The Burlington Magazine and modern British art (1903-1910)


The foundation of the Burlington in the very early years of the twentieth century is the intersecting point of many cultural networks. Several of the many questions that underlie its inception have been investigated: the significance that the Burlington had for the development of art history as an academic discipline in Britain, the impact it had on the professionalization of the museum workforce, the mediating role that it assumed between dealers and collectors, and, most importantly, how it transformed art writing from a novelistic personal experience into a peer-reviewed, accountable visual analysis that referred to documentary evidence.

The Burlington was also involved in contemporary artistic practice: its engagement in the 1910s, with Roger Fry, in the diffusion for contemporary French art, in parallel with Fry’s two Post-Impressionist exhibitions, has been amply treated. But – and this is still an unexplored subject – a dialogue with contemporary art and artistic practice lied at the very heart of its foundation.

The very first editorial of the Burlington (March 1903), unsigned but most likely written by its first Editor, Robert Dell, opened up by referring to the production of art as a tonic against the modern malady of sameness.

According to Dell, art needed to be grounded in experience, its aim to ‘act on the feelings and the imagination by reflecting with an ordered and purposeful distortion our actual life’. Sadly, continued Dell, contemporary British art did not fulfill this prescription: spoiled by habits gained in theatrical dramas where ‘creatures wander in a limbus of their own, remote alike from the actual of everyday life and the real of the imagination, covering their nakedness in dresses that require special emissaries of the press to do them justice’ art did ‘emit odour of false sentiment: in all [works of art] we find the same cheap substitutes for thought and feeling that the theatre has rendered current’. The main culprits were identified as the products of the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, where ‘our artists […] deal in fatuities, mild parlour jests, tit-bits of curiosities, “a baby crab”, “a merry jest”, “where there’s a will there’s a way”.’ This state of affair was aggravated by the mistaken choices of middle class collectors that, instead of ‘true’ works of art preferred to acquire those ‘margarine-like substitutes’.

The proposed cure for this malaise was simple: the study of the art of the past, ‘art produced under more auspicious conditions’. One of the magazine’s main aims was the improvement of modern art.

It is unsurprising then to find that modern art was a lateral yet pervasive presence in the pages of the Burlington since the beginning. In the 1903-1910 editorials – such as ‘Criticism and Commerce’, ‘Trend of the Art Market’, ‘American Collecting’, ‘Modern Pictures in the Saleroom’, etc. – modern art was mentioned mainly in relation with the commercial world and was presented as the best investment for collectors of relatively modest means who could not afford old masters. Which modern artists were on their way to become the ‘old masters’ of the future? Which type of modern art was worth collecting to be sure to make a worthy aesthetic as well as economic investment?

Lengthy articles were dedicated to the market of modern art, these were often either not signed or their authors hidden under mysterious initials, as this was still felt to be a controversial subject on which the responsibility of authorship did not want to be claimed. For instance in ‘What Modern Pictures Are Worth Collecting’ , published in November 1904, the as yet unknown author ‘P.A.’ (‘Painter Anonymous’? Perhaps Charles Holmes?) established a complicated system of giving points to a work of art based on the five categories of Strenght, Design, Insight, Drawing and Colour.

In February 1905, an editorial on the prospect of contemporary painting examined the success of Charles Conder, whose The Gondolier  – illustrated here – from the Hugh Lane Hallery in Dublin was later published in the Burlington in February 1908, connecting it to the market and the current fashion in eighteenth century painting and domestic decoration:

Image‘Now eighteenth-century furniture of a certain outward appearance of authenticity is within the reach of many who are no more than well-to-do, and cannot afford the fine works by the old masters which are its conventional accompaniments. Modern paintings are not supposed to look well in such an environment, and so they are no longer purchased by many of the class which bought them most freely in the past. In this quarter artists will have to wait till the caprice of fashion introduces some style of furnishing which needs oil paintings and water colours for its completion. Meanwhile those who, like that gifted colourist Mr. Conder, paint in a manner which harmonizes perfectly with the style of the French eighteenth century will reap the richest harvest’.

