Among the most remarkable pictures in the second New English Art Club exhibition in 1887 were those of Philip Wilson Steer. Described as ‘two interesting and challenging paintings of wind and light’, one was an English subject, the other, French, and the differences between them extended as much to treatment, as they did to setting and subject matter.1 The first, On the Pierhead (fig. 1), probably a studio version of a vivid on-the-spot study of a girl caught in the warm breeze at the end of Walberswick Pier, has the smooth surfaces, suave transitions and contre jour aspects that characterise The Bridge (Tate). Upright format and measured colour harmonies suggest an artist squaring up to Whistler.2
By contrast, Chatterboxes sets very different non-Whistlerian and more avant-garde objectives. Here ‘wind’ (actually also a soft balmy breeze and morning sun) has been combined with ‘light’ in a composition containing four girls of the same age – possibly from the same couvent. The girl on the left, wearing a floral coronet, holds court, while two of her friends continue to knit and sew. The conversation is lively and the immediate impression is one of suppressed jollity. Closer inspection, however, suggests the possibility that Steer’s four models may actually have been fewer in number and that one or two girls could easily have been painted in different positions, to be composed in the manner of a contemporary printer of combination photographs. This conjecture tends to be supported by the fact that light falls on each of the figures from a slightly different direction.3 That having been said, the surface unity of Steer’s work is remarkable, with directional strokes in the foliage carried into the figures, and a pointilliste stipple of red and blue brush-marks applied to the shadows.
For all this, Steer retains a remarkable naturalism in his gossiping girls. One speaks, others react. The momentary exchange is caught – just as in John Lavery’s Sewing in the Shade (Private Collection), of two years earlier. Maids or school children, Steer’s young women are dressed in the same two-tone blue cotton that was in common use for ouvrière garments and school clothes throughout northern France – as in Lépine’s Nuns and Schoolgirls in the Luxembourg Gardens (National Gallery, London).4
Although Chatterboxes had been shown in Liverpool in the autumn of 1886, it re-appeared in an exceptional New English exhibition where its radicalism was not generally appreciated by critics who could neither understand it, nor wished to try.5 The more conservative press men preferred Frank Bramley’s Weaving a Chain of Grief or Thomas Benjamin Kennington’s The Battle of Life, (both Private Collection) while the more adventurous commented on Alexander Harrison’s In Arcady (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) or puzzled over John Singer Sargent’s unconventional Robert Louis Stevenson and Mrs Stevenson – Sketch (Crystal Bridges Museum, Arkansas).6 The most ink was however expended on Theodore Roussel’s large studio nude painting simply entitled, Reading Girl (Tate). Those who did mention Steer’s efforts, found them distasteful or incoherent. While they had ‘very great qualities’ according to The Illustrated London News, their virtues ‘are obscured from our perception by the apparent smudginess or slovenliness of the method’.7 It was not obvious that they were even by the same hand. The Pall Mall Gazette was however, more sympathetic and better informed – Chatterboxes represented ‘flickering sunshine’ in a ‘French garden… in the eccentric manner just now affected by some of the 'Independent Artists' in the Champs Elysées’.8
So - Steer’s treatment of flickering sunshine clearly grouped him with the ‘Independent Artists’ in Paris, and specifically those in the Champs Elysées where the first exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants was held at the Pavillon de la Ville de Paris in the winter of 1884-5. For those ‘in the know’ the reference must have been highly significant. It suggests that the unidentified writer was au fait with the most recent developments in the French capital, and it is significant that the epithet ‘independent’ is preferred to the term ‘impressionist’, by then in common usage in Britain. ‘Independent’, at that moment in 1886-7, referred to those French painters who, while being classed as Impressionist, also wished to assert their independence. The conventional reading of this usage might be to simply classify ‘Independents’ as those in open rebellion against the values of the Salon. However, a more nuanced interpretation indicates that as the Impressionists re-convened for what was to be their final exhibition in the spring of 1886, the question of dealer-affiliation was the hot topic.9 The innocent days of the société anonyme, as they dubbed themselves for their first exhibition in 1874, were long gone, they had not shown as a group since 1882 and even at that point, their seventh show, there were huge conflicts of interest, as dealers were freely adopting the term ‘Impressionist’ that had been applied to them in papers. Paul Durand-Ruel, who had supported the leading Impressionists, was now in intense rivalry with Georges Petit who was luring Monet away to his palatial galleries on the rue Lafitte, on condition that the painter did not participate in a rival show. Those unrepresented, or less commercially successful, naturally wished to retain the idea that the group should be ‘artist-led’, and not ‘dealer-led’. Thus the final ‘Independent’ Impressionist group exhibition in 1886 contained neither Monet, Renoir, Sisley nor Caillebotte, and included artists like Gauguin, of whom they would not approve, as well as the ‘Divisionists’, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who had shown originally with the Société des Artistes Indépendants.10
