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Knucklebones, by Phillip Wilson Steer


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About the artwork

Philip Wilson Steer’s background was provincial though artistic. He was born in Grange Mount, Birkenhead, in December 1860. His father, also Philip, was a portrait painter and teacher who ran from his house a 'School of Fine Art for Ladies, with a class for Gentlemen on two evenings of the week’. The youngest of three children, he was a sickly child whose christening was postponed for months owing to bronchitis, but from an early age he played happily with paints and paper and slept with a paint-box under his pillow. Early lessons must have come from his father, who died in 1871, but an art education continued in Gloucester before going to Paris, having been rejected by the Royal Academy Schools, London. He entered the Academie Julian in autumn 1882 and later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

The training here was both conservative and academic and Steer was not excited by it. He did not take part in Paris society, not having much money and, more important, not speaking French. This was the principal reason for his having to leave: the Beaux Arts introduced examinations in French which obliged him to return to England in summer 1884. It is unclear exactly how much modern French art Steer saw while he was in Paris: he later recalled the posthumous Manet show, and in the Salons the most modern work was by Whistler and British painters known to Steer. In fact it is more than likely that he saw work by Monet, Pissarro and Renoir in London during the summer of 1883.

The stylistic effect was not immediate. Steer began at this time to establish his pattern of painting portraits in London during the winter and landscapes during summer travels. In town Steer was inspired by Whistler. At the seaside the French flavour began to emerge. Just as Steer’s whole career can look like the work of several different painters, he clearly had trouble at this time deciding on a firm direction. For several years after Paris he visited Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast, and occasionally, beaches just across the English Channel: two 'Boulogne Sands' pictures are here which show the freshness of Steer’s vision. His first great painting is 'The Bridge', with its simple silhouettes and broad blocks of colour, the sunset flattening the river estuary to single bright sheet. The Daily Telegraph critic called this, ‘Either a deliberate daub or so much mere midsummer madness’.

Quite different from these are 'Girls running', 'Walberswick Pier' and 'Knucklebones, Walberswick'. Both of these show signs of labour, of working and reworking, especially the Pier painting which appears to have been returned to years later: it has a rather stilted quality despite the attempt at catching the fleeting light effects. 'Knucklebones' is much more successful.

This was one of the eight by Steer shown at the 1889 ‘London Impressionists’ exhibition, and was admired sufficiently by Walter Sickert (Steer’s friend and exact contemporary) for him to copy it in black and white for a magazine and to comment that it was ‘an admirable example of what was best in modern Impressionism’, particularly in the ‘natural and spontaneous’ grouping of the children, ‘playing among themselves without a trace of self-consciousness’. The informality and the high viewpoint suggest at least an awareness of the work of Degas.

The broken paintwork used for the shingle beach, but not the figures, has caused much discussion. At first appearance it looks like an attempt at pointillisme, developed by Seurat and Signac, where objects are represented by dots of pure colour. Steer’s great friend and biographer D.S. MacColl vigorously denied this, saying it was in fact a Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail, rendering each pebble individually. The reality falls between the two. Steer is trying out an effect, but restricting it to give the beach texture whereas in 'Girls running' he uses small brush strokes throughout to attempt a light and airy atmosphere, but that has the same artificiality that is present in the French paintings MacColl so derided.

In 'Knucklebones'Steer is working very hard to find his style. The other beach scenes are more relaxed, showing his interest in rapid brush work, which would become so important in his later work, especially the watercolours. They are produced on the hoof, what Steer himself called his ’flukes’. They bask in the warmth of summer, the fun of holidays and the joy of young people. The eternal bachelor, with a weakness for young girls and an aversion to draughts, clearly felt at home.

Probably the most celebrated artistic trial before that of Penguin Books over 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover', was the libel case between Whistler and Ruskin played out in the courts in 1878. Ruskin accused Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. Whistler sued and won, but received only a farthing in damages and the trial costs broke him. It was into this atmosphere of artistic turmoil and uncertainty that the ‘London Impressionists’ were born.

The 1889 exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery brought together like-minded artists, mostly young, and caused a great deal of critical comment, as it seemed so at odds with the Royal Academy and the artistic conventions of the day. At this date many of the Pre-Raphaelites were still working, and were still considered modern, standing alongside the Arts & Crafts aesthetics of bohemian society. The Classicists, like Lord Leighton, dominated the Royal Academy, but the freshness of those who moved to Cornwall to paint in the open air was beginning to be felt. These artists had visited, if not trained in, France and experienced the new French painting at first hand, as had Whistler of course: he was a friend of Degas. The same was true of the London Impressionists including Steer, Sickert and Conder represented here.

The creative explorations in colour and handling of paint of such French artists as Manet, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, are commonplace to us today but were exceptional in their day. They were so different that their influence on young artists was great and obvious.