Philip Wilson Steer | Boulogne Sands, 1888-91

Steer, Philip Wilson (1860–1942), British painter, was born in Birkenhead on 28 December 1860, the youngest of three children (one brother, Henry, one sister, Catherine) of Philip Steer (1810–1871), painter, and his wife, Emma Harrison (1816–1898), daughter of the Revd William Harrison. Philip Steer's family were farmers and shipbuilders, originally from Devon. In the early 1840s he gave painting lessons to his future wife in Bideford. They married in 1853 and settled in Birkenhead, where Philip Steer continued to teach and to paint landscapes and portraits in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Education and early life
In 1864 the family moved to Apsley House, Whitchurch, near Ross-on-Wye, and the children were taught at home by a governess. Between 1875 and 1877 Philip Wilson Steer followed his brother to Hereford Cathedral school. From 1878 to 1880 he was enrolled at Gloucester School of Art under John Kemp and the following year was spent at the drawing schools of the Department of Science and Art, South Kensington. He was refused entry to the Royal Academy Schools in 1882. He travelled instead to Paris, and from 1882 to 1883 he was registered at the Académie Julian under William Adolphe Bouguereau, and then at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1883, where he studied for one year under Rudolph Cabanel. In Paris he remained securely within a circle of English and American students and was largely unaware of more recent developments in French art. Following the introduction of a French language examination at the École he returned to England the next summer. He acquired a studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea, and began the first of his many summer painting expeditions, at first to Walberswick in Suffolk, a favoured location of plein-air painters such as Walter Osborne. Early paintings such as Girl at a Well (1884; priv. coll.) reflected the influence of the French painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and, it has been suggested, of Corot (Laughton, 8).
Steer was a founder member of the New English Art Club in 1886, an initially radical grouping of mostly French-trained young artists united by antipathy for the technical standards and anecdotal content of much contemporary Royal Academy painting. Three years later, Steer had already signalled his departure from what was becoming the most dominant clique at the New English, the rustic-naturalists such as George Clausen and Stanhope Forbes, and allied himself with his friend and exact contemporary Walter Sickert at the ‘London impressionists’ exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, London, in December 1889. This move did little to endear him to increasingly hostile critics.

Until the mid-1890s Steer experimented with various types of impressionism as his acquaintance with French painting grew via a series of London exhibitions, most notably at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1887–8, where he would have seen works by Monet, and again at the Goupil Gallery in April 1889, where twenty of Monet's ‘impressions’ were shown. In response, Steer's work generally developed from a fluid, atmospheric handling reminiscent of Whistler in such works as Girl on a Pier, Walberswick (1886; exh. New English Art Club, April 1887; Tate collection) to the more intense colour and impasted brushstrokes characteristic of Monet, for example, A Summer's Evening (1887–8; exh. New English Art Club, 1888; priv. coll.) and, on a few occasions, to pointillism. Knucklebones (1889; exh. ‘London Impressionists’, December 1889; Ipswich Museum), a study of children playing unselfconsciously on a beach, revealed not only Monet's influence but what appeared also to be an experiment in the technique of Seurat, although D. S. MacColl disputed this suggestion, describing the work instead as a ‘Pre-Raphaelite-like rendering of pebbles’ (MacColl, 37).

Steer was appointed by Fred Brown as teacher of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1893. During the years preceding his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1894, Steer was continually attacked in reviews. Controversial works resulting from the artist's visits to seaside resorts in northern France in the late 1880s, such as Boulogne Sands (1888–94; exh. New English Art Club, November 1892; +Tate collection), were condemned for sloppy handling, crude ugliness, and jarring colour relationships. Sensitive to these criticisms, Steer gave up showing his more adventurous works for some time after they were produced. Contemporaries recalled how his studio in the 1890s was full of unsold seaside pictures which, for conservative audiences, were inspired by extreme examples of modern French art; they were unnatural, aggressive, and disturbing. In one instance, the ‘objectionable peculiarities’ of his ‘Monet-inspired canvases’ were seen to be ‘remarkable only for their eccentricity and bizarre extravagance’ (The Graphic, 702).

Increasingly, however, Steer was to gain support from a few more enlightened individuals; the ‘new critics’ of the 1890s—MacColl, R. A. M. Stevenson, and George Moore, then writing in such journals as The Spectator and the Saturday Review. MacColl especially maintained a lifelong devotion to Steer and it was essentially around his paintings that the critic elaborated his belief that an artist should adopt a manner of painting most appropriate to a particular subject matter. For Stevenson similarly, technique was not a mechanical process or to be ‘understood in fragments’, it was ‘the indivisible organic body of a man's conceptions’ (R. A. M. Stevenson, Velázquez, 3rd edn., 1962, 81). Steer's bright noonday seaside subjects and paintings of the boats at Cowes inevitably required a palette and handling equivalent to Monet, whereas the more generally popular portraits of his then mistress and model Rose Pettigrew, such as Girl Reading a Book (1895; Birkenhead Art Gallery), called for the more subdued and tonal approach of Whistler or, as noted in this case, of Manet and Velázquez (Laughton, 63). For the new critics, impressionism was distinguishable from the technique of French painters of the 1870s; it was a method with sound art-historical antecedents, where unity of effect was valued above painstaking elaboration of detail. Steer himself echoed these sentiments when, in a speech to the Art Worker's Guild in 1891, he underlined the importance of a refined, selective, and poetic vision and enlisted the examples of Reynolds, Velázquez, and Gainsborough (reprinted in MacColl, 177–8). A true impressionist, Steer maintained, was a poet and not a journalist, and was not destined simply to record the facts.

