• 9 December 2016
  • 12:30 – 2:00 pm
  • Seminar Room, Paul Mellon Centre

In 1888 the owner of the Grosvenor Gallery, London, Sir Coutts Lindsay capitalised on the burgeoning international popularity of pastel by hosting a show dedicated solely to contemporary works in this medium. The exhibition was seen as a unique and original enterprise by British art audiences. Indeed, a reviewer from The Graphic noted that, ‘the art of drawing in pastel or coloured crayon has been so little cultivated in this country that the exhibition just opened…will, to untravelled Englishmen, have the charm of novelty.’ However, this assessment was not entirely accurate as there had been a number of opportunities for artists both to view and display pastels in the decade prior to this show. Significantly, pieces had been exhibited by a variety of artists at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and in a host of art dealers' shows. This raises several questions about why knowledge of the medium and its uses appeared to be so limited. I believe that the answer has its origins in the difficulty of defining what is meant by a pastel and its transitional status, existing as it does, somewhere between line and colour, drawing and painting, sketch and finished piece. Thus, in this paper, I shall seek to examine how the material ambiguity of pastel affected its promotion as a serious art form capable of producing technically significant works. This will involve a consideration of how inherent prejudices towards the medium were compounded by the way in which it was displayed in a range of different art institutions at this period. I shall also discuss how the Grosvenor Gallery helped to challenge these ideas and transform the reputation of the medium over the course of three consecutive pastel exhibitions held between 1888 and 1890. My aim is to gauge the ways in which these shows succeeded in providing an essential forum for those artists who valued the peculiar qualities of pastel as a means to challenge artistic tradition and create distinctly innovative artworks.

Image credit: James Guthrie, Causerie, 1892, pastel, 50.5 x 57cm. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2016

About the speaker

  • Freya Spoor is in the final year of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh which focuses on the revival of the pastel medium in late nineteenth century Britain. In particular, she examines the use of pastel by artists George Clausen (1852-1944), James Guthrie (1859-1930), William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900) and Elizabeth Armstrong (1859-1912).

    She has been a History of Art tutor at the University of Edinburgh for two years. She is a co- convenor of the nineteenth century research seminar series which is an interdisciplinary forum for postgraduate and early career researchers to present on their research. Recently, she has co-curated a display of late nineteenth century pastels from the collection at the Scottish National Gallery.