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The Thin, Clear, Happy Call

By (August 1, 2010) No Comment

The Edwardian Sense: Art, Design, and Performance in Britain, 1901-1910

Morna O’Neill and Michael Hart, editors
Yale University Press, 2010

The myth of a golden age will always be with us; darkness calls it forth as a dramatic duty, an aesthetic counterbalance. It’s like having a toothache: while you’re suffering, you remember your time prior to that suffering as almost unbearably halcyon – even though you know, intellectually, that it wasn’t. Intellect hardly seems to matter in these cases; the demands of stagecraft exert a centripetal force sufficient to make anybody believe anything. And the greater the darkness, the warmer, safer, and more wonderful the golden age must have been – if 20th century Britain had to endure the First World War, the Second World War, and the rationing and deprivation of the 1950s, what a paradise must have been lost, to balance things out.

If the Edwardian era had not existed, then, we would have to invent it. That it did exist – and that it was, of course, more complicated and multifaceted than a mere stage construct – can often act as a foil to its proper study, since even among trained historians, the impulse is strong to render the time as blessed in some way. The old queen, after an unbelievably long reign spent mostly in mourning and isolation, was dead, and her eldest son, now a man of mature years, came to the throne and took the monarchy out of the mausoleum and placed it squarely before the public again. Edward VII reigned from 1901 to 1910, only nine years, and yet ‘Edwardian’ is as firm an epithet, for good or ill, as the much longer ‘Victorian’ was that preceded it: we feel we know the term and its implications, and we smile a bit as though we’d suddenly remembered a pleasant thing that happened to our own selves.

It didn’t, of course. Centenarians may linger here and there in care, but when Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died in 2002 at the age of 102, she took the last faint glimmer of the Edwardian Age with her. All we have now are books and photos and perhaps the most tentative flicker of moving film. Yale University Press has recently published a handsome volume called The Edwardian Sense in which a group of scholars and experts sift through a remarkable array of evidence in an attempt – another attempt, our ongoing attempt – to understand just what we mean when we talk about their subject, the Edwardian sense of things.

Fittingly, their collective endeavor starts off at the intersection of books, photos, and moving film. Edward VII Becomes King is a short movie made of Edward’s coronation procession through London on 30 August (postponed from 26 June because Edward had an attack of appendicitis, at the time a very serious thing indeed – as more than one historian has observed, this could easily have been a second royal funeral procession, following so soon after Victoria’s). In one of the book’s earliest essays, Angus Trumble stirs the imagination by scrutinizing this grainy silent footage:

It is in the foreground detail, mostly glimpses of people straying untidily and obliviously into frame, that one observes the most intriguing hints toward vanished custom and usage- the more telling, it seems, for their benign triviality. Many large black umbrellas regularly double as parasols, for example. And as the Gold State Coach passes St. James’s Park, all men remove their hats, and most wave them high in the air, while women excitedly flutter their scarves and white handkerchiefs. In the head-craning jostle, there are a few leisurely boaters and at least one raffish fedora, but mostly demotic bowlers.

This contrast – even tension – between spectacle and ‘benign triviality’ works towards being a defining motif, both in the Edwardian era and in The Edwardian Sense. The opulence of the Victorian age was if anything outdone whenever possible (buildings were bigger, endless exhibitions and pageants were the rage), but new powers (Germany, the United States, even Japan) were rising in the world, and new technologies (air travel, motion pictures, telegraphy) were heralding a strange new future without offering any reassurances about it. England’s influence on the world stage seemed as great as ever – the 1908 Olympics were held in London, and even dyspeptic 21st century historians grudgingly admit that the Entente Cordiale between England and France in 1904 might not have happened without the singularly forceful charisma of Edward VII (in this collection, Andrew Stephenson’s “Edwardian Cosmopolitanism” on this subject is not to be missed) – but Edwardians could almost feel an impermanence threatening. Writers had been quick, upon the death of the old queen, to dub this new era a “Golden Age,” but the scores of thousands of Londoners in 1908 who had no work or permanent lodgings weren’t the only ones to suspect the presence of baser metals. ‘Evanescence’ becomes a hard word to ignore.

the Bradford procession, from Edward VII’s coronation

Christopher Reed, in an interesting essay on Edwardian home architecture, uses that word with a twist, citing the fears of the era as to its own lack of permanence – and how those fears didn’t quite come true:

One paradox of the Edwardian domestic interior, therefore, is that anxiety over its disappearance inspired a vast and enduring roster of examples. A related irony is that – unlike the neo-Baroque institutional architecture in which the Edwardians confidently housed their institutions of imperial administration – their apparently evanescent domestic designs defined a lasting global norm. Indeed, it could fairly be said that, although the British Empire is today little more than a memory, the sun never sets on the neighborhoods where Edwardian modes of domestic design remain a living ideal.

