Towards the end of the 19th century the brightest young hopes of the British art world looked to Paris for an education in cutting edge painting. Although the initial tumult of Impressionism had subsided, the excitement that those artists’ ideas engendered still permeated the ateliers and salons of the French capital. On their return to London, young British painters were struck by the disparity between the two capitals’ approach to art. By the mid 1880s Monet was finding financial security and public approbation, by contrast in London the artistic establishment was dominated by the technically brilliant but artistically turgid Academic style. That Academic approach that had been success fully eroded in Paris by Impressionism and its antecedents was as robust and institutionalized as it had been for a century.
The Royal Academy was the chief exhibition venue for every aspiring artist of the day and governed by a reactionary cabal of aging Academicians. In this stifling environment a group of young painters, seeing no alternative and inspired by the Salon de Refusés of 1863, decided to mount a rival exhibition. So, in April 1886 the first exhibition of the New English Art Club was held in London to promote the principles of Impressionism and combat the conservatism of the Royal Academy. Its first exhibitors included Whistler, Singer Sargent, Wilson Steer, Clausen, and Sickert, confirming the club’s status as the new spiritual home of British avant-garde painting.
As with all such groups forged in the white heat of youthful idealism, the various members grew successful and their previously radical beliefs became those of the art establishment they had contested. By the early decades of the 20th century the club was a power to be reckoned with, both as a forcing ground for new talent and as a serious showcase for new work by the celebrity artists of the period, Augustus John among them. Although truly progressive painters still formed new factions and associations to promote their ideals, the ranks of the most prominent of these, the Camden Town Group and the London Group, were largely filled by the New English Art Club members.
After the Great War, the club remained centre stage, attracting members of the stature of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Duncan Grant, and Mark Gertler. As these young painters progressed and many were elected Royal Academicians, they continued to exhibit with the NEAC. Through the shared membership of many of their finest talents the two institutions grew ideologically together, so that by the 1940s and 50s election to the club was seen as a logical stepping stone to election to the Royal Academy.
With the earth-shattering changes in Western art of the post-war years the ideals of the two societies began to diverge dramatically. By the 1960s and 70s the Academy had embraced abstraction whole heartedly. In contrast, the New English Art Club continued to preserve their founders’ ideals of Impressionism and bolster the principle of figurative art that was then, as now, so battered by prevailing critical opinion.
Today the Academy moves increasingly towards the conceptual with the exception of a handful of figurative painters, Diana Armfield, Fred Cuming, Anthony Green, and Ken Howard, all of whom are also members of the New English Art Club.
The club itself has become more self-aware, mindful of its position as the last public exhibition forum for representational painting of a certain quality and aesthetic. Its role is undoubtedly important, as decades of conceptual supremacy in art schools have steadily eroded the importance of drawing as a necessary skill for the basis of good painting.
A tenet of the New English Art Club is the promotion of painting in a visual language in which pictorial statements are slowly and intricately constructed, but when they are completed, they can be under stood quickly and easily by everyone. The club, under current president Peter Brown, actively encourages young artists who employ this language, both through educational programmes and their annual open exhibition.
Panter & Hall has a long association with the New English Art Club having held members’ shows in the past and awarding a prize at some of the annual open exhibitions. In an art market dominated by conceptual, installation-based work, figurative painting offers a refreshing and affordable alternative for today’s collectors. The letters NEAC after an artist’s name offer a reassuring brand or kite mark to collectors, declaring that artist to have reached the high standards that the club maintains.
- Matthew Hall