To define exactly the place to which a living artist is entitled among his contemporaries, and to calculate correctly the importance of the part that he is playing in the artistic events of his own particular period, cannot be said to be easy. We are apt to be swayed in our judgment of the achievements of a man with whose personality we are well acquainted; and in forming an opinion about the value of his work we are quite likely to estimate it too highly or to depreciate it unduly according as we find his character attractive or the reverse. In this we follow the habit of the time, which is constantly curious about the individuality of the artist, and insists upon knowing all that can be known concerning his tastes and pursuits, his manner of working, and his life in and out of the studio. That he and his art are separate interests, and that the public are concerned only with the evidences of his ability, and not at all with the surroundings among which his artistic efforts are produced, cannot be impressed upon the people who profess to study his work. They demand of him a degree of self-advertisement which he does not desire, and insist upon his submitting to inquisitive inspection. If he refuses, and evades curiosity, he is likely to remain in obscurity, and unknown to every one save the few experts who have the taste to appreciate his pictures at their true value and the sense to welcome them on their merits as assertions of aesthetic principles.
That this modern inquisitorial tendency is to be deplored for many reasons is sufficiently obvious. In some instances it has a most pernicious effect, and interferes grievously with correct judgment. In the case of such an artist as Mr. Byam Shaw there is an especial possibility of misconception if he is subjected to the personal test. He has attracted the attention of all lovers of sound art effort by the exceptional ability of his paintings, and has established himself among the most prominent figures of the art world as it is judged by experts. But he happens to have made his success at an age when most men are only just beginning to give promise of eventual eminence; and there is, in consequence, some danger lest his youth may lead the unthinking to over-estimate his powers as extraordinary in one of his years, or to regard them as entitled to less than their fair share of approval simply because he is, as yet, too young to be taken seriously. From the standpoint of sound criticism neither course would be justifiable. He has his place in the arena, and is fighting his own battles among men of all ages and all degrees of skill. Whether he is likely to rise to greater heights as time goes on, or whether he will go down to history as an artist who did fine things at the outset of his career but failed in after life to maintain his standard, is entirely beside the mark. He is honestly and obviously important now simply because his canvases have greater merits than the majority of those which are being produced by the other members of his profession, and because he has original ideas which he knows how to express with rare intelligence and far more than ordinary invention. The opportunities he has given us of realising the significance of his point of view have necessarily been comparatively few, for he has not during the brief period of his practice as an exhibiting painter had time to complete more than a limited number of large canvases; and these have been shown singly in various galleries, so that there has been no chance of studying them in instructive juxtaposition. Each one has been so attractive that it has added to the popular anxiety to know more of the artist, and to see in what manner his development is likely to progress; but year by year, as new works have issued from his studio, his previous successes have remained in the public mind simply as memories, pleasant enough, but not exactly detailed
Therefore there is a particular advantage in the exhibition of a series of his smaller paintings which has been arranged at Messrs. Dowdeswell's gallery. For the first time it is possible to see several examples of Mr. Byam Shaw's work hung together, and to judge by actual comparison of a number of his productions how far his imagination will carry him in the treatment of a variety of subjects. The one-man show is a very severe test for a young painter, and is calculated to reveal with a certain brutal frankness any weak points there may be in his artistic equipment. Mannerism in technique, want of experience in executive devices, poverty of thought, or inadequacy of purpose cannot be concealed if they happen to be among his deficiencies, and if he has given freer rein to his ambition than his capacities quite justify, it will be easy enough to convict him of his mistake. In Mr. Shaw's case this exhibition is of value especially because it provides a means of estimating fairly closely his actual position without any reservations or exaggerations on account of circumstances that have no real bearing upon his art. He has submitted himself to the test that many other members of his profession have endured, and he has claimed to be judged with them on equal terms, asking no favour and no concessions.
