The Edwardian era

AMIDST THE posters, banners, society portraits, paintings and artefacts there is a teapot beating a frieze of famous military men and the motto: ‘Though it cost the best of our British blood there is no turning back’. In a case among the ornaments is an entertainment for all the family called ‘Boer or Briton: A New South African War Game’. An opening from the Harmsworth History of the World (1909) shows us the ‘dusky beauty and ugliness under the British flag’. These few items from the domestic arena indicate some of the concerns Edwardian era: the obsession with imperial progress and power (the need for healthy soldiers is shown to be a crucial motive for medical advances); the fears of economic competition from countries like Germany, America and Japan; the concern with the quality of the racial stock; and the ability to absorb a barrage of dissent, from women’s agitation for the vote to riots in India, under the guise of an all-pervading philanthropy.

The exhibition organisers, Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry, and the co-writers of the catalogue, have effectively displaced the traditional idea of the Edwardian Era as the Golden Age before the Great War. Following the 64 years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the compact reign of her son Edward VII (1901-10) became with hindsight an age of deceptive unity, a time of progress and idealism. In this exhibition, the booming imperialism, garden cities, technology, travel and music halls are set against the reality of sweated labour, the crisis in the countryside, the suffrage agitation, and the growth of the labour movement.

In such an ambitious show, it is inevitable that the artefacts will take second place to the ideas. But in some respects the visual material is positively neglected. The importance of the catalogue as a document on the Edwardian Age is Seriously compromised by the omission of measurements and details of the media of the artworks.

To reproduce, for example, Sylvia Pankhurst’s painting In a Leicesler Boot Factory the same size as Charles Furse’s Diana of the Uplands without giving any indication of the vast difference in dimensions, leads to historical distortion. Without the essential context that a catalogue should provide, the images tell different tales as memories of the exhibition fade. It is also disappointing to discover so little about the unfamiliar women artists featured. In the section on the suffrage campaigns, artists like Caroline Watts, Joan Harvey Drew and Louise Jacobs, and the women artists of the Suffrage Atelier (shown in a photograph with palettes and ribbons) are not mentioned in the text, and we are not even told if records about their work exist.

Despite these shortcomings, the exhibition has achieved a decisive shift in notions of the Edwardian Era, a shift that re-writes history in the light of current concerns like racism and sexism. We are shown how ideology operates and how meaning is created. All aspects of history are given equal weight, and women are shown to have played a role in every


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