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The Beggarstaff Brothers

I’ve written before (April 29, 2023) about how my love of art and interest in the art world began during my time serving with the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. (1975-77). At one point I even contemplated giving up my government sinecure and going into the art business, importing prints and posters of 20th century England into North America. Although that move never happened, neither my interest in art nor in this artistic period has ever waned.

My key roles in the Embassy focused on academic and cultural affairs, which brought me into contact with several private and public art galleries, especially ones who had taken an interest in Canadian art: Inuit art is always popular, and Charles Pachter (with his whimsical Queen on moose pictures, was in vogue at the time (mid-1970’s). During the celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial, the Embassy also hosted several major events to promote Canadian arts and culture.

During my lunch hours, I used to frequent a small private gallery near to the Embassy. I’d gotten to know the owner because of her interest in Canadian art. One day, amongst several other new acquisitions, I came across these two pictures for sale:

Poster for Rowntrees, 1900
Poster for the one-act play, Don Quixote at the Lyceum Theatre, London, 1896

Clearly, they were not Canadian, but, as the saying goes, although I knew nothing about the artists, the two pictures immediately “spoke” to me and I purchased both. They are, in fact, smaller versions of posters from the turn of the nineteenth century, part of an annual collection, called Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, put together by the French artist Jules Chérest and sold to subscribers over the 1895-1900 period.

I take as my authority on the subject of advertising posters the British art historian and art deco specialist, Bevis Hillier, who in 1969 produced an excellent history of this golden era of design:

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1969 (my US edition is by Stein and Day, New York)

Hillier considered the Beggarstaff Brothers “the finest posterists of this period.” (p. 105) They were not actually brothers but brothers-in-law who worked both together and separately, William Nicholson and James Pryde. I believe them to be the only English illustrators included by Chéret in his annual collection (two of over 100 artists, and only five times over the five years these collections were published), and, to my mind, their work stands alone in terms of style and quality. “What they achieved,” says Hillier, “is both revolutionary and peculiarly English, and its influence is still evident today.” (p. 105) Their clean lines, simplified design and use of silhouettes distinguish them from the majority of posters of the time, heralding the arrival of the art deco and art moderne eras of the 1920 – 1950 period.

French posters of the turn of the century were dominated by the greats: Chérest, Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha (those three combined for over 70 listings over those five years. Compare these following classics with the Beggarstaffs above:

Jules Chéret: Casino d’Enghien, 1890 in Hillier, (p.32)
Toulouse-Lautrec: L’Artisan Moderne, 1894 in Hillier, p. 52

Nicholson and Pryde eventually parted ways and, of the pair, Nicholson (1872-1949) went on to painting, writing, teaching and stage design, and greater fame and fortune. Here’s a sampling of some of the other things he worked on or produced :

  • illustrations for the original 1922 edition of The Velveteen Rabbit (it astounds me that this wonderful book is over 100 years old; my version is a reprint from 1991)
  • through a recommendation by James McNeil Whistler, Nicholson began to illustrate for the publisher Willian Heinemann; he produced five works: An Alphabet, An Almanac of Twelve Sports, Twelve Portraits, London Types and The Square Book of Animals.

One last vignette, and a bit of Canadian content to wrap up this story of an illustrator who so captured my interest: in 2018, one of Nicholson’s paintings was discovered in the storage vaults of the Canadian War Museum (CWM) in Ottawa. It was entitled Canadian Headquarters Staff and takes as its backdrop the destruction suffered by the town of Ypres, Belgium, where so many young Canadian soldiers died in the First World War. Here is the news item (Randy Boswell, Can West News Service), heralding the discovery. As the story goes, the 100-year old painting was never completed and never shown, but “rescued from oblivion” and now heralded as a “masterpiece”.

The portrait is described in the CWM catalogue as follows:

“This painting .. depicts five Canadian generals and one major of the First World War standing unposed in front of a mural of the bombed Ypres Cathedral and Cloth Hall. This unfinished painting originally commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook was quickly forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the vaults of the Canadian War Museum and later hailed as Nicholson’s finest work. Nicholson captured the officers in the moments before they sat for an official portrait. Unconventional for the officers’ less than heroic stance, it has been argued that Nicholson may have viewed his subjects with a measure of cynicism, possibly influenced by the death of his own son in the First World War.”

My interest in art, whetted in Washington, increased exponentially over time. I’ll have more detail on this evolution in the days to come.

Cover Photo: Beef-eater, the Tower, London Types, 1898. Photographer: Chris Watts