Guide to British Impressionism

Impressionism was not an exclusively French affair. Antique Collecting considers the movement’s impact across the English Channel and seven of its lesser known but most collectable exponents

Asked to define Impressionism, it is difficult not to bring to mind scenes of late-19th century French life, painted in the open air, with rapid, broken brushstrokes that captured the fleetingness of light. But its influence in the UK if not as profound, is significant.

Frederick Jackson (1859 –1918) Blossom
Frederick Jackson (1859 –1918) Blossom, oil on panel, 34 x 44cm, signed lower left. All images courtesy of Messums, London

Impressionism came to Britain, quite literally, via the coast. Even if it was not necessarily born there, it was certainly raised and matured in the many artist colonies that sprang up in numerous seaside towns and fishing villages during the last two decades of the 19th century. The most significant of these were found in the traditional communities between Kirkcudbright and Staithes in the north, and Newlyn and St Ives in the south.

These rural idylls became home to dozens of artists who found themselves in a hitherto unknown world that to them appeared frozen in the past, and whose attraction lay in the sincerity of their inhabitants and their daily lives, the unindustrialised countryside, and the clarity of the light and air not found in cities.

Its social ethos is best encapsulated by artists such as Stanhope Forbes, George Clausen and John Singer Sargent all at the vanguard of the Modern Movement in Britain. But the movement also gave rise to many underrepresented artists, including Frederick Jackson, Ernest Rigg and Frederick Stead whose work can kick start a stunning collection.

Frederick Jackson (1859-1918)

10 miles north of Whitby, lies the small and traditional fishing village of Staithes. Its rugged beauty provided the perfect environment for the formation of what became the Staithes Colony of Artists, of which Frederick Jackson was a founder member. The common interest which unified the group was their dedication to the unembellished painting of contemporary life and, by the turn of the 20th century, they had become regarded as an extremely influential force in the history of Modernism in Britain.

As a young man Jackson trained at Oldham School of Art, before being introduced to the Manchester School. Like the Barbizon artists, the Manchester School rejected the more institutional conventions of Romanticism and the artists that had dominated the French salons of the 19th century.

The Barbizon artists favoured the study of nature, choosing to paint en plein air to capture the atmosphere of the moment, and Jackson developed a reputation for being one of the keenest exponents of plein-airism in the group; he often worked in cold and exposed places in order to paint scenes from nature as they happened.

Ernest Rigg (1868-1947)

Ernest Rigg (1868–1947) Turnip Pickers
Ernest Rigg (1868–1947) Turnip Pickers, oil on canvas, 70.8 x 91.3cm

The introduction of the railway in 1883 brought the outside world to Staithes and, with it, came a second wave of talent to the colony. Unlike the first artists to set up in the village, such as Robert Jobling and Frederick Jackson, many among this new influx of artists brought with them the middle class benefits of Continental training.

Among this later group was Ernest Rigg who had taken lodgings, not far from Frederick Jackson and his wife, in Hinderwell around 1897. Born in Bradford, he had studied at the town’s school of art before travelling to the Académie Julian in Paris.

Here he absorbed the influence of the French Impressionists and the prevailing fashion for painting en plein air. While he enjoyed some notoriety during his lifetime, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy, he did much to promote the arts in Yorkshire and was a founder member of the Yorkshire Union of Artists in 1887, as well as the Staithes Art Club. In 1886, Riggs’ brother, Arthur, began the Arcadian Art Club in Bradford to promote local artistic talent and to encourage the burgeoning middle classes to take more of an interest in modern art.

Harold Harvey (1874-1941)

Harold Harvey (1874 –1941) A Trial of Strength
Harold Harvey (1874 –1941) A Trial of Strength, oil on canvas, 31 x 38cm, signed lower left

Harold Harvey, born in Penzance in 1874, was the only Newlyn School artist who could accurately describe the Cornish peninsula as ‘home’. Despite his father’s objections, in the mid-1890s Harvey also travelled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. Returning to England and to Newlyn, he began to exhibit with some frequency and recognition, securing his first picture in the Royal Academy at the age of 24.

While many of the Newlyn artists brought their own sense of romance to Cornwall, Harvey neither glamorised nor commented on his surroundings. During WWI it became a criminal offence to be seen painting outdoors, particularly around the South Coast, which initiated his series of post-war interiors.

Like many of his pre-war paintings, A Trial of Strength details the activities of the children of the area and is among his most successful and intimate compositions. With dexterous assurance, he captures coastal life on a summer’s day, using easy little dashes of impasto to illustrate the play of sunshine on their hair, or to illustrate the distant figures on the beach below them.

