E. Phillips Fox, Al fresco, c.1904 oil on canvas painting depicts the story of the elegant leisurely life of the Edwardian domestic scene and the modern imagery it portrays, from families dining in sunny settings through to leisure activities enjoyed by all, creating the imagery of an untroubled life.
The Edwardian era (1910 – 1914) reflected, within such a short period, a time of great social change. This era followed the established order of a Victorian time toward the beginnings of a more modern world. It was also the time of the exodus of Australian artists for Europe.
Many Australian artists of the era moved to Europe to study and live, such as E. Phillips Fox, Tudor St. George Tucker, and Rupert Bunny. As we will delve deeper into the iconography of their paintings, in particular, Al fresco and The green parasol, of E. Philips Fox; Nasturtiums, of Tudor St. George Tucker; Last fine days, Royan, of Rupert Bunny; The holiday group, of George Lambert, we will see that they too reflected the topical issues of the day, and they portrayed the movement toward a more modern society for all.
These expatriate artists were moving regularly between London and Paris and many stayed abroad, not unlike today’s Australian film stars who have stayed abroad, they became absorbed in their artistic world, something they would not have been able to acquire if they stayed here in Australia.
This essay began with the statement, that ‘the soul of this essay is depicted through the painting of E. Phillips Fox, Al fresco, c1904’. What is the painting portraying to us?
Fox was influenced by the French Impressionists and as can be seen in this painting with his use of the small broken dabs of high key colour, thickly applied textured paint to create the dappled effects of light.
This painting is the first of Fox’s paintings to depict a family dining outdoors, in which he expressed himself in the contrasts of light and shade. This image of a family dining al fresco under the shade of a vine covered house presents a vision of an elegant, leisurely life in Europe that appealed to and was depicted by many artists. The stylishly dressed women and the happy child who smiles at the dog create a view of an untroubled life.
The sheltered outdoors provided an environment for informal family rituals, domestic pastimes and allowed for conversation about family life and society. The idea of dining outdoors is so familiar and common to us nowadays that it seems foreign to think that this was of modern thinking and part of the change toward a more modern world.
Al fresco was exhibited at the New Salon in Paris in 1907 and for which Fox was awarded an associate to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. The Gallery of South Australia acquired the work the following year. When Al fresco was exhibited in Melbourne, the critic for Table Talk, 5 March 1908, stated, “somehow the work, excellent in every detail, has no appeal to Australians to whom out-of-door eating suggests abominable memories of flies and bull ants” . How times have changed our thinking, where nowadays we even build homes with out-of–door dining areas, barbecue areas, and even kitchen areas, so that we can dine outdoors, more so than indoors. Maybe we have lost the memories of those abominable flies and bull ants.
Another of Fox’s work is The green parasol ; this painting is depicting a friend of Fox, Edith Anderson, and was painted in the surroundings of Fox’s garden in Paris. The captured afternoon sunlight creates the warmth and glow of a relaxing summer’s day in the garden. The painting reveals Fox’s ability to create dappled and diffused light across the scene. The pure, vibrant colour crossing the canvas creates both movement and quietness within the painting. Some areas of the light fawn canvas have been left unpainted to create a sense of light and air and to provide a reflecting area between the colours. She seems serene and calm with her thoughts.
You can imagine the stirring of leaves and petals as the gentle breeze is gliding through. The dog settles on Edith’s lap, as she strokes her gently. Edith’s face is seen in half profile, she is peaceful, relaxed and untroubled, as she looks at her pet dog with fondness. In this intimate captured moment, Fox depicts the Edwardian Paris life. Fox also portrayed her as a modern woman, by wearing looser garments and relaxing outdoors. How many times has one wanted to just sit outside in the garden contemplating with one’s thoughts, feeling the warmth of the day and feeling the gentle breeze wisp by our face, it is a serene moment.
This painting is also showing a desire of Fox to blur portraits to make a picture rather than paint a portrait. Edith and the garden appear to become one and the same, as her green chiffon dress melts into the surroundings while the background moves away from us, as we are drawn towards her as the central focus. Yet the garden remains vivid with colour and movement. We enter a calming private space.
