An exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, 8th December, 2016 to 23rd April, 2017


By Roger Brown

Sansom & Company. 119 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-911408-00-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I doubt that the name of Wynford Dewhurst will ring many bells for most visitors to art galleries in Britain. And even in Manchester, which now claims him as one of its own, he probably hasn’t attracted a lot of attention in the past. The City art gallery owns just one of his paintings. And Dewhurst, born Thomas William Smith in Newton Heath in 1864, moved on from Manchester quite early in his career, and never returned permanently to its streets.

To be fair, it isn’t only Manchester that has, until now, overlooked Dewhurst. He played an important part, if perhaps a relatively minor one, in arousing interest in Impressionism in Britain, but browsing through a few books on the subject doesn’t exactly highlight his work. He is referred to, and a couple of his paintings are reproduced in Kenneth McConkey’s British Impressionism (Phaidon, 1989). The 1995 exhibition, Impressionism in Britain, at the Barbican included four Dewhurst paintings, and the catalogue, by Kenneth McConkey, had information about him. A Dewhurst painting was shown in the exhibition, Into the Light: French and British painting from Impressionism to the early 1920s, at the Royal Albert Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, in 2011/12. The catalogue, edited by Sam Smiles, reproduced the canvas in question.

I’m not suggesting that these are the only references to Dewhurst in the past twenty or thirty years, but I suspect that others, if they exist, might not provide any more essential information than is on offer in the books mentioned. It’s also a fact that very little of his work is held by public galleries, and the paintings in private hands are only seen when there are exhibitions like those mentioned above, and the current one in Manchester.

Dewhurst was born into a relatively affluent family, and it was originally intended that he should study and practice law. He had talents as an artist, however, and when he was twenty-seven he decided to make a living as a painter. Like numerous others at the time he headed for Paris, then the focus of attention from many aspiring artists. Once there he fell under the spell of the Impressionists: “my conversion into an enthusiastic Impressionist was short, in fact an instantaneous process”. Dewhurst, described as a “committed Francophile”, remained in France until 1900, and produced “80% of his output there”. He also married a fellow art-student, Antonia von Bulow, a German from an aristocratic family. His work began to be shown at the Paris Salon from 1897.

When he returned to Britain he lived in Buckinghamshire, but frequently visited France to paint. His work was exhibited at the RBA and the New English Art Club (he doesn’t appear in Kenneth McCloskey’s The New English: A History of the New English Art Club, published by the Royal Academy in 2006), and later at the Royal Academy. He also had one-man shows in Paris and London. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 curtailed his trips to France, and probably had a negative effect on his work. Dewhurst seems to have been financially independent, but when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 he suffered serious losses because of his investments in Russian railway bonds which became worthless.

The combination of being cut off from what was essentially his source of inspiration, and his financial setbacks, appears to have affected him, and it’s said that he achieved little of note in the twenty years before his death in 1941. It may also have been true that his dedication to the principles of Impressionism was so deep that, as the movement lost its vitality and originality, he found it difficult to develop any new ideas. His work had begun to reflect some post-Impressionist influences in the years just prior to the First World War, and it’s certainly true that his use of colour had deepened and his lines were clearer. But the paintings were generally quite ordinary.

An important point to note about Dewhurst is his role as a writer about art, and in particular his book, Impressionist Painting, its Genesis and Development, published in 1904. He had previously published articles and reviews in magazines such as The Studio and The Artist, and the book drew on them for its subject-matter. It also proposed the idea that Impressionism was, in its origins, essentially an English invention as seen in the work of artists like Turner, Constable, Bonnington, and Cotman. It certainly invited comment, not least from French artists and critics. They were, naturally enough, sceptical about Dewhurst’s suggestions, even when they accepted that an artist like Turner had anticipated certain Impressionist effects.

Dewhurst’s chief influence was Monet, and in Roger Brown’ words: “He set himself the task of replicating the painting technique of his hero and surprisingly quickly was producing work in the manner of Monet”. Was this necessarily a good thing? Kenneth McConkey reckoned that Dewhurst sometimes went “beyond the ranks of imitator”, but lacked the Frenchman’s “ability to achieve compositional strength”. It may have been the obvious French influences on his work, together with his written advocacies of Impressionism, that caused some British artists and critics to look askance at what Dewhurst was doing. Viewing his paintings now doesn’t bring any surprises, but around 1900 there was still a great deal of hostility towards newer form of French art and literature. It was only a few years since the trial of Oscar Wilde had brought about an outburst of condemnation of the decadence said to be associated with Paris and many aspects of French culture.

As an artist Dewhurst was successful in his day, and his paintings were widely exhibited, not only in London and Paris, but also in Rome, Munich, Berlin, Brussels, and other locations. He was twice selected to be in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He was often praised, though invariably he was linked with Monet, which may have led to him being, in later years, dismissed as simply an imitator of the great man. That, and the fact that he spent so much time talking and writing in   support of the Impressionists, even if he did make claims for them being influenced by British artists, could possibly have been the cause of his own work being overlooked by most art historians and critics. People may well have thought, why look at an imitator when we can look at Monet?

So, how do his paintings strike us now? They seem to be conventional, and probably are in relation to what came after. But when considered as items to be looked at simply for pleasure they can offer a great deal. Dewhurst chose attractive scenes to paint, as when he worked around Les Andelys in Normandy or, nearer home, when he painted in Leighton Buzzard. His work had charm. a word that probably doesn’t crop up much in contemporary art criticism, and many of his pictures are simply good to look at. They are pleasurable, and that’s another word often not used to describe paintings.  The Manchester exhibition has one called Le Déjeuner dans Le Jardin that immediately caught my attention and that I went back to look at more than once. And The Picnic, the painting owned by Manchester and which I know well from seeing it during my many visits to the gallery, is attractive and benefits from being hung alongside other examples of his work.

It’s unlikely that there will be another exhibition of Wynford Dewhurst’s paintings in the near future, so I’d recommend a visit to this one. He doesn’t deserve to be forgotten again.