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The St John's Wood Arts Club, 1895

1 of 2 portraits of John Bagnold Burgess

The St John's Wood Arts Club, 1895, by Sydney Prior Hall, circa 1895 -NPG 4404 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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The St John's Wood Arts Club, 1895

by Sydney Prior Hall
Black crayon, white and grey paint on paper, circa 1895
15 1/4 in. x 11 1/4 in. (387 mm x 285 mm)
NPG 4404

Inscriptionback to top

Signed bottom left corner: ‘S. P. H’;
and inscr. in pencil below image: ‘Art In Excelsis. / Hacker silhouetting Tadema in a decoration for the frieze of the new St. John’s / Wood Art Club. at the inaugural supper’.

This portraitback to top

This sketch documents the inaugural supper of the St John’s Wood Arts Club on 30 January 1895. [1] The club was first established in Queen’s Terrace, Finchley Road, London as a meeting place for artists who lived and worked in and near St John’s Wood. Not to be confused with the earlier ‘St John’s Wood Clique’ (1863–90) – an informal gathering of artists with a shared aesthetic outlook (see NPG collection P70–P100) – the club seems to have organized a regular calendar of events, providing opportunity for a variety of artists to interact socially. When charting the history of the association in his book about the area, A.M. Eyre (Hon. Sec., 1900) makes reference to numerous ‘Discussion Evenings’, smoking concerts and suppers, ‘as these feasts were called’. [2] When published in the Graphic, NPG 4404 was accompanied by an article written by Marion Harry Spielmann, who explained the motivation for these rituals: ‘Today’s solitude in the studio, no doubt sharpens the artist’s appetite for conversation, and the passion for “shop-talk” encourages the conditions of club life.’ [3]

The club was officially formed after a meeting held at Walter Dendy Sadler’s house at 44 Finchley Road on Sunday, 23 December 1894. [4] He was the first honorary secretary and John Bagnold Burgess was the first treasurer. [5] Of the other sitters in the drawing, Arthur Hacker and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey were also among the founding members. The group quickly added to their number (by 1895 there were seventy members) and leased some rooms (along with the billiard room) at The Knight of St John. [6]

This is the setting for Sydney Prior Hall’s drawing, which depicts Hacker tracing Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s shadow upon the wall as he perches on a step-ladder, whilst the other members look on. According to Spielmann, ‘The first act, and a characteristic one, was the appointment of a decorations committee, whose object is not only the furnishing of the rooms and their hanging with pictures, but who are also designing a frieze bearing the shadow portraits of the members.’ [7] They seem to have quickly revised the practice of drawing directly onto the wall. Eyre recalls the fate of the original frieze, shortly after its execution in 1895: ‘This priceless transcript, however, was not appreciated by the hostel which was thus honored, and on the occasion of the second ‘supper’ … it had been whitewashed over.’ [8] Some type of hanging panel was devised, divided into segments, one per artist. This was perhaps a more efficient (and portable) method.

In 1964, the frieze was photographed, before being destroyed. [9] The images were sent to the National Portrait Gallery archives and a set was also deposited in the Marylebone Library (now in the Westminster Archives Centre, M:447/26/1–11). They detail the silhouettes of sixty-one club members including Alma-Tadema (although no other sitters from NPG 4404 are included). Each outline has the name of the sitter inscribed below and his joining date, above. The dates range from 1895 to 1920 and it was evidently a long-running tradition among club members. An undated photograph at the Westminster Archives Centre shows Sir Frank Dicksee (member from 1895) having his silhouette recorded, in a manner that presumably became the standard practice. The sitter stands in profile on one side of a thin canvas, with the light behind him, while another figure traces his outline upon the opposite side of the screen. [10] It is unclear whether Alma-Tadema’s silhouette was somehow recovered, or redrawn when the club moved to the larger premises of the Eyre Arms Hotel in November 1895. [11] An early twentieth-century watercolour by Cecil King of the frieze in situ, upon the club walls, is reproduced in Eyre’s text. [12]

Hall was a painter and leading illustrative journalist who worked for the Graphic from its foundation in 1869. The NPG collection contains over 140 portrait sketches by him of political, legal and artistic figures (including two royal portrait groups). He was also a member of the St John’s Wood Art Club and in 1895 he exhibited from 13 Chalcot Gardens, England Lane, Primrose Hill. [13] Among the more recognizable figures in NPG 4404 are Sadler, Burgess and Arthur Hopkins. Edward Onslow Ford, Voysey and John Collier sit facing away from the artist, so that only the backs of their heads are visible. [14] Indeed, Hall appears to have captured his own experience of the scene, the moment as he saw it in the midst of other club members. To the left-hand side, Sadler looks back towards the artist, raising his glass in acknowledgement of him.