This painting is one of Fox’s most luminous paintings. The background is a bright mass of flowers within strong sunlight and Edith is observed in the delicate tinted shade of the green parasol.
Keeping with the garden theme, Tudor St. George Tucker’s painting Nasturtiums shows the effects of natural light and colour. Tucker depicts a scene of a couple relaxing outdoors, within the small courtyard, where light and shadow play amongst the garden.
This painting depicts a homely domestic scene. The enclosed courtyard garden’s towering cream walls cut out the sky, which gives a more London or city feel to the painting. The cream walls are in contrast with the groupings of vivid green nasturtiums that wave over the path and the climbing plants that stretch to the sky climbing higher and higher up the walls. The sunlight that dapples through the foliage of the tree, adds movement to the composition. The brightly lit path leads the eye to the couple, within the centre of the painting, each defined within their own space. The woman is leaning against the garden door party ajar dressed in loose clothing with her wide brimmed hat, a modern style while the man smokes sitting under the shade of the tree, resting from the heat of the day.
Fox and Tucker throughout the 1880 and 1890 studied, travelled and worked together. Fox and Tucker like many students in Paris in the late 1880s were interested in impressionism and began to explore it. As can be seen in Fox’s The green parasol and Tucker’s Nasturtiums, they both have an impressionist feel. Both Tucker and Fox returned to Melbourne in 1892, their friendship remained so strong that in 1893 they went into partnership and opened the Melbourne School of Art, in the Cromwell Buildings on Bourke St. They brought their knowledge and experience of contemporary French art and Impressionism to Australia.
Australian artists who had moved to Europe were either acclaimed for there successes through the Salon and Royal Academy or by Australia were dismissed as moving too closely to their adopted countries, and thereby losing sight of what it was to be an Australian artist. It was seen that little was happening on the home front and so for those who carried the flag overseas had lost direction. Would we consider that Australian artists who live and work overseas nowadays face the same dilemma, that they are seen as un-Australian? Or is it that now, the world is much more accessible, so this does not apply?
Another expatriate, Rupert Bunny spent the summer of 1908 near Royan, depicting fashionably dressed people strolling along the promenade or entertaining themselves and their children on the beachfront. Bunny composed this painting from separate sketches of individual groups, lone figures, and boats on the water. It was most likely composed back in his studio in Paris rather than on site, where Bunny shaped the sketches and reviewed his notes to create a scene of family and friends, chatting, relaxing in the open air. Bunny in 1907 and 1908 had an interest in painting sunlight on semi-transparent, pastel fabrics. He used a brushstroke to create feathering which gave an effect of light reflecting from surfaces. This painting has a composition that has the informality of a snapshot that we would take of our family and friends on holiday. Last fine days, Royan, is an intimate scene, yet the setting is theatrical, of women whom are elaborately gowned in flowing dresses relaxing by the water.
This painting is one of a series of three paintings including, On the beach (Royan) c.1908, and Under the trees (Royan) c.1908, and form an almost continuous view. On the beach depicts a landscape of sand with distant bathers and beach tents, with a mother helping her daughter with her socks and woman reading a book. In Under the trees Bunny introduced an older group of people on a shaded seat, with a mother watching her toddler chase a red ball.
Families enjoyed excursions to local attractions, seaside visits and picnics. The pleasure of sea bathing had been discouraged in colonial Sydney on the grounds of both risk and indecency. Early laws also prohibited bathing during daylight hours. By the 1870s bathing machines appeared on Sydney beaches, allowing bathers privacy both to change and to enter the water. This seems quite bizarre to us now but people did change the way forward.
People gradually defied the laws and by 1900 there were reports of whole families bathing. By 1903 new laws were introduced that permitted surf bathing but required neck-to-knee outfits and prohibited the sexes to mingle. However the strength of the Edwardians to change the way forward mixed bathing soon followed but the bathing attire continued to stay as stringent for years to come.
