Asked to define Impressionist art, most will describe scenes of late-19th century French life, painted in the open air, with rapid, broken brushstrokes that captured the fleetingness of light. According to art history as it’s conventionally told, Impressionism was as French as Camembert.
But the truth is more complicated. ‘There was a strong contingent of Impressionists in the UK, too, who have long been overlooked,’ says Brandon Lindberg, Head of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art at Christie’s in London. These included George Clausen and Stanhope Forbes, works by whom will be offered on 22 November in Christie's inaugural British Impressionism sale at King Street in London.
The story of the Impressionist movement certainly begins in France, where Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and others turned their backs on academic tradition. They duly changed the face of art, but we’ve always been told their experiments didn’t catch on across the Channel.
Victorian Britain tends to be remembered as more conservative in its artistic tastes, associated above all with narrative painting by the likes of Augustus Egg, which often came with a moral attached. When the pre-eminent Impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel held an exhibition in London in 1874, it was met with a mixture of outrage and confusion. ‘Coarse and ugly’, was the disparaging opinion of the reviewer in The Times.
‘From the 1880s onward, however, things changed,’ Lindberg says. ‘Following the lead of their French counterparts, British artists started moving to rural areas to paint en plein air, too. You had Philip Wilson Steer heading to Walberswick in Suffolk, George Clausen to Essex, Stanhope Forbes and friends founding the Newlyn School in Cornwall, and the American expat John Singer Sargent settling in the Cotswolds.’ There, Sargent painted what is now one of the most popular works in London’s Tate collection, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose — an evening scene of two children lighting paper lanterns in a bountiful garden.
At the time, says Lindberg, the British art world ‘was dominated by the big beasts of the Royal Academy such as Frederic Lord Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. These were the establishment tastemakers. But there was a definite movement away from London by a new generation of artists. They weren’t organised into a coherent whole, but they certainly shared enough traits to be called British Impressionists.’
Monet’s name is recurrent in the story of British Impressionism. Like Pissarro and other compatriots, he briefly moved to London in 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian War. That move is the starting point for a new exhibition at Tate Britain, Impressionists in London (opening on 2 November), which looks at French painters’ various forays across the Channel in the final decades of the 19th century.
Monet’s Grainstack series, painted in 1890-91, seems to have influenced Clausen’s Evening Song (1893), the star lot at Christie’s upcoming sale. In that work, a farmer’s daughter lies in a field at dusk. The haystacks behind her, one presumes, and Clausen’s vibrant, broken brushstrokes, are a visual nod to the Frenchman’s iconic series.
Monet inspired another of the works in the British Impressionism sale, Langham Mill Pool by Alfred Munnings. This scene of a grassy pond and poplar trees in the Stour Valley recalls Monet’s many paintings of his garden at Giverny.
If Monet was fascinated by the River Thames near Westminster, returning to paint it repeatedly, Pissarro found greater inspiration in the South London suburb of Sydenham. For his part, Durand-Ruel kept a gallery on Bond Street for many years, which, although it never did great sales, at least allowed Londoners a window onto progressions in French art.
‘The French Impressionists undoubtedly left their influence,’ says Lindberg, ‘but the direction of travel wasn’t just one way. A number of British painters, excited about the goings-on in France, headed there to study — not so much in Paris, but at art colonies in rural areas such as Grez-sur-Loing [in northern France], where both Clausen and John Lavery went.’
Another artistic bridge between the two nations was John Singer Sargent. Having trained in France, he moved to the UK in 1885, just before turning 30. Painted in the Cotswolds village of Broadway, Girl Reading by a Stream (1888) is a masterclass in Impressionistic atmosphere and light, his sketchy brushwork capturing the subtle tonalities of a fading sun on water.
Like many artists in Britain, Sargent wasn’t an Impressionist per se but regularly adopted its techniques. Others — such as Philip Wilson Steer, whose sunny scenes of coastal Suffolk rank among his nation’s best Impressionist pictures — engaged with the style only briefly before moving on.
All of which has added to the difficulty of speaking of British Impressionism as a coherent movement. But neither was there complete homogeneity in French Impressionism: Degas, for instance, preferred urban, indoor scenes to plein air landscapes.
For many decades, assessment of British Impressionism took its cue from the early-20th century critic Roger Fry, who argued that British art from the Victorian and Edwardian era wasn’t as good as that from the continent.
‘This started to change in the 1970s,’ Lindberg explains, following the publication of monographs on Steer, Sargent and others ‘that deepened our knowledge of their careers. Then came a landmark exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery in 1995, Impressionism in Britain, which really put these artists on the map.’ In another important advance, Tate Britain is expected to open a new room devoted entirely to British Impressionism in the near future.
So what does this all mean for the market? ‘The gradual increase in awareness of the movement means prices are still very reasonable,’ Lindberg reckons. ‘A first-rate Clausen is available for around the same price as a work by a fourth-rate French Impressionist, so we’re talking excellent value.’
But, the specialist advises, ‘as appreciation of British Impressionism grows — something reflected in our decision to dedicate a whole sale to it — we sense this is a market that will grow, too. Interest in these artists is rising not just in the UK, but globally, so this is probably as good a time to invest as ever.’