Why Albert Goodwin MattersBy Godfrey Barker
Goodwin, born in 1845, arrived on the Victorian landscape scene when the shadow of J M W Turner began to fall long upon it. The elevation of Turner as the sun-god of Victorian art was the passionate mission of Ruskin1 and Ruskin's elevation of Turner, alongside his elevation of the Pre-Raphaelites, created difficulties for every artist after 1870 who wished to paint in subtler tones than the brilliance of Holman Hunt and the dazzling yellows preferred by Turner2. (Ruskin, as Goodwin complained in his diary, had lowered the public esteem of that subtler colourist, John Constable.) The towering status of Turner as genius of the century raised problems not only for Goodwin but for other watercolourists, for such independent spirits as Allingham, Birket Foster, Brabazon, Inchbold, Palmer, Richardson, even Whistler. How to be individual in the glare of such a man? How to build on Turner's achievement, yet escape from him?
There was a second prison from which Goodwin felt the need to escape – an artistic cell to which he was confined by John Ruskin.
Ruskin, with his conviction that form mattered more than colour, commanded Goodwin in his youth that the artist must always choose for his subject a scene or an object of beauty – that is, a subject beautiful in its own right. In Victorian England, where the landscape changed dramatically every day under the weight of heavy industry and the blue sky turned to smoky grey, this requirement ruled out an enormous number of subjects. The Ruskin rule in effect condemned the artist to paint something other than what lay before him – to escape from ugly modern life to scenes more beautiful, to escape, in old-fashioned language, to the ideal world that was inhabited by painters from Raphael to Sir Joshua Reynolds. In a phrase, Ruskin forbade the existence of 'Contemporary Art' – or much, if not all of it.
Goodwin's diaries make clear that he chafed at this. He envied Whistler, who expressed public contempt for Ruskin, and he envied the freedom Whistler felt to paint the ugly and to be expressionist about it. In some diary entries, Goodwin openly admired Whistler, feeling him to be more correct about colour than Ruskin was about form.
Which way to go? Forcing himself to choose, Goodwin backed the 19th century, declaring Ruskin to be 'the truer wisdom' (Diary, 29 December 1914). He decided this when Ruskin was out of date in a 20th century that has elevated the ugly. Goodwin, in his grave, may nourish the hope that in the 21st Century he, Ruskin and the concept of beauty will steam back into fashion – that ugliness has run its course with the ultra-democratic art history of our time.
The escape of Albert Goodwin from Turner and Ruskin, the lifetime journey that he made to a style maturely and unmistakably his own, was not an easy one.
I sometimes wonder if the spirit of old Turner takes over my personality. I often find (or think I find) myself doing the very same things that he seemed to do.3That is no more than a reference to Goodwin using spare paint on the palette at the end of one picture to start a new one but it announces the eternal presence of Turner in his mind. Hammond Smith, Goodwin's first and chief biographer, claims that his admiration for Turner was more present in his post-1900 work than at any other time,
in his poetic and atmospheric use of colour, in his delicate and much more sensitive use of the pen, but most especially perhaps in his ability to combine a feeling for breadth with an eye for detail, which was such an unique feature of Turner's work.4One sees why he says this: lay Turner's Fort Vimieux of 1831 alongside a 1914 Goodwin sunset and it does look as if little has happened in between. Turner's rendering of vast, glowing abstract areas of colour in the 1835-40 oils and watercolours is undoubtedly faithfully reproduced in many Goodwin works. And yet Goodwin can be easily distinguished from Turner. How?
The answer seems to be that Turner is the truer Impressionist of the two – more concerned to lay down the truth of 'atmosphere' than to provide information of what is seen. The late Victorian Goodwin differed from Turner by his increasing interest in the subject, by thrusting topography into the viewer's face – even in openly atmospheric attempts like The Lights of Lauterbrunnen in 1919, which owes much to the late Turner Swiss views but tells us far more. Goodwin does this even in unashamed imaginations like the mood music Benares, a view of 1917 which the artist never saw in the moonlight in which he painted it and which is for many his masterpiece.
Goodwin's struggle, documented in the diaries, to be his own man and not the prisoner of Turner had one unusual consequence. It is that a majority of his most assured and individual work dates from his last twenty years.