In the 1890s Steer embarked on a period of stylistic experimentation, later often condemned as mere eclecticism. In a series of interior paintings and ‘fancy pictures’ of elaborate nudes such as The Toilet of Venus (c.1897/8; +Tate collection) the painter recreated the rococo imagery of Watteau and Fragonard with slight, feathery brushstrokes and delicate atmosphere. Such works conjured up the atmosphere of the eighteenth century, a period then of particular appeal among writers, connoisseurial aesthetes, and such artists as Charles Conder and Aubrey Beardsley. The allure and the superficial graces of that period had a specific appeal in the context of late nineteenth-century modernity and, in the cultural context, in the shift from naturalism in the eighties to symbolism in the nineties. It was symptomatic of an anti-materialist aversion to the vulgarity of concrete circumstances in the modern city and the impulse to imagine an alternative, superior reality. Steer demonstrated this aversion in his ‘fancy pictures’ and in his own home in Cheyne Walk, where he lived from his mother's death in 1898, surrounded by his collection of eighteenth-century engravings and Chelsea figures.

By this period the artist's reputation was increasingly that of a landscape painter and Steer left behind his stylistic experiments of the late 1880s. A Classic Landscape, Richmond (1893; exh. Goupil Gallery, 1894; priv. coll.) was one of the first indications of the abrupt transition from depictions of sunlit impressionist idylls. An atmospheric, thinly painted, and very muted depiction of Richmond Bridge, A Classic Landscape signalled the influence, in both setting and handling, of such painters as Claude and especially Turner. Following this work, the painter formed the habit during the early years of the new century of revisiting the countryside of his youth in such places as Ludlow and Chepstow. Painting expeditions like these extended to sites such as Richmond in Yorkshire, and were also a conscious following in the footsteps of Turner; Steer often carried a copy of the latter's Liber Studiorum in his pocket on those occasions. During a period of consistent anti-urbanism and celebration of rural virtue, he found greater popularity with a wider audience and was frequently spoken of as a successor to Constable, sharing that painter's predilection for changeable stormy skies and broad distant prospects. His vision, like that of Constable, was said to express the special qualities-the ‘atmosphere’-of the English countryside.

Increasingly Steer found his sources of influence in pre-impressionist art, especially in the work of Turner and Constable. The spontaneous handling of their open-air sketches appealed to Steer just as, in the nationalist climate of the 1890s, they had convinced several British critics of their direct influence on recent French art. By the turn of the century, Steer was regarded as an essentially English painter, whose art was lyrical, instinctive, and romantic and therefore fundamentally distinct from what were by then being perceived as the logical, coldly scientific exercises of the European modernists. With panoramic pure landscapes from after the turn of the century, like The Horseshoe Bend of the Severn (1909; exh. New English Art Club, winter 1909; Hugh Lane Municipal Art Gallery, Dublin), Steer emerged as an icon of Englishness in a period increasingly desperate to assert ideals of cultural unity.

Later years
In 1918 Steer was appointed official war artist and he produced a number of paintings of the British fleet, most notably Dover Harbour (exh. ‘War Paintings’, RA, winter 1919–20; IWM). Throughout the 1920s Steer increasingly experimented with watercolour, a technique which provided him with a route out of the heavy impasto characteristic of his oils. These watercolours, impressionist in the strictest sense of the term, partly reflect the later works of Turner, but also signal a return to Monet and to a Whistlerian approach—the handling is slight, shapes and objects are suggested, and all unnecessary detail eliminated. For the painter himself the processes of watercolour were a fascination and the best examples he regarded merely as flukes, which either did or did not ‘come off’. His skill, for MacColl, resulted in what he called ‘a Chinese-like’ control in the placing, shape, and modulation of the wash (MacColl, 113).

One of Steer's most notable inter-war pictures was of his devoted Welsh nurse and housekeeper, Margaret Jones, later Mrs Raynes (1922; Tate collection). An indomitable personality, Mrs Raynes had looked after the artist since childhood. She provided a source of security and reassurance, supporting him in his bachelor existence, his hypochondria, and ritualistic daily customs. She died aged ninety-one in 1929 and was a great loss, not only to Steer, but to the artist's close circle of friends such as Fred Brown and Henry Tonks. Her portrait was included in Steer's exhibition, the first major retrospective of a living artist, held at the Tate Gallery that same year.

Mrs Raynes's death coincided with the decline in Steer's health, and his eyesight began rapidly to deteriorate. As Henry Tonks retired from the Slade in 1930 Steer, after twenty-seven years as professor of painting there, soon followed him. Students later recalled a kindly but reticent, virtually inarticulate teacher, in contrast to the acerbic Tonks—one who possessed a simplicity and an estrangement from social affairs, as from the latest fashionable artistic theorizing, and was solely preoccupied with his painting.

In 1931, reluctantly and after much persuasion, Steer finally accepted the Order of Merit. For a few years afterwards he continued with his summer excursions to nearby sites in Kent and Essex, where he produced often superlative, almost monochromatic watercolours of the sea, the mudflats, and the boats in thin broad washes. By 1938, however, blindness threatened and he was forced to give up. His response was characteristic: he ‘had painted enough and many people painted far too many pictures’ (MacColl, 153). Now restricted to Cheyne Walk, Steer endured the blitz there, spending nights in his basement, then a draught-free anti-gas chamber, and his days ordering his affairs and signing his paintings. He died at his home, of bronchitis, on 21 March 1942, and was buried in London. His memorial exhibition was staged the following year at the National Gallery.

+Ysanne Holt
© +Oxford University Press All rights reserved - Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press

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