Where this is relevant to Steer, and uniquely to Chatterboxes, lies in the fact that his primary loyalty when exhibiting in London, was to the ‘artist-led’ New English, and secondly, in the emergence of the more ‘scientific’ approaches to Impressionism exemplified in Seurat’s Un dimanche à La Grande Jatte (fig. 2). Neither of Steer’s New English exhibits of 1887 exemplifies the Seurat method, but we know that he owned a copy of Michel Eugène Chevreul’s Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours (1854).11 In Chatterboxes and elsewhere, he had begun to experiment, believing that light would emanate from tiny touches of pure colour that mixed optically – just as the néo-Impressionistes did.12 Evidence that he was interested in the method, beyond the present picture is found on the reverse of another of Steer’s Walberswick sketches (fig. 3).
It is fascinating therefore to discover the pointilliste stipple in the foreground shadows in Chatterboxes - but what of the rhythmic treatment of foliage from which the path and foreground space is hollowed, the striations that compose the tunics and aprons of the girls and the evident need to extend the composition at its right edge?13
Light here is fractured into tiny directional strokes that convey the sense of quietly rustling surfaces. Steer’s treatment of the surrounding shrubs, in a form of cross-hatching that creates surface unity, has direct equivalents in contemporary Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painting. Carried on into the four ‘chatterboxes’ in a uniform manner, it is most clearly seen in the tunic of the girl sewing in the background where diagonal brushstrokes are not modelled to imitate form, but become texture.14 Although not identical, such traits had been evident in the foliage and figures painted by Camille Pissarro after 1881, when he produced Jeune paysanne au chapeau de paille (fig. 4).15.
By 1886 when La cueillette des pommes (fig. 5.) was shown in the final Impressionist exhibition, Pissarro had become more adept in his pointillisme, while bemoaning the fact that Durand-Ruel preferred his earlier style which was more commercial. Nevertheless, seeing pictures like this, Steer was clearly struggling to find spatial devices that would enable a clear transition from foreground to middle distance, while not losing the sense of an active, vibrating, and uniform surface, just as Lavery, his Glasgow school contemporary, had attempted in his ‘Frananglais’ An Impression dans la sous bois, 1884 (sold in these Rooms, 10 May 2007).16 Yet he was more aggressive than Lavery had been, and Chatterboxes reveals that he had sensed the importance of Pissarro and the Neo-Impressionist method. His admiration for the painter extended in May 1891 to a personal invitation through his son, Lucien, to the great Impressionist to show with the New English. At this point Pissarro fils wrote to his father that of all the club’s members, Steer was the most radical – ‘il devise le ton à notre façon et est très intelligent, c’est un artiste enfin!’ - he observed. Steer may have doubts and hesitations, the others might not understand him, but there is likely to have been more than simple English niceness when Steer confessed to Lucien that he preferred Camille Pissarro’s work to that of Monet.17
But what did all this mean to its London audience in the spring of 1887? One reporter noted that,
'Several ladies during my visit essayed, unbeknownst to the gentleman in charge, to test the durability and consistency of the works with their umbrellas, and resorted to other mean devices to attract public attention to themselves, and their dresses, and their friends’ works, and eventually groaned under a weight of ecstasy opposite Mr Steer’s two works, The Pier Head and Chatterboxes, managed to create so much muffled confusion.'18
We can only guess at the names of these female admirers who picked out the picture placed beside the more conventional works of William S. Llewellyn and Arthur Hacker.19 Their agonies and ecstasies would be repeated in the following year when Steer showed his equally controversial A Summer’s Evening (Private Collection) at the New English. By this stage, Charles W Deschamps, currently Coutts Lindsay’s manager at the Grosvenor Gallery, was charged with assembling work for the Exposition Universelle in Paris and had selected Chatterboxes. As the exhibition drew to a close he felt he could sell the picture and sought permission to do so. The sale was completed in January 1890.20
Its appearance at this point, after 128 years in French private collections shifts the register and sharpens our perception of the genesis of British Impressionism, taking the discussion into exciting directions. It raises questions and points to new forms of experiment. It confirms Laughton’s view that this artist could quite comfortably work in several different styles at the same time and that we should not look for a single, simple trajectory in his work – any more than proposing a single unified idea of British Impressionism. At times vacillation left Steer exhausted and close to abandoning his profession, and although he had sold one or two pictures, his perceived waywardness was greeted with derision, or at best, was politely regarded as ‘challenging’.
