Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 revisited

‘Anarchy in the paint pot, mutiny in the brush’,  fulminated a certain Reverend Lund, speaking in a debate in March 1911 following the opening of a ground-breaking exhibition held in Liverpool which displayed international Post-Impressionist artworks alongside the work of local radical artists.

And it wasn’t just radicalism in art that came to Liverpool in 1911.  That year was one of massive social unrest in the city, culminating in the General Transport Strike which lasted for 72 days during that summer.  Seamen, firemen, dock labourers and railwaymen joined the strike for better wages and conditions.  The Lord Mayor, the Earl of Derby, sent a telegram to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, stating that ‘Revolution has broken out in my city’.  Churchill responded by sending troops to the city with and gunboats up the Mersey.

Now the Walker Art Gallery has recreated the exhibition that rocked the Liverpool art world and outraged the likes of Rev Lund and the rest of the city’s bourgeoisie.  Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911, which I saw yesterday, is an exploration of the relationship between that pioneering exhibition 100 years ago and Liverpool’s radicalism.  It features work by Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Signac, as well as local artists who had founded the radical art organisation that mounted the exhibition at the Bluecoat.

Some of the most dramatic events in the cultural, political and social history of the city happened during 1911, which were to challenge the assumptions of cultural and civic life. In March that year the Sandon Studios Society at the Bluecoat buildings hosted what can probably be considered the most ground-breaking art exhibition held in the city in the 20th century: An exhibition so far ahead of its time and so unusual that in some ways it occupied a place almost beyond expectations or perceptions.
– David Bingham, 1911: Art & Revolution in Liverpool – the Life and Times of Albert Lipczinski, Nerve 17

Post-Impressionism was the term invented by the writer and artist Roger Fry to describe a group of mainly French artists.  They rebelled against the style of the earlier Impressionists.  From the 1880s, the Post-Impressionists sought to express themselves in a variety of styles.  The leading Post-Impressionist artists included Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Serusier and Signac.  Fry first used the term Post-Impressionist when he organised the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London in the winter of 1910.  The London exhibition – the first of its kind, containing more than 250 paintings – caused a scandal but was also a success.  Although the press were outraged, it won admirers and among writers and artists.  Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’.

Inspired by Roger Fry’s exhibition of 1910, the Sandon Studios Society brought about 50 paintings and drawings from the show to Liverpool the following year. The society’s exhibition was the first time that such a large number of Post-Impressionist works were shown in the UK outside London and the first time they were displayed alongside their British counterparts.

Curator Xanthe Brooke explains the significance of the event:

The works by the European Post-Impressionists represent a momentous shift in the Western art world, which served to encourage radical British artists like those of The Sandon Studios Society to champion their work and try and emulate it. The inimitable style of Gauguin continues to fascinate audiences today but in the early 20th century it was a brave and startling sight. The Sandon Studios Society showed considerable foresight in bringing his work and others like him to wider public attention.

The Sandon Studios Society was founded in 1905 by a group of Liverpool artists.  They had all been students at Liverpool University’s School of Architecture and Applied Art (the ‘Art Sheds’) until it established a more traditional syllabus that year. Before that, the department had flourished, with tutors like Augustus John inspiring students to push for a revolution in art.  The founding members of the Sandon were united in their desire to change the landscape of art in Liverpool.  They wanted to establish an alternative art school in the city to encourage creativity and innovation rather than the restrictive learning of the municipal art schools.  They wanted Liverpool to become a centre of art in its own right, free from the dominance of London.  For the Society, the 1911 exhibition was an opportunity to assert their own artistic values and distance themselves from the ‘art establishment’ and possibly even be the catalyst for an ‘art revolution’.

A section of Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 focuses on the work of members of the Sandon Studios, including  and several paintings and prints by James Hamilton Hay, Enid Hay, Francis Dodd, Albert Lipczinski, Henry Carr and Gerard Chowne.  The relationship between the Walker Art Gallery (the ‘establishment’ of the time) and the Society is also explored.