It is interesting to see that a collection of his paintings has fully as great a power to attract and hold the attention of all lovers of original and inventive work as the particular canvases which have by their appearance in the Academy and other exhibitions marked him as a man of importance in artistic circles. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that there is in everything he does an unusual amount of individuality, a distinct and definite character, which is so fresh and unconventional that it has the gift of immediate persuasiveness, and yet, despite its plainly personal quality, is capable of being very widely varied. Inadequacy either of conception or treatment is the last thing that these pictures which Messrs. Dowdeswell have brought together can be said to show. They express pictorially the workings of the artist's mind, and they reflect the fertility of imagination and the variety of intention which are to be reckoned among the chief of his mental attributes. The charm of sincerity is indisputable in them; and because they are sincere they have the greater interest as revelations of the thoughts of an unusual person.
For mentally Mr. Byam Shaw, as he reveals himself in his work, is quite out of the ordinary run. He thinks oddly for a modern man; he burrows beneath the surface of things, and hunts up curious facts. He surrounds himself with uncommon fancies, quaintly conceived, and of a fashion different from that affected by the generality of his fellows. Yet his mind is a healthy one, and his imaginings have no touch of the morbidity in which the end of the century decadents delight. Perhaps in this lies the secret of his peculiar strength. If he thought less or posed more, cynicism might conceivably take the place of the wholesome simplicity of his nature, and he might develop into a bitter satirist, offending the many to gain the approval of the ill-conditioned few. But as he is he takes up a position as a pleasant commentator upon the little ironies of life, and shows to all clean-minded people goodnaturedly and kindly what are the influences by which their lives are swayed. He is scarcely a moralist, and is certainly not a mere jester; possibly he would be best defined as a close observer of human nature, who has in learning to analyse not forgotten his capacity for humour.
Left: Love that wastes our little schoolgirl's time. Middle: Love's Baubles. Right: A Woman's Protest. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]
There is an emphatic vein of humour running through this collection of his pictures, humour of the same kind that is so evident in his larger canvases, Love's Baubles, Truth, and Love the Conqueror. The series in Messrs. Dowdeswell's galleries illustrates subjects taken from the writings of British poets, and in many cases his selection has obviously been made with the intention of working out an idea that would lead him in the direction of smiles rather than tears. Other motives have been chosen because of their dramatic possibilities, and some few give even a hint of tragedy, but on the whole the atmosphere of the exhibition is one of fanciful variety, and its tone is light rather than severely didactic. The pictures, as a rule, deal not so much with actual incidents as described in the poems as with motives suggested by some single line or phrase, and their significance comes more from the artist's ability to carry on a train of thought that has been started by a slight hint than from a deliberate effort on his part to realistically reproduce a word-picture already set down by the writer of the poem. A quite characteristic instance of this manner of working is afforded by the panel which illustrates the line, Love that wastes our little schoolgirl's time, in which an apparently unpromising subject is developed so that it suggests many subtle reflections, and provides quite a complete dissertation on the futile dreams of half-fledged femininity. The group of men in a club-room, For God's sake, do something, is another wide commentary, a social problem stated in paint forcibly and appropriately; and of the same class is A Woman's Protest. The Lady of Shallot panel is attractive mainly for its insight into the spirit of the poem, and for the manner in which it sounds truly and clearly the note that rings through the verbal imagery; and The Brook is not only a pleasant illustration, but plays prettily on the dominant idea of an everflowing stream of life.
Left: For God's sake, do something.
Right: The Lady of Shalott. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]
Something of the charm of these pictures is certainly due to the manner in which Mr. Shaw has painted them, to the curious combinatdecorative convention which is a feature of his work. He studies the facts of nature closely enough, and sees things with no hasty vision, but at the same time he does not bind himself down to rearrange them with absolute actuality. His tendency is akin to that of the mediaeval designers, who allowed their fancy to lead them away from strict realism and never hesitated to use the material they collected to produce strange and suggestive results. If this were merely a pose, it might well become wearisome, and would be apt at times to degenerate into empty fooling; but as it is in Mr. Shaw's case, just as it was in that of the artists of the Middle Ages, a sincere expression of a particular turn of mind, it is very welcome as a relief from the deadly matter of fact by which we moderns are being daily drilled into uniform insensibility. We have every reason to be grateful to the artist who can take us in this way out of the beaten track, and we are justified in claiming for a man who is so exceptional in his gifts a place among the chief figures in the profession that he follows.
Link to related material
"Some Pictures by Byam Shaw." The Studio. 16 (1899): 259-65.
Created 20 April 2007
Last modified 17 February 2022