‘That beautiful blue … is the optimism of painting’ - so declared George Moore when he stood in front of works by Philip Wilson Steer at the Goupil Gallery in 1894. ‘Such colour’, he continued, ‘is to the colourist what the drug is to the opium-eater: nothing matters, the world is behind us, and we dream on and on, lost in an infinity of suggestion’. For Moore, pictures painted at Cowes showed ‘Mr Steer at his best …’ (G. Moore, ‘Mr Steer’s Exhibition’, The Speaker, 3 March 1894, p. 258; idem, Modern Painting, 1898 (enlarged ed., Walter Scott), p. 242).
There was clearly something intoxicating about Steer’s first solo exhibition. Its leitmotif was a series of plangent coastal scenes painted at Boulogne, Walberswick and Cowes that ran through the gamut of modern painting from Whistlerian oil sketches to full-blown Impressionism in all its current guises, echoing Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and even, at times, Georges Seurat. Steer had mastered the idiom. He alone of his contemporaries, had fully grasped the purpose, palette, and suave handling of the Impressionist, and could claim that far from being a ‘fashion’ or a ‘craze’, Impressionism simply recognized that nature is ‘bathed in atmosphere’ and the painter’s task was to be ‘of his time’ and record this (P.W. Steer, ‘Appendix D: Impressionism in Art’, in D.S. MacColl, Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, London, 1945, p. 177 (transcript of paper delivered to the Art-Workers Guild, 1891)) .Yet even his recorded statements do not prepare us for Steer’s radicalism. How was this isolated English painter so advanced in continental terms? Why were his experiments covering the entire range of modern painting so remarkable? For Moore and one or two other ‘new’ critics in the wake of the scandal over Degas’s l’Absinthe, Steer was the new standard-bearer for the avant-garde, and had he seen Yachts at Cowes (fig. 1) at this point, his conviction could only have been confirmed (R. Pickvance, ‘L’Absinthe in England’, Apollo, vol. 77, May 1963, pp. 395-8).
One of a series painted in the summer of 1892, the present canvas is the only one to depict a specific location with which Steer was already familiar – the view of the harbour from East Cowes. Four years earlier, he had stood at this same spot close to the shore to paint Summer at Cowes (fig. 2). Laughton accepts that even though a visit to Cowes in 1888 does not appear on the ‘Chronological List’ of painting locations, signed by Steer, the Manchester painting pre-dates the present canvas (see Laughton, 1971, pp. 7-8, and note 7 which documents the various versions of the list, mostly compiled when Steer was in his seventies (i.e. the 1930s)).
Comparison of the two pictures is therefore instructive. Many of the points made in favour of the smaller work – that its brushstrokes echo ‘classic’ Impressionist canvases by Monet and Sisley – can be made in relation to the larger. Yet the differences are also significant. Where paint marks in the Manchester picture are agitated, suggesting a windy day, the Solent, in the present canvas, is much calmer. White sails reflected on its gently rippling surface are unruffled, and the overhead muted cobalt, so admired by Moore, suggests a warm heat haze. While the formats are strikingly similar, the foreground of the present picture is more satisfactorily resolved with the inclusion of spectators, the most vividly coloured of whom punctuate the composition with notes of red and green on the right. Here, as at Walberswick, Steer enjoyed observing holiday-makers watching the off-shore excitement (fig 3).
Yacht racing at Cowes on the Isle of Wight during the first week in August each year became one of the principal events in the social calendar in the 19th Century, having secured royal patronage in the reign of King William IV with the formation of the Royal Yacht Squadron. Its significance grew in the mid-century when Queen Victoria moved her summer court to Osborne House, a few miles from Cowes, and future Kings, Edward VII and George V became commodores of the squadron. 1892 was particularly newsworthy, as the queen’s grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, raced his yacht, Meteor for the Queen’s Cup – coming third. Although historians have tended to read this event as portentous, it can scarcely have registered on a painter, preoccupied with the fast-moving scene. In this instance the leading yacht, its spinnaker unfurled, is manoeuvred into the starting position, to which others will follow. In the background, the little seaside town is bathed in sunshine.
A splendid spontaneity characterises the entire 1892 series. Steer opened his eyes on the day as though seeing a new vision. He reacts to its unique character, and works instinctively, with complete undivided concentration. There was no faking of effects, no clever quotation, no second-guessing the market. As John Rothenstein later noted, ‘he tends to work for the sake of his work alone, and to become subject to an artistic morality governed by purely aesthetic laws’ (J.K.M. Rothenstein, A Pot of Paint, The Artists of the 1890s, 1929 (Books for Libraries Press ed., 1970), pp. 132-3).
In old age Yachts at Cowes was retained by the artist as a personal favourite from these long distant years. It is impossible to look at the sequence and not be reminded of Proust’s fictional town of Balbec, as Henry Tonks, Steer’s lifelong friend, must have done. It was however, the enterprising dealer, Lockett Thomson, who prized the picture away from him in 1932, and described it as ‘a delicious piece of this rare period’, when he unveiled it at his gallery at Barbizon House, in Henrietta Street, London. His descriptive note continues:
From the time it was painted, forty years ago, until quite recently, this picture has hung in Mr Steer’s own house, and we are very fortunate in its inclusion here. It is an exquisite harmony in blue, relieved by the white sails of the boats, in contrast with the darker hulls, and their reflections sparkling on the water. The shimmering haze of summer heat with scarcely a breath of wind is perfectly suggested, and the strong green and red notes of the children’s dresses make a bold and simple foreground, giving perspective to the whole. To own this painting, and to see it constantly, must be a never-ending source of pleasure (L. Thomson, Barbizon House, 1932, An Illustrated Record, 1932, no. 12).
While in the thirties, Cowes remained an essential fixture in the social season, Thomson doubted that the scene had ‘…the same quiet charm of the 1890s’. It was this that the painter captured in Yachts at Cowes - a lost world of innocent pleasure in which, for the moment, ‘nothing matters’, but that ‘beautiful blue’ which expresses ‘the optimism of painting’.