Featuring six of his works, there is a special focus on Albert Lipczinski, a German-born Polish emigrant who was taught by Augustus John at the Liverpool University Art Sheds around 1902. Lipczinski’s, ‘Portrait of Dorothy Reilly’ (above) is a  a painting of the wife of Charles Reilly, who held the Roscoe Chair of Architecture at Liverpool University from 1904. Despite ideological differences between the Sandon Studios Society and the University, Reilly became a member of the Sandon. He and his wife were close to a number of the Sandon artists, including Lipczinski.

Lipczinski’s bohemian lifestyle and political connections make him an interesting member of the group and a symbol of  their rebellious nature.  The German-born artist arrived in Liverpool in the late 1890s and soon became a fixture of the city’s artistic scene,  living a bohemian lifestyle in a squat in an old school in Roscoe Street, where his friends and acquaintances included the trade unionists and syndicalists, Tom Mann and Fred Bower, who played a key role in the strikes of 1911.

We know from Bower’s autobiography that the most prominent of the political figures Lipczinski painted included Tom Mann, who had been the first general secretary of the newly created Independent Labour Party and that he also painted a ‘larger than life’ portrait of  … Jim Larkin. … In the aftermath of 13th August, when police brutally broke up what was a huge but peaceful demonstration, it appears that the Lipczinskis allowed their home to be used as a temporary refuge where injured strikers could be brought to safety.  As for Lipczinski’s artworks, it is not known what happened to his portrait of Tom Mann but it will probably be still hanging on the walls of a more obscure union hall somewhere.
– David Bingham, 1911: Art & Revolution in Liverpool – the Life and Times of Albert Lipczinski, Nerve 17

The First World War created problems for foreign nationals in Britain and in 1919 Lipczinski was deported to Gdansk where he spent the rest of his life, producing portraits to commission and landscapes in Sopot, a small Polish resort on the Baltic coast. He continued painting until he was in his 70s, despite the difficulties of working under both a Nazi and a Communist regime.

Lipczinski showed his work in a variety of local exhibitions and the Birkenhead Art Gallery was the first to buy a picture from him.  Coinciding with the Walker’s display, the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, in partnership with the National Museum in Gdansk is presenting an exhibition of the work of Albert Lipczinski.

This Self Portrait by Albert Lipczinski dates from around 1911 and is a highlight of the Birkenhead exhibition, featuring also on the posters for the show.  The Walker exhibition also includes a portrait of Albert Lipczinski, painted by Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot.  Lipczinski  and Lightfoot had been students together at Liverpool University.  Lightfoot’s talent was recognised by their tutor Gerard Chowne, one of the founders of the Sandon Studio (Chowne travelled extensively in Spain and France and there’s an impressive watercolour of his, ‘Cliffs at Grasse, Provence’, in the exhibition.  He was killed in the First World War in Macedonia in  1917).

At Chowne’s suggestion, Lightfoot enrolled at the Slade School of art in 1907.  Lightfoot became one of the founder members of the London-based Camden Town Group in 1911.  After their first exhibition critics commented that his work showed ‘extraordinary promise’.  Not in the exhibition is this powerful drawing by Lightfoot, ‘The Rag-Pickers’ (c. 1910), reminiscent of the work of the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz.

Another local artist featured in the exhibition is James Hamilton Hay. Works on display include ‘Lady with Japanese Gown’ and ‘The Falling Star’ (below), and a watercolour of Heswall Beach. Hamilton Hay co-curated the controversial Sandon exhibition of 1911, but that same year his wife Enid died suddenly. In his grief, Hay destroyed many of his and his wife’s paintings.

‘The Falling Star’, painted in 1909, escaped that fate as it had been bought by the Walker in 1910.

This portrait of James Hamilton Hay was drawn by Francis Dodd, another member of the Sandon Society.

There is one painting by Enid Hay in the exhibition – ‘Interior’  (above), one of the paintings exhibited at the Sandon Studios Society exhibition of 1911.  It’s a painting that reveals her understanding of the Post-Impressionists before their work had been widely seen in Britain. Enid was the subject for his Whistler-like painting ‘The Lady in the Japanese Gown’ (above).

Another member of the Sandon group was Henry Carr, represented in the exhibition by a watercolour, ‘The Mersey’.  Carr believed that the Walker should be collecting and exhibiting work relating to the local area.