ImageAs early as July 1903 a full (unsigned, perhaps by Robert Dell?) article was dedicated to the review of modern Dutch painting, mostly by the Maris brothers and Jozef Israels, then on show at the Guildhall in London. The works were compared, and judged, according to the canons of Dutch Golden Age art. A work of 1903, The Jewish Wedding by Jozef Israels (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, illustrated left) was illustrated and commented in the article, published on the counts of being of so recent execution, but negatively criticised for its unevenness and ‘apparent eccentricities’. Unconditional praise, instead, was reserved to Jacob Maris an artists ‘with a scrupolous striving after finish which would do credit to any of the little masters of Holland of the seventeenth century’.

When in October 1903 the Belgian correspondent Raphael Petrucci had written about the new panels that Victor Gilsoul had just painted for the Brussels townhall the emphasis was on the testimony that these were of lost sites in Belgium: modern art was still judged in relation, and as an accessory, to the art of the past rather than being valued per se.

Modern British art was especially promoted during the Holmes-Dell years. For instance, in March and July 1906 the art critic and artist Bernard Sickert wrote two articles, ‘Independent art of to-day’ and ‘Modern Painters in 1906’ in which he named the main British artists independent from the Royal Academy: Conder, Shannon, Ricketts, Orpen, Wilson Steer, Augustus John, Strang and Rothenstein. Sickert championed moderately modern French art against ‘the sprawlings and the wallowings of the Vibrists and Pointillists’ , considered ‘a preposterous system’ but within which some painters were worthy of praise, such as Le Sidaner.

Burlington writers and editors alike praised that very same circle of British artists and artists’ associations, such as the New English Art Club, who worked outside the British Academy and, amongst those, the artists that received higher praise were those believed to represent a continuity with the ‘Old Masters’.

ImageFor instance, ‘A Modern Painter’, the anonymous author of a series of five articles ‘The case for Modern Painting’ begun in April 1907, chose to illustrate prominently a tondo by C. H. Shannon’s Hermes and the Infant Bacchus (London, Tate, illustrated above), a work terminated in 1906 praising that it would not look out of place ‘Ever so delicately toned down by time in the Venetian room of Trafalgar Square’.

In May 1909 while commenting on another contemporary work, Smiling Woman by Augustus John (1908-early 1909) (London, Tate, illustrated here), Charles Holmes compared it to early Florentine portraiture, not as an academic copy, but a work which participated in the spirit of the art of Botticelli, Pollaiolo and Andrea del Castagno and defined it ‘a gipsy Gioconda’. The art of the past, the old masters were still considered the ultimate canon of excellence and the ultimate consecration of a work of art was to find its final destination in a national collection.

BP, April 2014.

Anonymous [Robert Dell] ‘Editorial’, The Burlington Magazine 1(March 1903): pp. 3–5.

Anonymous, ‘The Dutch Exhibition at the Guildhall. Article II: The Modern Painters’ The Burlington Magazine 2 (July 1903), pp 176-189.

P.A., ‘What Modern Pictures Are Worth Collecting ’, The Burlington Magazine 6 (November 1904), pp. 108-110.

Anonymous, ‘The Prospects of Contemporary Painting’, The Burlington Magazine 6 (February 1905), pp. 341-344.

Bernard Sickert, ‘Independent Art of To-Day’, The Burlington Magazine 8 (March 1906), pp. 381-384.

Bernard Sickert, ‘Modern Painters in 1906’, The Burlington Magazine 9 (July 1906), pp. 221-224.

A Modern Painter, ‘The Case for Modern Painting’ The Burlington Magazine 11 (April 1907), pp. 3-13.

Charles Holmes, ‘Two Modern Pictures’, The Burlington Magazine 15 (May 1909), pp. 75-81.

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