To be at your best, imaginatively and technically, near your end is an unusual feat for any artist. Yet Goodwin's diaries reveal that he was thinking more intensely about painting in his 70s and 80s than at any other point of his life – and his work visibly burgeoned under his thought. What was swirling in his head in the 1910s and 1920s was not, however, a debate about the modern movement. It is a debate between Victorian dilemmas5. Goodwin has nothing to say about Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Cubism and the new directions of art, though in August 1909 he tells his diary that much Impressionism is 'laziness' and 'scamping on detail'. Paris, though not too far from Bexhill, was a world away in mind. So too is Ascot, Berkeley Square and the Roaring Twenties. Goodwin was to his end a Victorian and if he did his best work after 1900 Victorian England was still a powerful and enduring influence and Turner still a god.
To those who believe that art before 1925 is the rise of the school of Paris and the irrelevance or decease of all 19th century talent, including Goodwin, this judgment may come as a surprise.
But it is true. Along with Soames Forsyte in Galsworthy's great novel, Goodwin was one of many Victorians who survived long into the 20th century. As in The Forsyte Saga, Victorian conviction did not lie down and die with the death of the Queen in 1901. It continued to exist and make strong opinions felt about the decadence of Edwardian Europe and early 20th century art. And should any reader assume that Turner was somehow passé with the public in the age when Kandinsky and Picasso began work, the reverse is true: Turner was high fashion, and so was Albert Goodwin. On the art market, from the £ 5,250 cost of Turner's Walton Bridges in 1872, there is a rise of 1500% in forty years – in a gold standard age of roughly constant money – to the £ 30,800 paid by Henry Clay Frick for Mortlake Terrace in 1913. Turner was second only to Raphael and Gainsborough in world art prices when Goodwin filled his diary with esteem before the First World War. The Turner followers rose equally fast in value over the same period.
This has some bearing on the issue of Goodwin and the modern movement. Art historians – not least Frances Spalding in her Dictionary of 20th Century Painters and Sculptors – tend to write Goodwin (and many other Victorians who survived after 1900) out of the record. The judgment, a teleological one, is that the painters who mattered in the early 20th Century are those whom art historians prize in 2007. There is an alternative view as to who matters: the judgment of the age in which the artist lived. Albert Goodwin, as much as J M W Turner, was high fashion.
Art historians are writers who point telescopes at the past to advance the genius that they believe in. Their judgment makes some artists forward-looking and fashionable and others passé. Life is not like that. In his time, Goodwin was the future and the fashion. So was Turner. Picasso and the modern movement were not. Art history is just one type of selection of who matters and what matters, as vulnerable itself to dismissal in the name of fashion as the artists it rejects. That Goodwin painted alongside Picasso and Matisse, that he lived into the age of T S Eliot and The Waste Land – oddly, he and Eliot might have conversed well – is just one of those complexities that the impossible 20th Century has to take into account.
Fashion and art history are transient things. What endures is art creation and merit.
It matters not that in the definition of Frances Spalding and certain art historians, Goodwin was not 'of his time' or century after 1905, to use that imprisoning phrase of Baudelaire which has so limited the judgments of art history. And it is simply wrong to dismiss him – or any other artist – as part of a Victorian past that, at a thunderclap, became dead on the spot in 1901 and was without further relevance.
Life is not so tidy and this is simply bad history. Goodwin did important work on either side of the First World War, and during it. His most personal pictures of this time have a value which is considerably understated in 2007. That understatement also means that his 21st century price is absurdly low.
So how are we to praise Albert Goodwin? The Maidstone prodigy did not go short in his own time. His first painting to be acclaimed reached the Royal Academy by age 15, as did Turner's. Ruskin, who gave Goodwin a first Grand Tour of Europe, complete with culture shocks, in 1872, made him a favourite son and saluted his 'pure aesthetic delight'.
There is much to praise in this Beetles show; there are fine things like Westminster (1922, no 121), Beachy Head (1920, no 116) and The Gardens, Pallanza, Lake Maggiore (1915, no 106) which tell us much.
Goodwin possessed an extraordinary gift for modelling landscape with the sponge in single colours and lower and lower tones, using the pen to delineate form during and at the end of the process, never at the start. After Turner, no other watercolourist laid down giant zones of abstract colour with such sureness. It looks to be effortless; but when Lord Clark – Sir Kenneth Clark – went sketching with Goodwin in 1913 and 1914 and sought to imitate his methods, which Clark usefully describes, he achieved only 'mechanical' results. Stare too, here at Goodwin's use of grey – in Lincoln Canal (1926, no 124) or the two views of Palma, Majorca (1925, nos 125 and 127) – the colour most important in his palette by 1910, into which he deliberately retreated and which he used to highlight the adjacent tones. Goodwin disliked 'the comparative deadness of Nature' in the Victorian palette but achieved his high colour by contrasts, placing grey alongside bright tints rather than resorting to the shrieking colours of Expressionism6. Grey is a quiet colour, but it realised his aim. 'Actual reticence [is] far more subtle and beautiful', Goodwin confides to his diary in 1909, than 'Pre-Raphaelite superlatives'.
