"Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century"
Without the soap operatic plot twists of the TV show as a distraction, the Edwardian age — roughly corresponding to the time when the BBC series begins — seems utterly delusional. But there it is. During the reign of King Edward (1901-1910) and up to the First World War, the British Empire was at its peak, covering 11 million square miles and spawning the old saw about the "sun never setting" on it. Given the modern-day distaste for terms like "emperor" and "king," it seems incredible that such a global land-grab took place little more than a century ago. Emboldened by such power and buoyed by the wealth pouring in from all four corners, England went on a spending spree that lasted the Edwardian age. A similar flaunting of funds took place in America, now called the Gilded Age, prompting that spoil-sport Thorsten Veblen to coin the derisive but accurate concept of "conspicuous consumption."
The subtitle of this exhibition, "British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century," seems incomplete. This is not just about "British art," but British power and British exceptionalism. The Royal Navy kept the empire intact, even while the cracks were showing in its foundation (the Boer War and impending First World War occasionally rear their heads in "Edwardian Opulence"). As long as one did not think too deeply about the sources of the wealth — all those "wogs" sweating away in Asia and Africa, all those Chinese addicted to opium — then all was right with the world. The curators put this more delicately: "Recently made popular by the British television series 'Downton Abbey,' the Edwardian period has been depicted as an indolent summer afternoon of imperial and elite complacency, a lingering coda of the Victorian era that resisted the advent of the Modern."
The one artifact that best captures the spirit of the time is just inside the first gallery: "Mrs. James de Rothschild's ostrich feather fan," 1912. This terribly impractical object, a sort of feathered boa affixed to chopsticks, represented the lifetime's net worth of hundreds of factory workers and thousands of "wogs." Seen through 21st-century eyes, it prompts questions like, How many beautiful birds and turtles had to die to make this thing and then the hundreds of must-have copies after Mrs. Rothschild flaunted it at the regatta? How many African workers had to be disfigured to mine the diamonds that festoon its handle?
Other such conspicuous symbols are displayed nearby: diamond tiaras; "fern spray brooches" by Cartier; "desk accessories" by Faberge, such as the indispensable "electric bell push" (a decorative button that rang the servant into the room); bathroom taps with more brass than a Russian samovar; rock crystal decanters that could be the proverbial blunt implements in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. All of these things are impressive in the same way that Elizabeth Taylor's baubles wow the tourists in Vegas and Hollywood.
The single painting that captures the feel of imperial England is Neils Moller Lund's "The Heart of the Empire," a cityscape commissioned by the Corporation of London in 1904 that possesses the same sense of Manifest Destiny that Emanuel Leutze's "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," mounted 40 years earlier in the U.S. Capitol, had for Americans. Augmenting this impressive work are painted scenes of yacht parties, costume parties, opera outings, lawn parties with "fashionable guests," golfing parties and hunting parties (see the "lord" of the manor, fat and red-faced, puffing on a cigar, with an assortment of dead animals at his feet). Even the scene of a café "frequented by bohemians," "The Café Royal" 1911 by Charles Ginner possesses an intimidating (and decidedly un-bohemian) opulence.
Lost in the pomp are some otherwise lovely works, like John Lavery's "The Bridge at Grez" 1901, which presents a scene so placid and idyllic that you just want to fall face down into its midst; Henry Herbert La Thange's "Violets for Perfume" (1913), which gives a rare glimpse at the working class; and Laura Knight's "Boys," shows naked lads innocently cavorting at the beach. Equally impressive are portraits by William Orpen, Duncan Grant (of fellow Bloomsbury boho James Strachey), Augustus John and the expat American John Singer Sargent. The most interesting portrait is by the Italian Giovanni Boldini of James McNeill Whistler, capturing the flamboyant and combative expat troublemaker. And then there is Byam Shaw's "Boer War" (1900), which indirectly tackles the far distant carnage by depicting the grief of a war widow back home, an unbelievably lush and precise oil painting that draws you up short.
On the second level of the exhibition, an entire room is given over to giant, breathtaking paintings by the likes of Edwin Austin Abbey. These scenes wallow in fantasies of the Middle Ages (knights in shining armor), classical mythology (nymphs frolicking in the forest or along the foamy shore — Edward Poynter's "Cave of the Storm Nymphs" 1902, is particularly hot); and one monumentally pompous image of "Columbus in the New World," 1906, as he declares an entire continent to suddenly be part of a distant European empire. (Send in Monty Python!)
Though his name goes unmentioned in the exhibition, London's most infamous resident, Karl Marx, cast a shadow over the Edwardian age. As the curators point out in the lavish accompanying catalog, Marx thought of consumer goods like Mrs. Rotschild's ostrich fan as fetishes. Having lived in London in poverty for the last 30 years of his life (he died in 1883), Marx saw the earliest signs of fetish worship that would reach their pinnacle in the Edwardian age. He probably muttered to himself, "they're sowing the seeds of its own destruction."