Tantalizing questions remain. When and where was Chatterboxes painted? Did this English artist have access to the garden of a convent school, or did he come upon these girls in the Luxembourg gardens, as Lépine had done? Was there a single visual source – a Salon painting, or some other work by a young French contemporary yet to be discovered? During the 1930s when D.S. MacColl was contemplating his monograph on Steer, the aged artist was asked to list the locations he had painted from 1884 to 1934 - but he was vague about the early years.21 ‘Walberswick?’ is listed for 1885 and 1886, ‘Dannes, near Étaples’ for 1887 and ‘Boulogne?’ for 1888. The question marks are Steer’s. Laughton and others have struggled over these places and dates. It now seems clear that the artist was back in France in 1886 for what must have been a late spring or early summer visit when he could have seen both Pissarro’s and Seurat’s recent work in the Impressionist exhibition which opened in mid-May.22 The clear evidence suggests a previously unrecorded visit in that year.
Location might be Paris, or possibly Dannes; we note in passing that these jeunes filles en fleurs are sunburnt, and in good health. Dannes/Étaples and nearby Montreuil, by 1886, were burgeoning artists’ haunts where British and American artists, came and went.23 But at this point we run perilously into conjecture, for this notoriously silent British Impressionist leaves few clues. In any case, pictures speak for themselves, and this more eloquently than many. What is clear, however, is that with Chatterboxes, unlike the works produced at Walberswick, there were fewer painters looking over his shoulder and that sense of liberation from the grey days of the typical English summer is expressed in the glowing faces of his gossiping girls. A missing link in the Impressionist chain has been found.
1.‘Some Art Exhibitions’, Pall Mall Gazette, 7 April 1887, p. 2.
2. Anna Gruetzner Robins, A Fragile Modernism, Whistler and his Impressionist Followers, Yale, 2007, p. 170. This exhibited version of the subject is likely to have followed Steer’s impressionistic study of Mrs Dolly Brown, On the Jetty, Walberswick (Girl seated on a Pier, Walberswick), (Laughton, 1971, no. 22; sold Christie’s 8 June 2001).
3. Thus, while it is clear from the foreground shadow of the girl on the left that the sun is almost overhead, it strikes the shoulders of the girls at slightly different angles and highlights on the shoulders of her three companions would suggest that the tunic of the girl knitting, third from the left, would be in full sunlight.
4. Their shoes would lead one to conclude that they are not fieldworkers.
5. Since the early 1880s the Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions had been recognised their openness to new, and at times controversial works, by younger artists. In 1886 many pictures from the first New English Art Club exhibition passed straight to Liverpool. Steer is likely to have inserted the recently completed Chatterboxes in the belief that its radicalism would be recognized by an avant-garde collector in the north-west – as had occurred with Tired Out, 1884 (Private Collection), when shown in Manchester in the previous year.
6. McConkey, 2006, pp. 39-42.
7. ‘The New English Art Club’, The Illustrated London News, 4 April 1887, p. 406.
8. As note 1. Other contemporary reviewers in The Daily Telegraph and Building News confirm the basic characteristics of the work, noting the ‘… flickering sunshine in a French garden’, and girls in dresses of ‘ … crude and violent blues … seated amongst bushes of equally violent greens and yellows’, while ‘the whole of the canvas is covered diagonally with long lines and spots’. To the reporter of Building News the picture exemplified ‘the rapid development in England of the French School of Impressionism’.