The curators of Art in Revolution have worked hard to track down bring together a fair proportion of not only the works of Sandon Studios Society members displayed in the original exhibition (particularly difficult as there were no illustrations in the original 1911 catalogue) but also the works of continental Post-Impressionists from the Roger Fry exhibition.  In some cases they have filled gaps with similar works – or reproductions where continental Post-Impressionist paintings are too fragile or expensive to move.

It’s difficult now, looking at works on display by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Derain or Signac, to appreciate the degree to which Edwardian viewers were appalled and angered by the expressive simplicity of these images.  André Derain’s ‘Trees Near Martigues’, for example,  provoked the Rev Lund to thunder: ‘nature should be painted realistically, otherwise it will be necessary to write underneath ‘this is a tree’.  The painting below is the similar ‘Landscape near Martigues’ (not in the exhibition).  There’s another Derain in the exhibition – ‘Church near Carrieres sur Seine’ (top of page).

Highlights of this section include works like ‘Sister of Charity’ by Paul Gauguin (above), ‘Saint-Tropez: le Sentier de Douane by Paul Signac (below) and ‘Purple Beech Trees near Melun’ by Henri Matisse (who wrote in 1908, ‘What I am after is expression’).

There are two highly expressive drawings by Vincent Van Gogh – ‘Corner of Garden at St Paul’s Hospital, St Remy’ and the pencil/gouache, ‘Oise at Auvers’ (below, both on loan from the Tate). Van Gogh arrived at Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890 and immediately asked his brother to send him paper as ‘there is lots to draw here’. He drew this view while standing on a railway embankment. He wrote to his brother: ‘Here in Auvers we are far enough from Paris for it to be real countryside, … there is so much wellbeing in the air… no factories, but lovely, well-kept greenery in abundance’.

Cezanne is represented by ‘Bathers at Rest’ and there is a second Gauguin, ‘Bathers at Tahiti’  (below).  The radical art critic Frank Rutter wrote in Revolution in Art, published in 1910 in support of Roger Fry’s exhibition:  ‘These two deceased painters, Cezanne and Gauguin, are to their younger comrades what Marx and Kropotkin are to the young socialists and reformers of today’.  The book’s title was itself derived from Gauguin’s statement that ‘in art there are only revolutionists or plagiarists’.  Rutter wrote in his book’s dedication: ‘To Rebels of either sex all the world over who in any way are fighting for freedom of any kind I dedicate this study of their painter-comrades’.

One of the most striking revelations of the exhibition for me was a painting by the French painter Auguste Herbin, ‘Landscape near Cateau-Cambrésis’.  A much less well-known artist today, Herbin (1882-1960) was recognised as being at the forefront of radical art at the time.

Xanthe Brooke, curator of the exhibition has spoken of the thrill of discovering the visual power of his work:

When Herbin’s landscape painting was first shown in Liverpool, in the spring of 1911, its radical simplification of forms was compared to another painting in the exhibition Copper Beech Trees near Melun, by Herbin’s contemporary and native of Cateau-Cambrésis, Matisse.

Looking at this Landscape, painted in 1908, its jagged-edged trees appear as though electrified with a force-field of vibrant shocking pinks, greens, reds and lilacs. It makes you realise why visitors to the Liverpool exhibition in 1911 were so outraged and disturbed by the Post-Impressionist styles – they seemed to destroy all artistic conventions. In 1909 Herbin moved into share studio space with Picasso and by 1917 he had turned to abstraction.

Even though this landscape was painted by an artist who is not a household name to me, it epitomises what was considered so radical and subversive about Post-Impressionist art.”

Summer 1911 witnessed some of the most tumultuous events in Liverpool’s political history, with dock and transport strikes. Huge mass rallies were broken up by police and soldiers, leading to deaths on the streets of Liverpool.  King George V cabled his Home Secretary, Winston Churchill:  ‘Accounts from Liverpool show that situation there is more like revolution than a strike’.  The exhibition explores the reaction of Liverpool’s artistic and political establishments to the major unrest in the city, and includes photographs and documentary film footage.

The photo above shows crowds on Lime Street surrounding trams during ‘Red Sunday’ on 13th August 1911. The Walker Art Gallery can be seen in the background.  For more remarkable photos of the 1911 Liverpool strikes, see Colin Wilkinson’s always-excellent photo blog, Streets of Liverpool.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.