BEGGARSTAFFS AT THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM
‘Why Begggarstaff?’ inquired a journalist from The Idler a fashionable Edwardian magazine,‘ It is a good name and in the form of a signature it certainly adds to the beauty of your posters. But how did you get hold of it?’
‘James and I came across it one day in an old stable, on a sack of fodder. It is a good hearty old English name, and it I appealed us; so we adopted it immediately’
The Beggarstaff Brothers were two brilliant painters, William Nicholson and James Pryde. Not brothers but brothers-in-law. William (called Kid he was so young- looking) met James Pryde’s sister Maud at art school. The couple married and moved into an old inn The Eight Bells at Denham and brother James ever on the loose, visited. - And stayed for two years. The two young men had parallel ideas for their talents. The market for painters was over-crowded and they saw the chance to widen their scope into the new vogue for illustrated advertisements. Paris, then the cultural epicentre of the world, had started .to deploy art in the service of business. Or projects or anything anyone might want to bring to public attention. Before this, even Music Hall posters surprisingly never used images; they relied on the now rather amusing list of unique talents on the theatre bill. Advertising was a word-based phenomenon. But when the work of Toulouse-Lautrec no less swelled the popular vogue for commercial work, they launched their company. Using advertising posters they aimed to bring art into the public space, art, which would make people, sit up and notice. And it had to be big so anyone passing on a horse-bus would get the message straightaway.
In the impressive exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum the Beggarstaff Brothers’ works look enormous - stark colourful images printed onto simple brown paper bonded together into a massive billboards designed to stop people in their tracks. Both men always loved the theatre and they began with a poster for Hamlet. Stark original and strange it does the trick. It was unique in its time, a combined genius of serviceable ad with artistic originality and flair. After Hamlet there was a gorgeous poster for cornflour (the one the Fitzwilliam chose for their advertisement). Cinderella was a poster for a Christmas show. It spans the entire gallery at the Fitzwilliam, framed by a stage set worthy of Drury Lane where the Beggarstaffs sought orders. The original giant poster unfurled before a deeply unimpressed theatre manager about to turn it down when an influential critic strolled in and began to compliment him on his wonderful taste. The Brothers Beggarstaff was in business.
Their work revolutionized the hoardings trade. These young artists brought an entirely new perspective and a wholly original technique to the production of posters. They were simple and relied on an outline to convey the message; the shape then became pivotal to the image. ‘Without Beggarstaffs there would be no Banksy‘ declared one recent critic. But after some signal successes over two years, the hopes for a career vanished. The posters were too avant-garde for London taste The Company failed to make money and foundered.
The two artists went their separate ways. Louche and bohemian, James (always Jimmy) produced portraits of down and outs and miscreants. He was always fascinated by low life and brought out a series based on Balzac’s novel The Human Comedy The allure of the rough and dangerous side of humanity was with James Pride all his life. His final picture, unfinished was dark evocation of the outsider’s lot, He called it ‘The Untouchables’ But William Nicholson an attraction for the colourful unconventional side of life and with his own Characters of Romance he explored the highwaymen and pirates of yesteryear. Pryde’s Celebrated Criminals seven years later predictably went one further into the desperation of the poor and marginalized. He had always fancied life as an actor and both men became the stylish centre of the new century’s society haunts like the Café Royal with Max Beerbohm and the actresses and poets of the day.
Still friends they drew apart, and when William’s son Tony was killed at the end of the First World War and his wife, Pryde’s sister died in the same year from influenza the darkness of life appeared to close in around James Pryde .
The Fitzwilliam shows his work, in all its massive scope; there are architectural canvases, dark and brooding with a penchant for the lugubrious and grotesque. yet impressive and structured Fortunately he found a patron Lady Couwdray who adored them and ordered many for her Scottish house near Aberdeen, Pryde painted some of the most impressive surreal and theatrical of his oeuvre for her.. Displayed in a flamboyant style, he would surely have been thrilled to see them.
This show is really exceptional. The Fitzwilliam has presented it in the style of the Royal Academy; they have totally transformed galleries to fit the mood of the work. Plain walls become part of the quasi-Gothic feel of James Pryde’s surreal painting, arches echo the painter’s insistence on this form of frame - whether by columns curtains or often-great ancestral bed drapes. The result is eerie but impressive, a twilight world of sadness even depression which James Pryde’s life increasingly became. No help from his many kind friends made any difference. He died alone and in debt still struggling with The Untouchables and possibly felt like one of them himself.
William Nicholson took a different turn with his art. More commercially minded - and supremely talented,
He collaborated with Heinemann to publish an Alphabet book, his famous A is for Artist features his own debonair body profile – and the prints of the woodcuts are now celebrated. The book sold well. Woodcuts were another way to reach the mass audience, the impulse survived from his advertising days. His woodcut of Queen Victoria was run off into thousands – even though Nicholson described her look as ‘ an animated teacosy”.
William Nicholson illustrated children’s stories including The Velveteen Rabbit (its illustrations created its success really and the Bookshop has the work flying off the shelves right now) But most of all found a facility for captivating portraiture. The charm of these paintings made him famous. He was a Fellow of the Tate, a painting tutor to Winston Churchill (Aha, we all wondered where he got his skill from) knighted and celebrated; his amazing talent included still lifes of exceptional skill. To see these alone is worth a visit to the Fitzwilliam, but the portraits especially will be familiar to habitués – the girl with a tattered glove slips into context as William Nicholson’s friend and presumably mistress
Beggarstaffs is a triumph of an exhibition; it sets new standards for the once rather stiff Fitzwilliam to rival major public London galleries. Its staging is tremendous, literally, the ambition and style of the two artists reflected throughout their lives by an ambient grandeur and theatricality that fits them entirely.