9. See Martha Ward, ‘The Rhetoric of Independence and Innovation’, in Charles S Moffett ed., The New Painting, Impressionism, 1874-1886, Geneva, 1986, pp. 421-442.
10. Monet and Renoir had both been given solo exhibitions by Durand-Ruel in 1883 and may have felt by this time, three years later, that they no longer needed to be associated with a group. Monet was also keen to exhibit with Petit’s Société Internationale. As has been pointed out, the Impressionist dealer retained the strategy of presenting an allegedly coherent group when he showed items from his stock in London between 1882 and 1884. For further reference see Anne Robbins, ‘Durand-Ruel’s Conquest of London, in Sylvie Patry et al, Inventing Impressionism: Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market, London, 2015, pp. 182-6.
11. He is also likely to have known Ogden Rood’s more recent Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry (1879).
12. The term néo-Impressioniste applied to Seurat, Signac, Cross, and Dubois-Pillet was first coined by Felix Fénéon in his review of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, in September 1886, just as Chatterboxes went on show in Liverpool.
13. It will be noted that Steer’s method of signing, in block capital letters, extends into this area, painted on what initially had been a generous canvas overlap.
14. While working across the picture, the artist clearly felt that the girl on the extreme right coincided too closely with the edge of the canvas and so it was extended. Steer’s scratchy vermilion signature extending into this area, stands in marked contrast to the ‘sign-writer’ clarity of the block capital inscription on Tired Out, 1884 (see note 5).
15. Although in later years, in conversation with John Rothenstein, (A Pot of Paint, Artists of the Nineties, 1929, p. 138) he only referred specifically to the Manet retrospective exhibition in 1884, Steer could, of course, have seen works of this type. Making a brief spring visit to England, he may for instance have studied Pissarro’s Jeune paysanne au chapeau de paille when it was exhibited in Durand-Ruel’s Société des Impressionistes exhibition in Dowdeswell’s Gallery in London in April or May 1883. The picture, and many other Impressionist works, were, of course a consistent feature of Durand-Ruel’s stock in Paris, and the …chapeau de paille remained in his gallery throughout the rest of Steer’s student years, and indeed, up until 1891.
16. Lavery and Steer did not actually meet until later in the decade.
17. Anne Thorold ed., The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 212-3.
18. The Bohemian, 23 Apr 1887, quoted in McConkey, 2006, p. 37.
19. Llewellyn was showing Winter Night and Hacker, Milking Time, (both unlocated). Elsewhere that spring, Steer was exhibiting Portrait of a Lady (Bristol City Art Gallery) at the Grosvenor Gallery and Millie and Gracie (Private Collection) at the Society of British Artists. During the year he was working on the portrait of the actress, Jennie Lee, and would soon be commissioned for the portrait of Helen Rosalind Williams (Tate), the barrister’s wife from Bayswater, who would, in 1891, begin to show her own work at the New English.
20. Laughton, 1971, p. 49. The picture was known to Laughton only from a cropped photograph.
21. R. Ironside, Wilson Steer, London, 1943, p. 21.
22. Thus, following the opening of the New English Art Club exhibition in April, Steer (like Walter Sickert), is likely to have visited Paris. Had he not been working on Chatterboxes since the previous year, which seems unlikely, he could for instance have started the picture, having just seen Pissarro’s and Seurat’s most recent works. Un dimnache à la Grande Jatte featured in both the Impressionist exhibition which opened in May and the Indépendants in August 1886. Its second exhibition is however less likely for Steer because the Liverpool exhibition at which Chatterboxes was first shown, opened at the beginning of September. Liverpool submissions had to be made in the first two weeks of August. We also must not assume that between the Liverpool and London exhibitions, Chatterboxes remained untouched. In other words, extending the canvas on the right side could have occurred after the first showing.
23. The regions of Picardy and Pas-de-Calais were for instance, currently being explored by David Murray and Yeend King, and in 1887 by Frank O’Meara, George Clausen and Alfred Webster. For Americans see Jean-Claude Lesage, Peintres Américains en Pas-de-Calais, La Colonie d’Étaples, Abbeville, 2007.