Recalling his first visits to Philip Wilson Steer's studio, the Irish novelist, George Moore wrote to the artist in 1909, 'I think I always knew you were a great painter, and I have in a prominent place in my house the picture I took away from Addison Road Mansions - a girl in a black hat. It always gives me pleasure to see, and you, too, are a pleasure to see. I don't know which I like better - the painter or the friend; both are so admirable (D.S. MacColl, loc. cit.).
Steer's biographer, Bruce Laughton, has proposed that the present picture may that referred to by George Moore (B. Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer 1860-1942, 1971, Oxford, p. 133, no. 109). The contention is based on the fact that the work, being clearly dated 1892 is consonant with other works of the period, coinciding with those early visits. While we can assume that the writer acquired a painting by Steer in the circumstances he describes, even though Moore's conflicting memories of the incident mean that the some confusion will always remain. Preceding his letter of 1909, Moore had described the acquisition in different terms on different occasions. When his picture was lent to Steer's exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in February 1894, Moore closed his review of the show with the following description: 'Girl in a Large Hat' is a picture which became my property some three or four months ago. Since then I have seen it every day, and I like it better and better. The hat is so well placed in the canvas; the expression of the face and body, are they not perfect? What an air of resignation, of pensiveness, this picture exhales! The jacket is done with a few touches, but they are sufficient, for they are in their right places. And the colour! Hardly do you find any, and yet there is an effect of colour which few painters could attain when they had exhausted all the resources of the palette (G. Moore, 'Mr Steer's Exhibition', The Speaker, 3 March 1894, p. 250; reprinted in G. Moore, Modern Painting, 1893 (Walter Scott, 1898 ed.), p. 243).
This would suggest that the writer acquired the painting at the end of 1893, and his observations about the hat, the jacket and the palette tend to confirm Laughton's identification. However twelve years later when Moore returned to his picture the past had taken on a golden hue in the preface to his Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters. This rare, unpaginated booklet published in Dublin in 1906 was dedicated to Steer and it reads: 'You were then a young painter, quite unsuspected by the public which is interested in prices rather than pictures. Your talent was just beginning to light up, for it was about that time you painted the pensive girl in the black hat - a barmaid was she not at the Earl's Court Exhibition? - the girl whom I picked out as one appealing specially to m from the many canvases in your studio high up, at the top of five flights of black stone stairs overlooking the Addison Road Station. You were poor at that time, so was I, unable to buy a picture however slight the price might be. But artists give each other pictures, and you proposed to give me that one, and I took it away in its white Whistlerian frame (for that frame I think I insisted on paying you); and the picture hung for many years in my rooms in King's Bench Walk; it now hangs here, on my staircase (G. Moore, Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters, 1906, Dublin, n. p.).
In this account, the girl was 'a barmaid at the Earl's Court Exhibition' - but while not impossible, this seems unlikely. Moore's reference to the original frame is nevertheless interesting, in that although the reeded sections used by Whistler were being copied, they were usually gilded. A white Whistler frame would ally the picture with the white frames used by Degas - Moore's hero at this time.
In later years Steer's model was however identified as a 'coster girl'. From the girl's appearance it seems unlikely that she was posed by Rosie Pettigrew, Steer's regular model, and her hat and double-breasted tunic make it entirely possible that she was, or was intended to be, a street-seller. Since the publication of Henry Mayhew's survey of London Labour and the London Poor (1861) this underclass had been of growing significance for artists and in his writing of the early nineties, Moore had referred to such characters. Bastien-Lepage had painted a London flowerseller and bootblack, and the revered Whistler had also attempted to paint such an iconic character. The type was to reverberate in literature in the early novels of Somerset Maugham, Jack London, and most famously in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, while young artists such as William Nicholson (A Coster, 1898, woodcut from London Types), William Orpen. Eric Kennington and many others were to paint costermongers in the early twentieth century. In addition, Steer's picture may also be linked to the costers of Jacques-Emile Blanche (A Coster, 1901(?), Hugh Laine Gallery, Dublin), the young French artist who was introduced into the London avant-garde of the nineties by Moore and Sickert.
But what was so pleasing about Moore's treasure trove and why was the avant-garde critic, friend of Degas and model for Manet, so enamoured with his 'girl in a black hat'? The picture was, after all, no more than a swift sketch that exhibited none of the labour associated with Pre-Raphaelite followers or the more pedestrian disciples of Bastien-Lepage. The paint was thin and areas like the model's coat were barely covered. The back of the chair on which she sits is no more than a few squiggles. Indeed it seemed as though Steer had wiped off a previous working to create a toned ground on which these marks were made - and then left, without finish, or any attempt to take them further. This was entirely in accord with the artist's usual practice. His portrait of Walter Sickert (c. 1891, National Portrait Gallery, London) or studio pieces like Girl at her Toilet (c. 1892, Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead) are light sketches on a toned ground, the latter showing a model dressing with a large black hat placed on a chair in the background.
Yet for Moore Steer's shorthand was more than enough, and its very suggestiveness left room for the imagination. It was proof of Steer's genius, confirmed by Walter Sickert in his review of the Goupil show. Sickert found Steer's execution neither 'facile or clever with no affectation of dash or experience', 'the painter is justified, because he has something precise and profound to say. He says it adequately, because he knows the capabilities of the medium, like a scholar. For a certificate of mastery look at No. 42, Girl in a Large Hat. W. Sickert, 'Mr Philip Wilson Steer's Paintings at the Goupil Gallery', The Studio, vol. 2, 1894, p. 223).
For his part, Steer believed that the painter - the Impressionist - should be 'inspired by his own time' and 'find his pictures in the scenes around him'. He was the most important of Sickert's 'London Impressionists' and was vehemently opposed to the elaborate confections that were produced every year for the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. In his address to the Art Workers' Guild on the subject of Impressionism, 'unity of vision' was the watchword and to achieve this one must not be afraid to strike out boldly and in an instant convey the tilt of a hat or the twist of a chair-back (Quoted in DS MacColl, 1945, pp. 177-8).