticulous Yale University Press production quality, and brainy besides, sporting eight essays in addition to the exhibit's catalogue.Both exhibit and book are emblazoned by the same guardian angel, albeit of a more voluptuous variety than would have been familiar to Catholic schoolchildren at busy road-crossings: it's Mrs. Lionel Phillips, the steely and unstoppable wife of a South African plutocrat and diamond extractor, a woman whose avaricious implacability is caught perfectly by the portrait painter (and self-professed master of 'swish') Giovanni Boldini in low decolletage, lustrous black satin, hastily-added pearls, and the menacing plume of an inky fan. Mrs. Phillips spent her married life helping her husband cheat and swindle a continent, and she spent her widowhood establishing an art museum in Johannesburg and urging her fellow Cape Towners to unite against the 'black menace' that struck her as ever so much worse than the looming threat of Aryan Germany. The portrait finds her dressed to the nines, perched forward on a sofa, bracing herself with her left arm as though ready to strike; she's both matronly and beautiful, and what little light there is in the painting rests somewhat fitfully on her shoulders. Boldini titled the piece Portrait of a Lady, and although he might have been thinking of the Henry James masterpiece he'd read ten years before, his painting was unveiled in 1903, when the lustrous, predatory Edwardian Era was in full swing.The Temptation of Sir PercivalPerhaps it would be a trifle ungenerous to suspect a predatory motive in the exhibit and its book, although the focus on glittering, moneyed opulence is cliched enough when dealing with the Edwardian Era to raise something of a Downton Abbey doubt. The hit BBC show moves briskly into early modern times, true, but it's couched thoroughly in what one postwar letter-writer called "our vanished dignity and the golden days that will never return." That wistful sentimentality drew a sharp retort from Lady Cust:

Well, were they so very golden? For the comfortable classes in their great houses, yes; but what of the Crimean heroes who walked the streets and lanes destitute and hopeless, and the great gulf fixed between the rich and the poor; derelicts for whom there was nothing save haphazard charity between starvation and the work house?

Those Crimean heroes - and the poor, and the derelict, and almost everybody else - find no place in this sumptuous book, which indulges in an almost-total absorption with Downton Abbey-style manor homes, glittering possessions, and always-steaming sideboards of food dishes. The opulence of the book's title was purchased by one percent of the Empire's population at the expense of the other 99 percent, but that 99 percent - and the struggles they faced every day for food, dignity, and independence - will have to form the subject of another book. Here, right from the start, we have Mrs. Lionel Phillips patting the couch cushion and purring, "Come sit next to me, darling - I've got such a delicious story to tell you!"It, too, is a worthwhile subject, and in this big, handsome volume it gets some stunning attention. Editors Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager open the proceedings by thanking no less than 131 people for "information, advice, and assistance" in preparing the book (one can only assume it would have been that ever-elusive 132nd person who would have prevented them, all throughout their Introduction, from referring to "E.M. Forster's celebrated Edwardian novel Howard's End"), and they set the stage for the inquiries to follow, splinter-dissertations on "an age characterized by divisive tensions and marked dualities." This was the reign of King Edward VII; Trumble writes an excellent essay summarizing the social veneer of this underestimated monarch and looking very intelligently at the nervous assertiveness of the John Singer Sargent portrait paintings of the time, with subjects ranging from an arrogant Sir Frank Swettenham to "a young, sunburned Earl of Dalhousie." And Rager's contribution, on the politics of spectacle in the era, has some good insights into the world of one of the time's most interesting people, Mary Curzon, wife of Lord Curzon and vicereine of India.Imogen Hart likewise writes about spectacle and performance in the plastic arts, specifically the booming vogue of history painting, and Pamela Fletcher also concentrates on artwork, taking us into the Royal Academy and trying to assess what the average cultured Edwardian was seeing when he looked at such gaudy and gorgeous works as Arthur Hacker's The Temptation of Sir Percival or Frank Dicksee's The Two Crowns. A. Cassandra Albinson takes up this discussion in a sister genre, discussing "the dreamland of film and the nostalgia of photography."One of the most memorable pieces in the book's front half (the back half is a scrupulously annotated catalogue of the exhibit, a virtuoso the two crowns - frank dickseeresource that alone would have justified the book's price tag) is Tim Barringer's look at rural life and art in the Edwardian Era, in which the drift of the 'self-fashioning' (a fatuously faddish term that is, alas, everywhere in these essays) has moved away from the practical pastoralism that governed the previous ten centuries: "By 1900," he tells us, "for most of the population, the countryside had become associated with nostalgia and memory, a place for occasional recreation rather than everyday experience."That nostalgia occurs so often in these essays is no accident, of course. As has been noted often elsewhere, the Edwardians (at least the 1 percent of them who could afford to be) were highly practiced at regarding their own time as in many ways a golden age that was inexorably slipping away from them, a long twilight of only foreign wars, only fringe upheavals, and only the briefest of pauses between meals. Edwardian Opulence is both a dissection of that nostalgia and a resplendent visual breviary of it, in art forms ranging from painting to photography to dresses to precious gems. Yale University Press has done itself proud again: the Downton Abbey set gets to strut its stuff one more time in style.