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 capture the fleetingness of light. According to art history as it’s conventionally told, Impressionism is 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 Sarah Reynolds, a specialist in Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art at Christie’s 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 that their experiments didn’t catch on across the English 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,’ Reynolds 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 Reynolds, 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.
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 achieved great sales, at least allowed Londoners a window onto progressions in French art.
‘The French Impressionists undoubtedly left their influence,’ says the specialist, ‘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, the artist’s 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, the general assessment of British Impressionism took its cue from the early-20th-century artist and critic Roger Fry, who argued that British art from the Victorian and Edwardian eras wasn’t as good as that from the Continent.
‘This started to change in the 1970s,’ Reynolds 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 has devoted an entire room to British Impressionism in its ‘Walk through British Art’ display.
So what does this all mean for the market? ‘The gradual increase in awareness of the movement means prices are still very reasonable,’ says Reynolds. ‘A first-rate Clausen is available for around the same price as a work by a lesser French Impressionist, so we’re talking excellent value.’
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But, the specialist advises, the market seems likely to grow. ‘Interest in these artists is rising not just in the UK, but globally,’ she says, ‘so this is probably as good a time to invest as ever.’