William Strang, R.A. (1859-1921)
William Strang, R.A. (1859-1921)

The Straw Hat

William Strang, R.A. (1859-1921)
The Straw Hat
signed with initials and dated 'W.S./1912' (lower left) and inscribed and numbered 'THE STRAW HAT/(535)' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
24 x 18 in. (60.1 x 45.7 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 6 June 1935, lot 84 (13½ gns to Quigley).
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 9 November 1988, lot 20.

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Lot Essay

In the present portrait, painted in 1912 by William Strang, a young woman wearing a straw hat, possibly the artist's daugther, Nancy, sits holding a yellow flower. She is statuesque in her pose and the whiplash graphism or bel allure we find in a Sargent or Boldini around this time is nowhere to be seen. In its place we are given the careful notation of the lace in her blouse and the precise rendering of local colour in her face and hands. And as if to confirm the uncompromising honesty of the work, the painter once apparently confessed to C.R. Ashbee that he was unable to flatter (see P. Athill, William Strang RA, 1859-1921, 1981, exh. cat., Sheffield City Art Galleries, p. 22). He allegedly remarked: 'I've tried all my life to do the pretty-pretty but it's no good...I can't' (Ibid, p. 41).

Strang came from the Slade stable of Alphonse Legros, and inherited the master's reverence for line (see H. Furst, 'The Paintings of William Strang RA', The Studio, vol. LXXXI, 1921, p. 171. Strang apparently declared that 'Legros was the greatest teacher who ever lived because he was the greatest artist who ever taught'). By the time The Straw Hat was painted, he was as renowned for exquisite Holbein-esque drawings in red chalk, as for portraits in oil. Indeed it was observed that his portrait drawings were modern variations in the manner of the great Tudor court painter's superb head studies in the Royal Library at Windsor (reported in The Art Journal, 1909, p. 207). When it came to the application of colour, Strang also adopted Holbein's heraldic manner. He was fascinated by surface and as in the present model's sleeve, paint was emblazoned on to canvas.

During his lifetime, and to the annoyance of some critics, Strang defied easy classification. To Herbert Furst, '...he is neither an Academicist nor a Classicist, nor a Romanticist; neither an Impressionist nor a Post-Impressionist; he presents himself indeed to the impatient or merely casual observer in Protean illusiveness. Yet Strang is not only a very solid and unevasive personality but a singularly simple and ingenuous one to boot' (Ibid.).

This 'personality', which Furst found in his work, was attributed to boyish curiosity - to the ability in his large allegorical compositions to interrogate past precedent. Remarkable canvases such as Bal Suzette, 1913 (private collection), showing a motley assemblage of performers and spectators, were no more than collections of figures imported from elsewhere.

Thus among the revellers, not only do we find Thomas Hardy, a recent portrait subject, but also a youthful Sargent and the painter himself - and in the background, the model for the present work, wearing the same straw hat. Here too, as in his portraits, movement is frozen and figures are pressed forward on to the picture plane, as in the manner of the stylistic sources derived from Legros - not only Holbein and the Flemish masters, but Primitives from the School of Seville. Modern life, The Straw Hat teaches us, was as rich in sophisticated symbolism as the sixteenth-century court.


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