YCBA highlights opulence of Edwardian era

The YCBA’s exhibit showcases art from the reign of Edward VII.
The YCBA’s exhibit showcases art from the reign of Edward VII. Photo by YCBA.

Extravagance abounds in the Yale Center for British Art’s latest major exhibition.

A decade in the making, “Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century” presents a comprehensive display of English art, design and fashion during the reign of King Edward VII. Corresponding roughly with the period between the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of World War I, the Edwardian age refers to a time marked by duality — one of both lavishness and tumult, high and low, exhibit co-curator Andrea Rager GRD ’09 said. Using a range of media, from sculptures to reproduced autochrome photographs, the exhibition traces not only the English public’s changing attitudes at the time, but also the global influence of imperial-era London.

“Edwardian Opulence” opens tomorrow and will be the museum’s last exhibit before the first phase of its refurbishment project begins this summer.

“[This exhibit] is a long, deep study of a period of enormous power and consequence,” YCBA Director Amy Meyers said. “The conversation between and among objects from that era reflects Britain’s state of mind at the turn of the 20th century.”

Meyers added that the opening aligns with the modern American public’s current interest in Edwardian-era England. This fascination with the period is demonstrated by the popularity of the television series “Downton Abbey,” which reflects a desire to revisit the era, she said.

At the start of the exhibit — which spans the YCBA’s second and third floors — visitors are greeted by four figures representing the full breadth of the imperial elite at the time, co-curator Angus Trumble said, referring to the three portraits and white gown that stand at the entrance to the display. Alongside a portrait of Lady Evelyn Cavendish, a high-ranking member of the aristocracy, there is a painting of Florence Phillips, whose mining magnate husband made her a member of the rising class of “nouveau riche.”

“We wanted to emphasize the tension between the conspicuous consumption habits of the ‘new money’ and the British established, yet impoverished, aristocracy,” Rager said.

She added that she hopes visitors will pay attention to not only the central characters of the exhibit but also “the bodies and unseen hands” of those at the periphery: the African diamond miners who made Sir Lionel Phillips rich, or the garment workers who sewed the hem of Mary Curzon’s dress. Such broader networks are reminders of the Edwardian age’s global scope, Rager said.

Within its study of decadence, the exhibit explores the movement of lavish interiors from the private to the public sphere, as well as the migration of people from the countryside and into London. Following the development of technologies throughout this time period, the exhibit features electric bell pushes — which are still used in Buckingham Palace today — electric lamps, early video footage and audio recordings of the people whom the portraits depict.

Trumble explained that while the exhibit traces a pattern of extravagance and excess, it ends on a somber note. The last section, titled “War, Sleep, and Death,” culminates in William Orpen’s oil-on-canvas piece depicting the casket of the unknown British solider.

“The Edwardian era represented the pinnacle of certainty, pride and pretension,” Trumble said. “But underlying these public moods were themes of sleep and doubt, madness and anxiety.”

“Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century” will be on view at the British Art Center through June 2.

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