Despite this sense of immediacy, additional sketches by Hall in the NPG collection suggest that the drawing is a retrospective account of the event. Individual portraits of Alma-Tadema (in reverse, NPG 4388), Hacker (NPG 4389) and Collier (NPG 4390) in the same poses were apparently executed by the artist after the supper. [15] It is possible that Hall made quick sketches of each sitter at the time, in order to reconstruct the scene at a later date. Strangely, his drawing of Alma-Tadema shows the artist in profile to the left, whereas in NPG 4404 and the photograph of the actual frieze, he is depicted in profile to the right.

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) The drawing was given to the NPG, along with NPG 4405, by Col. A.C.B Clayton of the St John’s Wood Arts Club in 1964. See also NPG Report of the Trustees 1964–5, p.23, NPG Archive.
2) Eyre 1913, pp.270–71.
3) Graphic, 23 Feb. 1895, p.212.
4) See also letter from W.D. Sadler to ‘Bartholomew’, dated 1894, describing the formation of the club: Westminster Archives Centre, Acc 1078.
5) Burgess exhibited from 66 Finchley Road; ref. Graves 1905–6, vol.1, p.347.
6) This was presumably the address of the venue on Queen’s Terrace, Finchley Road. The name derives from the area’s medieval owners, the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers), an Augustinian order, which took over the land from the Knights Templar in 1323.
7) Graphic, 23 Feb. 1895, p.212.
8) Eyre 1913, p.270. The next club supper was held on 25 Feb. 1985; Westminster Archives Centre, M:447/19.
9) Letter from J. Kerslake to Col. A.C.B Clayton, 20 Oct. 1964, NPG RP 4404.
10) Westminster Archives Centre, M:447/25.
[11] The first supper at the Eyre Arms Hotel was held on 27 Nov. 1897. Thirty-two members attended; Westminster Archives Centre, M:447/19.
12) Eyre 1913, facing p.273, captioned ‘The Interior of the St John’s Wood Arts Club (Tom Hood’s House)’.
13) Graves 1905–6, vol.3, p.234. Hall was a member of the club from 1895 to c.1913; records of the St John’s Wood Arts Club, Westminster Archives Centre, M:447.
14) There is another, unidentified man on the right-hand edge who is not annotated by Hall in the margins of the sketch. He is perhaps a waiter, appearing to hold a tray with a coffee cup.
15) These sketches were purchased from the St John’s Wood Art Club in 1964; they were originally framed together and hung upon the wall of the club.

Referenceback to top

Eyre 1913
Eyre, A.M., Saint John’s Wood: Its History, Its Houses, Its Haunts and Its Celebrities, London, 1913.

Graves 1905–6
Graves, A., The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from its Foundation in 1769–1904, 8 vols, London, 1905–6; repr. in 4 vols, Bath, 1970.

Walkley 1994
Walkley, G., Artists’ Houses in London 1764–1914, Aldershot, 1994.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1982.

Provenanceback to top

St John's Wood Arts Club; given to NPG by Colonel A.C.B. Clayton on behalf of the Club, 1964.

Exhibitionsback to top

Artists at Work, NPG travelling exh., Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, 1981; Wolverhampton Art Gallery & Museum, 1981–2; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 1982; Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, 1982; NPG, London, 1982 (38).

Reproductionsback to top

Eyre 1913, facing p.270.

Walkley 1994, p.200, fig.163

Other reproductions of the image
Wood-engraving by unknown engraver, Graphic, 23 February 1895, p.212.

View all known portraits for Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

View all known portraits for John Collier

View all known portraits for (Edward) Onslow Ford

View all known portraits for Arthur Hacker

View all known portraits for Arthur Hopkins

View all known portraits for Walter Dendy Sadler

View all known portraits for Charles Francis Annesley Voysey



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