Friends who visited Philip Wilson Steer in Chelsea at the turn of the century noted that he preferred the drawing room to the studio. When not accompanying Fred Brown, Henry Tonks or Ronald Gray on one of his landscape painting holidays, his easel would find its way down to the drawing room at 109 Cheyne Walk. Here, in 1905, he would paint the cherished furniture and bric-a-brac that formed part of his everyday existence. Here too his models would pose and he would plan compositions such as The Music Room (Tate), a large canvas which was praised for ‘subtleties of observation which give [it] a peculiar beauty …’ (The Studio, vol. 38, 1906, p. 225). It was clear that the artist was toying with ideas of the 1860s, of ‘art for art’s sake’, in which the principal goal was beauty of form and colour, in musical harmony that dispensed with all implied narrative or story-telling.
In some respects the smaller version of The Music Room is technically closer to the present work in its spontaneity. Both pictures are likely to have been painted from Steer’s current model, Miss Bennett, and all three show the same sofa covered in striped damask, and lit from the left. Later pictures such as The Muslin Dress, 1910 (Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead), rely heavily on this slightly earlier phase of Steer’s interiors.
Of the group, Lady in a Chemise however, draws even closer than The Music Room to Steer’s current inspiration in the work of Albert Moore. Having recently completed a series of decorations for Cyril Butler’s house at Shrivenham, he was particularly keen on ornate pictures such as Silver, one of many studies of form, fabric and muted harmony that characterise the popular late Victorian ‘Greek view of life’.
MacColl later claimed that this influence was ‘a false scent’, a ‘preconception’ that ‘was never Steer’s’. However, studying the present work we are obliged to agree with Laughton that this denial was ‘perverse’ (Laughton, 1971, p. 80). It is certainly the case that Steer’s treatment of the theme was more atmospheric than Moore’s - nor was he reliant on photography, as Moore increasingly was. Where the Victorian worked to precise outlines, Steer’s brushwork was expressive, and if he borrowed from Moore’s colour harmonies, it was in the contrived setting of the house in Cheyne Walk, in the presence of his model. George Moore, at this time, was affectionately bemused by Steer’s legendary hypochondria, constantly guarding himself against accidents and illnesses, for - he added - ‘a man must keep cool if his model is coming at ten’ (G. Moore, ‘My Dear Steer’, introduction to Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters, 1906, Dublin).