In contrast to Fox, Tucker and Bunny’s colourfully rich paintings, George Lambert also painted images of women and children, which were a favourite subject for traditional and modern artists. In The holiday group, Lambert used a more tonal colouring to depict the women taking exercise with children, an image of health and wellbeing, reflecting what was current and topical of the time. He contrasted one woman wearing loose clothing, the maternal feminist, with the other wearing the more restrictive traditional but fashionable high necked blouse and waistcoat of a career woman. The Edwardian era was the last time women wore corsets in everyday life.
At this time, the women’s movement was encouraging women to exercise to give them healthier bodies to assist them in childbearing. People began to enjoy the physical pleasures of life outdoors and the see the benefits of sun and clean air, and this was reflected in the way they behaved and dressed.
Was Lambert using the tonal approach to bring focus to the topical issue rather than to use bright vivid colours and bring focus to the landscape and figures? It quite possibly could be? Would the issue of health and wellbeing be prominent in a more colourful painting? I don’t think that it would be lost. If we consider the similarities of these paintings of Al fresco and The green parasol, of E. Philips Fox; Nasturtiums, of Tudor St. George Tucker; Last fine days, Royan, of Rupert Bunny; with The holiday group, of George Lambert, we will find that the modern messages from the artists’ to the viewers’ are not lost.
Fox portrays within Al fresco and The green parasol outdoors dining, an elegant leisurely life, relaxing outdoors serene moments, women in looser garments, and an untroubled life. Tucker portrays within Nasturtiums a homely domestic scene, relaxing outdoors and women wearing looser garments. Bunny portrays within Last fine days, Royan, family and friends relaxing in the open air, informality, women wearing looser garments, families enjoying outdoors activities. Lambert within The holiday group is no different he portrays the outdoor activities like exercising for the health benefits for women, women wearing looser garments, and the physical pleasures of outdoor activities. So Lambert’s message is not lost to the viewer by his use of tonal colouring, it may in fact emphasise it. However on a superficial look one would say that the vivid colouring of the Fox, Tucker and Bunny are more pleasing to eye that Lambert. All the artists portray their figures mirroring the pleasures of life. They are captured moments not unlike a captured moment from a photograph. One who is more cynical of this portrayed life may say that it is a cocooned world of the wealthier, privileged person and family, but this essay is not themed to look at that perspective, nor is it a message of the artists’ work.
This essay began with the statement, that ‘the soul of this essay is depicted through the painting of E. Phillips Fox, Al fresco, c1904’, that of the elegant, leisurely life of the Edwardian domestic scene and the modern imagery it portrays, from families dining in sunny settings through to leisure activities enjoyed by all, creating the imagery of an untroubled life.
The Edwardian era marked the beginning our modern world, from women wearing looser garments to dining outdoors and enjoying outdoor activities such as seaside visits and exercising by the sea watching children play.
Many Australian artists through their paintings, such as, Al fresco and The green parasol, of E. Philips Fox; Nasturtiums, of Tudor St. George Tucker; Last fine days, Royan, of Rupert Bunny; The holiday group, of George Lambert, showed us what they were seeing in Europe and their versions of the topical issues of the day, and how they portrayed the movement toward a more modern society for all.
These paintings have brought the viewer into a wondrous world that we no longer immediately think about. It is no wonder that the Edwardian period was seen as opulent and was imagined as a romantic golden age of long summer afternoon garden parties, basking in a sun that never set.
Ainge, Judith; Davies, Alan; and Tanner, Howard, An Edwardian Summer: Sydney & beyond through the lens of Arthur Wigram Allen, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, 2010
Gray, Anne, Face: Australian portraits 1880 – 1960, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010
Gray, Anne, The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2004
Grishin, Sasha, ‘Art, love and life: Ethel Carrick and E. Phillips Fox’, Art Monthly, August 2011, Issue 242, p. 80-81
Taylor, Elena, Australian Impressionists in France, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013