Reed perhaps overindulges in academic jargon, but his sins are venial compared to some of the righteous howlers sprinkled throughout this book’s generally vigorous selection of essays. For example, a couple of essays are devoted to George Frampton’s charming statue of Peter Pan which was placed in Kensington Gardens on May Day 1912 (taking a slightly ‘long’ view of the Edwardian era, as scholars will do), and in one of these essays, Martina Dorth describes the ‘action’ of the statue in terms I’d more expect to find associated with one of my grandson’s beloved video games:

Just as the work thus represents two realms in unequal relation to each other, so the activities that take place there, and the apparent disposition or states they each embody, seem to work in opposite directions, Peter’s trancelike, meditative step countering the turbulent, spiraling motion in the pedestal. The fairies, scrambling upward as if trying to extricate themselves from the material, are acutely aware of Peter and are striving to reach his plateau. Peter, however, absorbed in his piping, seems detached from what is going on beneath his feet, as though oblivious, or unmoved, by the underground forces called up by his tune. This dissonance resonates in the paradox presented by the imagery: the fairies, like Peter, can fly, but unlike him they seem curiously grounded, their wings and cloaks apparently muddy and sodden. In an unsettling inversion of roles, it is the wingless boy, standing barefoot on top of their habitat, who seems flighty and free. Frampton’s sculpture thus seems to operate on different levels. Beneath its lightheartedness is a murky, vaguely uncomfortable visuality that hints at a world where fantasy and reality are in conflagration, and where the order of things, the natural balance, has been turned upside down.

I have been to see that statue in Kensington Gardens many times, and I assure you, I’ve never once detected the dissonant resonance of paradox, nor have I been discomforted by the ‘visuality’ (whatever that may be) of the piece. There is no conflagration; there is only a happy little statue of a little boy calling woodland animals and sprites to hear his piping. I rather doubt anything about it requires ‘extricating.’

The Edwardian Sense inevitably features a handful of common threads. It opens with a few meditations on film and photography at the dawn of the modern age, and it features the aforementioned discussions of Frampton’s Peter Pan statue. But the most fascinating such common thread involves William Nicolson’s 1910 painting “The Conder Room.” The volume takes the painting for its cover image, and a handful of very strong writers – Imogen Hart, Barbara Penner, Charles Rice, and Michael Hatt – engage in a highly detailed discussion of the ways in which this painting (a work to which, I confess, I had hitherto paid scant attention) might be the visual expression of some particularly Edwardian preoccupations and neuroses. This is an unexpected and most welcome move on the part of the volume’s editors – after all, in an era that boasted such transfigurative titans as Augustus John, Wassily Kandinsky and Auguste Rodin, even specialists might be tempted to skip Nicolson.

Instead, our specialists dig right in, with generally very stimulating results. The painting depicts wealthy art collector Pickford Walker sitting in the foreground looking off in one direction and his daughter Sybil Walker standing mid-ground not quite looking directly at the little black dog she’s petting. The background is dominated by a large wall-painting by Charles Conder – a painting whose details are almost entirely obscured by the reflection of bright sunlight glancing off its glass, and a painting whose significance is sidelined by the appearance of a mysterious silhouette in the reflection. Is it a distorted mirror-image of Pickford? Is it perhaps Sybil, even more distorted? Or is it the faceless profile of Pickford’s wife, who’s otherwise quite noticeably absent from this family portrait? Imogen Hart is still quite good at evoking the intriguing mysteries of the work:

In contrast, Pickford and Sybil seem almost to belong to different compositions, as though a painting of Pickford on his seat has been appended to a picture of Sybil in the Conder room. This impression is intensified by the way the viewer is positioned. We could almost fall over Pickford’s seat, which forces its way into our space, making the painting’s lower left-hand corner feel cramped. Yet when we look at Sybil’s portion of the painting, our viewing position changes and we appear to observe her from a private distance. … We cannot contemplate her unself-conciously [sic] because nothing from her space seems to share ours.

In the end, our writers come to no consensus about “The Conder Room,” and The Edwardian Sense similarly reaches no comfortable conclusions about that most distracted, alluring era. History books tell us of a desperate, almost delusional attempt to stave off national decline, and we must surely believe history books over any less objective encomiums to a lost golden age. There’s plenty of desperation and decline lurking in the background of the many fine essays in this book.

But my parents were Edwardians, and I remember even as a little girl noting the peculiar timbre in their voices when they referred to that era that seemed so long ago. They spoke of it seldom; they seemed to reserve its invocation for only the most trying of times, when the most sure-fire restorative was needed. Then they spoke of the sunlight and the parks and the boating and the visits and the ‘good king,’ and they shared smiles that made them seem quite indecently young. And it did indeed restore. Historians and smart young cultural analysts must always have the final say, but myths have their reality too. It’s good to study the Edwardians in all their contradictions. They were in many ways deeply deplorable, and idolizing them would be in all ways deeply deplorable, but in terms of new technologies and cultural attitudes cracking open the sameness of the past and throwing everything into an unguessable future, the Edwardian decade looks very much like our own. We may very well need to know them better.

Honoria St. Cyr was an executive secretary in London for forty-five years and now enjoys her retirement years in Islington, tending to her garden and her books.