I'VE HEARD people saying that the "Impressionism in Britain" show at the Barbican is dull, but I enjoyed the exhibition and recommend its pleasures. One must grant that the British painters who followed the continental Impres-sionist movement rare ly matched their French masters. However, that's not entirely a condemnation, and it's noticeable that there aren't many slavish imitators from this side of the Channel.
It's wrong to assess painters who emerged in the 1870s by their supposed degree of dependence on Paris. We're looking at a more widespread phenomenon than a leading style and its repetitions. Naturalism, fresh-air painting, a lighter palette and a broader brush: all these things would have arrived in British art if Monet and Manet had never existed. Such concerns led to unaffected painting that avoided the gloom of Pre-Raphaelitism and the official pessimism of the Academy. Oddly enough, the period hasn't been explored in a major exhibition until now, and the show's curator, Kenneth McConkey, deserves our thanks for introducing us to a couple of dozen artists who are rarely seen today.
McConkey likes a lot of hard-working, commendable artists. For in both France and England the last years of the 19th century formed the golden age of minor painting. The French had their petits-maitres. English has no comparable phrase, but we did have plenty of artists with high competence, modest aims, a talent for teaching and a willingness to spend a happy lifetime at the easel. Francis Bate, Hugh Bellingham-Smith, David Gauld, Harold Har-vey, Alexander Mann, Walter Osborne, Alex-ander Roche and Sidney Starr are all of this sort: perfectly decent representatives of the middle ground of art and not far removed in style from more celebrated figures such as Sir John Lavery, Dame Laura Knight and Sir Alfred Munnings.
Munnings is mostly famous for his horses and reactionary opinions but in his right mood he could give a nice impression of, for instance, Suffolk skies. I value him for such things, even though he doesn't pierce my heart. The painters McConkey has assembled do not deal with great emotional commitments. Instead, a rather glum strain in the show describes hard times in the countryside. Fred Hall, Joseph Crawhall and especially Stanhope Forbes provide dependable pictures of cowherds and fisherfolk. They are joined by the photographers Peter Henry Emerson and Frederick Henry Evans, who provide a little camerawork corner with the emphasis on faggot cutters and girls peeling potatoes.
I fear that McConkey may have a puritan heart. One searches in vain for sex and fun in his otherwise well-chosen exhibition. Did not French art give some zest and frivolous mannerism to British society painting? This aspect of our art is understated, though there's one small nude by William Orpen and that famous painting by Tonks, The Hat Shop. Hats, fruit, nudity and flowers are an important part of both Impressionism and life in general, and if these things did not appear in British art I regret the l oss to international bonhomie.
None the less, I repeat that this is a pleasant show. And we find things in the paintings that only a few years ago would have been considered too "period" for the modern eye. See, for instance, Henry La Thangue's Violets for Perfume (pictured left). Thepicture looks not only dated but vulgar, with connections to both French and Italian commercial art. How odd that such artificiality coexists with a naturalistic approach and a peasant subject. Yet something genuine comes of the picture - and of course its underlying message is that these petals, gathered by a simple country people, are destined for the foreheads and armpits of rich and artificial women.
A few words about the selection of French paintings at the Barbican: Camille Pissaro's Lordship Lane Station, Upper Norwood is a marvel of solid bourgeois art; Monet's The Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog radically considers making a whole painting out of violet and blue; Manet's canvas sketch for a painting of George Moore that went no further than a few marks is a masterpiece, and I use this word deliberately.
! `Impressionism in Britain': Barbican Art Gallery, EC2 (071-588 9023), to 7 May.
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