Revival of pastel in late nineteenth-century Britain: the transience of a modern medium
Spoor, Freya Elisabeth
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In the late nineteenth century, the use of pastels underwent a revival and many young British artists adopted the medium as a new means of expression. This surge in popularity was marked by three exhibitions dedicated to contemporary works in pastel held at the Grosvenor Gallery in London between 1888 and 1890. These shows attracted over three hundred participants and culminated in the formation of the Society of British Pastellists in 1890, which counted amongst its eminent members William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), James Guthrie (1859-1930), George Clausen (1852-1944) and Elizabeth Armstrong (1859-1912). Despite its auspicious beginnings this movement was short-lived and the society disbanded the following year. This has caused scholars to treat the use of pastel by British artists as just a passing fad in the oeuvres of individual artists and in studies of contemporary stylistic trends. Yet, the varying involvement of these four artists with the most pioneering art movements in Britain would suggest that this medium formed an intrinsic part of their move towards a modern aesthetic. Thus, the diverse approaches of these artists will form a prism through which to examine the importance of materiality for the development of new subject matter and stylistic innovations. This study will involve not only a consideration of the formal properties of these works but also the culture in which they were produced, exhibited and critically received. Indeed, it is hoped that by situating these pastels within a wider cultural context that a further understanding of their long-term significance in the canon of modern art in Britain can be achieved. In this way, I believe that this study will contribute towards a new position for pastel as a modern medium that was essential for the invention of new artistic practices at this time.