The New English by Kenneth McConkey

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This is not a study of multiculturalism in this country. It is an account of the second most significant visual arts institution after the Royal Academy and, it must be admitted, quite a long way after. The key to the New English Arts Club is found in the book's foreword by the president and a past president of the Club, Tom Coates and Ken Howard: "There is, for us all, a splendid irony in the fact that the club, initially an anti-Academy group, should be so elegantly displayed by the organisation it at first set out to reform".

As the NEAC was formed in 1886, when the RA was still a mighty institution which dominated exhibition space, prices, critical acclaim and so on, to found a rival institution at all was an act of either grandiose folly or outstanding courage. That the Club still exists as a flourishing organisation is a tribute to a certain eccentric English quality of simultaneously wanting to buck the establishment and yet remain a support group for mutual interests and in this case unstuffy coherence.

The NEAC did have a fairly stormy beginning. Late-19th-century journalists and critics complained that it was neither new nor English. The "not English" label was due to the entirely commendable policy of having foreign exhibitors, particularly French sculptors and painters. At its foundation the committee had toyed with an alternative title, "The Society of Anglo-French Painters", but the author states that, with such a title, "it is unlikely that the Club would have survived much beyond the Great War". There's a marvellous photograph of the hanging jury in 1904, consisting of such luminaries and deeply influential figures including artists, teachers and critics, as Ambrose McEvoy, Henry Tonks, Augustus John, Philip Wilson Steer, Muirhead Bone, Fred Brown, William Rothenstein and, most significant of all, Roger Fry. As in all artistic bodies, the internal politics were fascinating, particularly when the really big boys moved in. When Sickert became a member, he took advantage of the Club's constitution to enrol his friends and supporters. He also caused controversy by exhibiting Degas's Danseuse Verte of 1880, which had recently been bought by Sickert's then wife.

In the Club's early days, several of the French Impressionists showed, and even someone as eminent in England as Sargent was an exhibitor. There was such an aura of excitement at some NEAC shows that the Evening Standard wrote: "Today the crowd at the private view was beyond description. Parties of guests lingered in the corridor, waiting to see some of those already in possession coming to the door to struggle out, and, peradventure leave a foot or two of standing room."

The book is superbly illustrated, and there are vintage works by Mark Gertler; William Orpen and Sickert (again and again). There are also excellent representations of the now forgotten - but nonetheless still interesting - painters like Hubert Wellington and Sidney Carline.

The NEAC did not, however, always have an easy passage. The frequently malicious and vitriolic Douglas Cooper wrote, after the death of Wilson Steer in 1942, that: "The history of British painting from the refounding of the Slade School and that other gathering of amateurs of the NEAC - of which Steer was an early member - is primarily the story of the unnatural obsession with, and misunderstanding of, the European contemporaries". Apart from its overt malice, this is a judgement which entirely misses the point of the NEAC in particular and the development of English art in general.

The contemporary work of the NEAC, particularly as set out in a reproduction of a 2002 Sotheby's NEAC sale catalogue, is far less impressive than the output up to 1945. One is tempted to point out that, in recent years, the work of an institution that set out to bypass the RA seems to have become like a lesser branch of that venerable institution. Be that as it may, McConkey has produced a comprehensive survey which is also a useful work of reference for anyone interested in a very English artistic organisation.