Frederick Stead (1863-1940)

Frederick Stead was born in the market town of Shipley just north of Bradford in Yorkshire, an area largely shaped by the Industrial Revolution around its 19th-century spinning mills. As the town grew, so too did the fortunes of its population, with large portions of the town given over to villas for prospering middle classes.

Frederick Stead (1863-1940) Primroses
Frederick Stead (1863-1940) Primroses, oil on canvas, 79 x 99cm, signed lower right

Much like Ernest Rigg, Stead had shown great promise at his local art school before proceeding to study at the Royal College in London, where he won a travel scholarship. Rather than take it up, he chose instead to return to his hometown where he became a notable portrait painter of the Bradford’s wealthier residents.

Stead was a champion of the arts in his community, teaching life drawing at the Bradford School of Art and regularly exhibiting alongside Henry Herbert (H.H) La Thangue at Arthur Rigg’s Arcadian Club and the Society of Yorkshire Artists.

Stead was praised for the sensitive handling of his sitters, with none more charming than his paintings of children. Primroses demonstrates his skills as a plein air artist as well as his interest in Edwardian childhood.

Arthur Hacker (1858-1919)

A contemporary of Stanhope Forbes and H.H. La Thangue at the Royal Academy schools, Hacker travelled to Paris with Forbes in 1880, before embarking on a tour of southern Europe and North Africa. In London, in 1886, he helped found the New English Art Club alongside Forbes and he is now considered to be part of the avant-garde of Modernism.

Arthur Hacker(1858 –1919) On the Houseboat
Arthur Hacker (1858 –1919) On the Houseboat, 1894, oil on panel, 60 x 38cm, signed lower right

On the Houseboat was painted around 1895 after Hacker took a studio in the beech woods near Henley. The sitter, Lady Busk née Balfour (1861–1941), was a highly-accomplished British botanist and suffragette, widely recognised for her scientific achievements as well as campaigning for women’s equality. The painting exhibits the signature elements of the French Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, who was well known for his scenic combinations of young women relaxing by the water or in a garden. His inclusion of the Anglo-Japanese table and tea set beside the model, and the paper lanterns that hang above her, demonstrate his familiarity with the growing British taste for Japonisme.

Wilfrid De Glehn (1870-1951)

Yearning, or nostalgia for a sense of place, is a key element in the landscapes of Sydenham-born Wilfrid de Glehn: with the eastern side of the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall evoking especially fond memories. He first visited the area with his uncle in the 1890s and returned there on his honeymoon in 1904. Rarely without his paintbox, Wilfrid produced many beautiful paintings during excursions picnicking on the beaches or high up on the cliffs that line the coast.

Wilfrid Gabriel De Glehn (1870 –1951) Above Cadgwith
Wilfrid Gabriel De Glehn (1870 –1951) Above Cadgwith, 1925, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2cm, signed and dated lower right

Above Cadgwith depicts the artist’s nieces, Elma and Barbara Marsh and his wife’s niece, Hester Emmet. Elma is the girl lying down while Barbara is on the right. They are looking out to sea across what may be a curiously named local coastal formation known as the Devil’s Frying Pan. It is a fine example of Wilfrid’s preferred painting method which sat neatly between first and second wave Newlynites: that of working en plein air (with all the benefits of painting directly from the subject), combined with a bold congenial use of colour.

Lucy Elizabeth Kemp-Welch (1869-1958)

Kemp-Welch, one of the best equine artists of her generation, grew up in Bournemouth with the New Forest being a favourite place for family walks. Lucy and her artist sister, Edith, started their formal art training at the Bournemouth School of Art.

Lucy Elizabeth Kemp-Welch (1869-1958) Study of Two Girls Feeding a Grey Pony
Lucy Elizabeth Kemp-Welch (1869-1958) Study of Two Girls Feeding a Grey Pony, 1908, oil on canvas, 111 x 142cm

In 1891, she took a place at Herkomer’s famous painting schools at Bushey in Hertfordshire, where Herkomer, with his quite revolutionary style of individual art training, encouraged her natural talent for painting animals. While remaining in Bushey, Lucy spent her summers in Devon, a county she described in her diary as a ‘gorgeous place…like Scotland!’

During her time there, she made numerous oil studies from her studio in the little village of Simonsbath, high up on Exmoor including Study of Two Girls Feeding a Grey Pony. Her fascination with animals was not limited to the portrayal of horses. Through her special affection for the working horse she became familiar with other agricultural animals and the labourers and farmers who tended them. She sealed her fame with her 1915 illustrations to Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel, Black Beauty.

All images courtesy of Messums, London