Then, for surprise, note the startling visual angles from which Goodwin often works.
This is not a man content, as were the mass of Victorian topographers, with the banality of the level horizon, with inchoate groping at the picturesque and sublime by snapshots up to misty mountain-tops. Beachy Head is painted from a steep and plunging Japanese point of vision. Often, too, his compositions shift the main focus of the painting one plane to the side, so that the harbour at Bristol (1901, no 76; an example among many) is an afterthought to much detail of telegraph poles, barrows, barge boys and shipping masts. Goodwin, among artists, was uniquely fond of scaffolding which he uses to conceal the main interest in Lincoln Canal and in five dozen other views – even his paintings of cathedrals.
Is Goodwin an Impressionist? He gets no mention in Laura Wortley's rewarding 1988 book on British Impressionism but then we must get down to basic definitions, French and English.
When Wynford Dewhurst asserted in 1904 that Impressionism was rooted in the English landscape tradition, he drew an angry response from Pissarro. Pissarro came to London with Monet in 1870 and spent much time in the National Gallery and the V & A with Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. 'This Mr Dewhurst understands nothing', Pissarro responded. What he and Monet found in the landscapes of Gainsborough was plein-air light and fugitive effects, what they found in Turner were errors and imperfections: 'his analysis of shadow� is � a mere absence of light', his tone division was present but incorrect. For the true Impressionist, runs the message, the treatment of shadow is the thing that matters: shadow is light of a different quality and colour. It is not laid down with blacks and browns and earth tints, it is not the product of neutral shades and half-tones but it displays and is built up with the pure colours of the spectrum. Shadow is the great advance buried in Impressionism – the advance, if you like, between Manet's Music in the Tuileries in 1863 and Monet's Impression: Sunrise in 1874.
A true Impressionist painting, Pissarro might also have added, is an expression of mood rather than a document of a time or a place.
This definition I append to exclude much American plein-air painting, 1890-1920, from Impressionism. But the very thought floats upon a sea of confusion, for English art critics were once disposed to hail any landscape of mood or 'atmosphere' as 'Impressionist'.
Where do all these definitions leave Goodwin? His shadows seem to gain light and colour as early as 1884. But working in watercolour, he does not divide tone. Many of his pictures are documents but, like Turner's, many are not. The truth is that Goodwin painted numerous Impressionist pictures but he also painted many that are not. Most of his 'Impressionism' was done far from Britain in countries where the light invites, but he was 'Impressionist' also at home painting sunsets on the seashore; his chief interest was the mood of clouds and the sinking sun (much analysed in the diaries, especially in the wartime years). Goodwin painted much, right up to the end of his life, which in no way meets Pissarro's definition. But he would gratify the definitions of Philip Wilson Steer, who declared in 1891 to the Art Workers' Guild that Impressionism had existed since the frieze of the Parthenon and represented any poetic rather than factual treatment of a scene.
Albert Goodwin defies any easy analysis. His life was a struggle to escape artistic pigeon-holes. He followed the precepts of Turner and Ruskin but admired Whistler. He is sometimes an Impressionist, sometimes not. He was trained by Pre-Raphaelites, stayed loyal to the 'truth' they asserted, but ultimately deserted them. What is constant is the pleasure and deep reward he gave to his contemporaries and which he continues to give now.
1 Until 1867 the highly descriptive Clarkson Stanfield was more expensive than Turner on the art market.
2 'Turner's favourite colour was yellow� It's curious, of the three it's the one I least care for' (Diary, 9 January 1912).
3 Diary, 1911, quoted Hammond Smith, Albert Goodwin RWS, page 25
4 loc cit
5 In 1915 Goodwin agonises over too much primary colour ('Nature does not fling crude paint about'), in 1918 he espouses, with guilt and uncertainty, tinted paper; in 1926 he is uneasy at working in pen on a semi-dry watercolour and harks back to the arguments of the 1870s about the introduction of bodycolour.
6 'The flinging about of crude paints' is denounced in the Diary in 1915.