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  • Claire Kalikman

New YCBA exhibit highlights Idyllist artists

Yale Daily News

FEB 07, 2019

On Jan. 24, the Yale Center for British Art opened a new exhibit titled “Victorian Idyll,” which celebrates a new donation of 19th-century British artworks from Lee MacCormick Edwards, a scholar of Victorian art.

Edwards, who taught at Sarah Lawrence College, was a longtime supporter of the YCBA and frequently brought her students to Yale’s museums. Edwards wrote a scholarly study on the artist Sir Hubert von Herkomer, and she “was at work on a study of Frederick Walker and his friends and fellow artists who were known as Idyllists when she sadly died in 2014,” according to the exhibition’s curator, Scott Wilcox.

“Her daughter Alison Edwards Curwen gave Lee’s collection of works by Herkomer and the Idyllists to the Center, and they form the heart of this small exhibition,” explained Wilcox, who serves as Deputy Director for Collections at the YCBA.

The Idyllic school was a 19th-century art movement of British painters and illustrators who depicted rural landscapes and domestic scenes, combining both social realism and idealism. Art historians view the Idyllists as a precursor to the social realism movement in art popularized by such artists as Dorothea Lange and Edward Hopper. Van Gogh also admired works of this style.

From the 1860s, Frederick Walker was at the heart of a group of like-minded artists with roots in periodical and book illustrations. Known from early on as Idyllists, they frequently ventured beyond depicting just pastoral paradises. While the Idyllists may have avoided harsh realities of urban life, they nevertheless struggled with subjects of poverty, homelessness and labor unrest, the exhibition’s wall text explained.

The focused display on view at the YCBA features the work of Herkomer, who was deeply appreciative of Walker’s art and shared many of the Idyllists’ themes.

One work, “Landlord and Tenant” by George John Pinwell underscores the harsh social realities of the time. This watercolor depicts a mother and three young children begging their landlord to not evict them.

The exhibition creates a contrast between this image and a work of art depicting leisure time spent swimming or boat-riding in works by Frederick Walker. In an official pamphlet, the YCBA called Walker’s work “distinctive and influential.”

These works by Walker also highlight the effects of the Industrial Revolution: the reality of workers forced into cramped living arrangements and the idealistic dream of escaping into the countryside to go for a swim.

“I enjoyed the small scope of this exhibit — focusing on only a few Victorian artists — ‘Victorian Idyll’ provided a neat peak into a very specific style of etching and watercolor painting,” said Oona Holahan ’21.

Another piece entitled “Strange Faces” by Walker depicts a young girl in an apparent first encounter with an elderly couple who may be adopting her. Although the artist was well regarded in his own lifetime, the painting was never exhibited while the artist was alive.

Museum goer Alex Reedy ’21, who is also a staff reporter for the News, said that this painting “reflects the social norms of the era quite well but is still a rather idealized portrayal of the time period, as most of industrial Britain would have not shared in the wealth of these subjects.”

Many of the works featured in the exhibit are etchings, a technique that can be used to reproduce images.

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