The Fitzwilliam is exploring the world of the Beggarstaffs, an artist duo from the late Victorian world of posters who then forged their own glittering careers as modern British artists of the early twentieth century
Many people may know William Nicholson as a painter of still lifes, and possibly even as one of the leading graphic artists of the fin de siècle, but few are aware of his early career as a designer of strikingly modern theatre and advertising posters.
In the 1890s Nicholson formed a ground-breaking partnership with his brother-in-law James Pryde, opening a advertising design studio in 1894 from where they produced an extraordinary series of posters that are today regarded as some of the most memorable and innovative of all time.
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Both artists rejected conventional artistic training and began working together under the nom de plume ‘the Beggarstaffs’, which they later claimed to have taken from a stencil on a bag of horse feed in a stable.
Their approach to art was equally unconventional; using an invented technique that involved pared down collage and stencilling directly onto vast sheets of brown wrapping paper they produced large-scale theatre posters and advertisements for late Victorian London, as well as the pages of some weekly magazines.
A work often cited by contemporary designers is their Kassama Corn Flour poster, which with its innovative use of two colours to create an indistinct shape, leaves the central figure incomplete yet perfectly discernible.
Another famous moment in graphic design is the Don Quixote poster made for Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre production. Although Irving rebuffed the design, which is said to be one of the reasons the Beggarstaffs ceased their poster making activities, eventually going their separate ways as artists. Yet for a time they were an enigmatic staple of London’s avant-garde artistic community – a kind of late Victorian Gilbert and George – frequenting the salons and bars of bohemian London at the turn of the century.
The pair revelled in the world of artists, meeting in draughty studios, down‐at‐heel pubs or the grand rooms of the Café Royal and this vibrant and amusing world is documented in the exhibition through photographs and personal drawings made by the two painters of each other and those made of them by their many artist friends such as William Open, James Gunn and Augustus John.
Six of the original Beggarstaff posters have also been loaned by the V&A who have kept them (the largest measuring two by three metres) carefully rolled up in storage for decades. Here the Fitzwilliam is using them to put the spotlight on their significant collections by the two artists – including a significant holding of Nicholson’s artistic prints.
Nicholson’s Alphabet and London Types, together with his many arresting portraits of contemporary celebrities, brought him recognition as a major graphic artist and wood engraver in the later 1890s and, following the great success of his notoriously irreverent print of Queen Victoria, he produced two popular sets of celebrity portrayals that captured everyone from Rudyard Kipling to Sara Bernhardt.
By the early 20th century, both Nichoslon and Pryde were established modern British painters: Nicholson for the subtlety of his portraits and brilliant still lifes, flowers studies and landscapes, Pryde for his sinister street scenes, gloomily gothic interiors and ominous ruins.
“superbly compelling depictions of ruined buildings and macabre interiors”
Initially both became obsessed with the imagery of legendary rogues, villains and other ‘notable rascals’ of history and literature. This fascination in turn led them both to the depiction of dark scenes in real or imagined city streets. As they began more concertedly to explore the possibilities of painting, they each adopted low key effects to enhance the moody power of their architectural and figure subjects.
Over time Pryde continued to express his more brooding and romantic temperament in superbly compelling depictions of ruined buildings and macabre interiors inspired by recollections of the Old Town in his native Edinburgh.
His greatest artistic projects were two great series of pictures: the group of large paintings he produced for Dunecht, the house of his Scottish patron Annie, Lady Cowdray, and his ‘Human Comedy’, an extraordinary sequence of canvases depicting vast four‐poster beds (based, he claimed, on that of Mary, Queen of Scots, first seen as a child at Holyrood Palace). These weird canvasses charted the milestones of life – birth, courtship, illness and death and ended with the decay and destruction of the great bed itself.
Re‐assembled as set‐pieces in the show, these two great cycles invite a reassessment of Pryde’s achievements as a Modernist master of the sombre and theatrical baroque.
By contrast, in the year before and after the Great War, Nicholson developed a highly developed eye for the nuances of light in the landscape and as his career developed he put his most ardent efforts into a series of small, informal landscapes and idiosyncratic still‐life studies.
Such paintings, made largely for his own enjoyment, reveal his fascination with capturing fleeting shadows on distant hillsides, the precise colour of snow or the subtlety of reflections on the side of a polished metal jug. Now much prized, these little masterpieces offer a glimpse into the private world of a remarkable painter totally absorbed by his subject matter and in consummate command of his materials.
Charting the reciprocal influence and a shared love of striking subject matter on two very different temperaments, the Fitzwilliam have reunited two remarkable artistic careers.
Beggarstaffs: William Nicholson & James Pryde is at the Fitzwilliam Museum from May 7 – August 4 2019.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
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