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Room 30: Britain 1901-14

Room 30: Britain 1901-14

Room 30: Britain 1901-14

See the portraits currently on display in Room 30 here

The 20th Century

In Britain the twentieth century was an era of radical, sweeping changes, which transformed almost every aspect of life. An individual born in 1900 occupied a new world that saw the advent of powered flight and, within a lifetime, the conquest of the moon. By the end of the millennium, the boundaries of experience had been re-drawn.

Scientific progress and technological innovation drove that process, but there were other important aspects of the wider desire to build upon yet also break with the past. Political, public and private life were subject to powerful social currents, the effects of which, while positive and liberating, were neither predictable nor controllable. During the early years of the century the role and status of women departed from historical constraints. However, two devastating world wars were a reminder that the modern world had a darker side. The advent of the mass media, with its proliferation of information and images, bore witness to a multi-faceted age in which the idea of modernism gained ascendancy. The idealisation of the new produced a profusion of artistic styles, and also influenced morality, beliefs, attitudes, fashions and behaviour. The portraits displayed here represent individuals connected with these profound developments.

Britain 1901–1914

The years between the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 witnessed a complex evolution in British society. Queen Victoria’s passing brought her sixty-three-year reign to an end and seemed to signal the end of an era. However, as Lavery’s grand portrait of the Royal Family in 1913 shows, the connections with Britain’s stately, imperial past persisted. Also, in society as a whole, formal codes of conduct continued to define a hierarchical social structure linked to tradition. Even so, a succession of new developments challenged entrenched ideas. The year 1903 saw the first powered flight and the first transatlantic radio transmission. Motorised transport became more common. In the visual arts, there was a growing awareness of European modern art and exhibitions devoted to the work of Cézanne, Matisse and Gauguin. In 1909, Winston Churchill caught the mood of change: ‘We have arrived at a new time. Let us realise it.’ But a wider world view came at a price. In 1912, Captain Scott’s mission to the South Pole ended in disaster, and RMS Titanic, the world’s largest and supposedly ‘unsinkable’ passenger liner, sank on her maiden voyage. Within two years, Britain would enter a long and debilitating world war.