Clausen painted an influential group of London street scenes in the eighteen month period from the winter of 1879. These culminated with A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill, shown in the Royal Academy in 1881 (no. 100, Bury Art Gallery, fig. 1), and they coincide with the period of his move from Fulham to Hampstead, an expanding suburb which was becoming popular with artists.1 The works in this group demonstrate the painter's short-lived allegiance to the portrayal of contemporary city life, specifically that of the London street. Interested in street characters rather than topography, Clausen confronted beggars, milkmaids, policemen, schoolgirls and bourgeois businessmen - anyone who might be encountered in the city thoroughfare.
One of the first works of this group was Trafalgar Square, 1879 (untraced) which shows an elegant young woman dressed in black, encountering a ragged girl selling flowers, under the watchful gaze of a policeman.2 The background clearly shows the spire of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the front of the National Gallery, where Clausen had recently worked as a copyist.3 Thereafter he moved on to A Winter Afternoon, 1880 (formerly Maas Gallery, London, c. 1982), a work which shows an unidentified, snowy London street on a winter evening with the same black-clad young woman - posing as a mother or governess - and a child, her daughter or charge, with a chestnut vendor. This was followed by two more ambitious works painted at Hampstead, Schoolgirls, 1880 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, fig. 2), and A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill, 1881.4 In the first of these, a procession of girls from a private academy, their progress checked by a milkmaid and a beggar, confront the spectator, while in the latter, larger work, the group has been stripped away and we face again a single young woman, clad again in black, with her child, and a group of road menders in the background.
The present example, In the Street, 1880, shares the confrontational strategy of these two major works. It is also the most reductive. The young woman here is presented simply and alone, in the manner of Clausen's 'peasant' portraits of the later 1880s. Her only accessory is a bunch of flowers, the tips of which are visible at the bottom edge of the canvas. The pavement stretches out behind her in a steep perspective, and in the middle distance, a range of city types - women and men - are going about their business. One other work helps to expand this context. La Pensée, 1880 (Glasgow Art Gallery) shows Clausen's now familiar model, dressed in street clothes, but seated in a drawing room, holding a small knot of violets.5 Behind her on the wall, is a framed print of Retour du Bal, a work by Henri Gervex which had been shown recently at the Salon in Paris. As with A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill, and In the Street, we may interpret the flowers as an indication of lost love. James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot in his numerous renderings of his mistress, Mrs Kathleen Newton, frequently gives this sense of a surrounding narrative which can only be guessed at. Clausen would have been familiar with works like A Convalescent, c. 1878 (Manchester City Art Gallery) and The Ferry, c. 1879 (private collection) which show self-absorbed young women of the city.6
Thus Clausen's ambition for this group of pictures is relatively clear. In an art world dominated by the grand manner classicism of Frederic Leighton and Clausen's erstwhile teacher, Edwin Lumsden Long, his striking out for modernity was a radical departure. He had witnessed the arrival of Edward Burne-Jones at the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 and seen the emergence of a second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, but this too was rejected for a more audacious commitment to social recording which was to underscore his later allegiance to the rustic naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage. In 1880, he was, albeit temporarily, a painter of the metropolis. Criticised for the daring of his compositions and the fact that his figures lacked conventional beauty, Clausen was undaunted in his naturalist 'documentarist' resolve. These street encounters should imitate those of real life, in which we swiftly fix the faces in a crowd. Although there were others who shared Clausen's conviction, none tackled the problem with his directness. For émigré painters like Guiseppe de Nittis and Tissot, both painting London settings in the 1870s, the city was a phantasmagoria. Laid out as glittering spectacle, its grand buildings and public spaces are bourgeois haunts. Only Clausen and his student contemporary, Frederick Brown, in a work like Waiting for the Boat, 1880 (unlocated) tried to show the potentially volatile class mix which social observers like Frederick Mayhew had observed a decade earlier, and which was to become the stock-in-trade of painters like William Logsdail.7 Significantly, Bastien-Lepage, for whom Clausen was to become the principal apologist in Britain, locked on to this strand of contemporary painting in two important works, Petit Cireur de Bottes à Londres, 1881 (Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris) and Marchande de Fleurs à Londres, 1882.8 While these have been related to the parallel French tradition of types de Paris, it is more likely, fascinated as he was, by British painting, that Bastien had caught the intellectual timbre and sense of direction of young artists like Clausen. They were, in essence, providing the pictorial equivalent to the radical, if sometimes sentimental work of Graphic illustrators like Frank Holl, artists for whom the seething city provided profound social and artistic challenges. And while the compromise with spectacle in A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill, suggests unease, the concentration on the single figure in the present work, produces an equally confrontational, but at once more satisfying result. Clausen's young woman may be only a face, passing in the street, but she is no less memorable for that.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1 For further reference to this work see Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen, R.A., R.W.S., 1980 (exhibition catalogue, Bradford and Tyne and Wear Museums), pp. 27-28; see also Malcolm Warner, The Victorians, 1997 (exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), pp. 180-81.
2 Sold Sotheby's, London, 13 November 1985, lot 21.
3 In 1878, he produced a copy of Velazquez's Philip IV, 1655 (head and shoulders) which had entered the National Gallery in 1865.
4 For reference to Schoolgirls, 1880, see Malcolm Warner, Julia Marciari Alexander and Patrick McCaughey, This Other Eden, Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, 1998 (exhibition catalogue, Yale University Press), p. 168.
5 Kenneth McConkey, 1980, pp. 26-27.
6 For further reference to these works see Michael Wentworth, James Tissot, Oxford, 1994, pp. 131-33. Kathleen Newton died of consumption in November 1882, precipitating Tissot's return to France.
7 Brown's picture (sold Sotheby's, London, 16 November 1976) contains, in addition to a dark-eyed black-clad woman, à la Tissot, a Chelsea pensioner, à la Herkomer, a mother and child, a fashionable frock-coated male, two other figures and a dog against a river backdrop of Battersea à la Whistler. Brown and Clausen were student friends and later allies in the formation of the New English Art Club and the attempts to broaden its remit in the mid-1880s. They drifted apart when Clausen entered the Royal Academy in the mid-nineties.
8 Kenneth McConkey, 'The Bouguereau of the Naturalists: Bastien-Lepage and British Art', Art History, 1, no. 3, 1978, pp. 371-82; for specific reference to Bastien's wish to paint a type très anglais, see G.P. Weisberg (ed.), The Realist Tradition, French Painting and Drawing, 1830-1900, 1980 (exhibition catalogue, Cleveland Museum of Art), pp. 195-97 (entry on Petit Cireur de Bottes à Londres, by Kenneth McConkey).