Etaples art colony

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The Etaples art colony consisted of artists working in the Étaples area of northern France at the turn of the 20th century. The colony had its heyday between 1880–1914, after which it was disrupted by World War I. Although broadly international, it was made up mainly of English-speakers from North America, Australasia and the British Isles. While some artists settled in the area, other visitors stayed only a season, or an even shorter time, as they journeyed from art colony to art colony along the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. There was no uniformity of style, although there were several shared interests. While most painters left the town in 1914, artistic activity of varied quality was continued during the war by volunteers, artists in uniform and war artists. With peace, some former residents returned to their homes and the persistence of a small colony attracted a few visitors, although little innovative work now resulted.

First decade[edit]

The market place and Étaples town hall, shortly after the tramway was built in 1900

The first French artists to paint in the area were those particularly associated with open air painting. Charles-François Daubigny retreated there from the outbreak of the Paris Commune in 1871, where he spent his time drawing and executed at least one oil painting of beached boats (Gallery 3). Norman-born Eugène Boudin frequently painted along the Opal Coast and spent long periods in both Étaples and at Berck. Henri Le Sidaner, who was brought up in Dunkirk, spent the years 1885–1894 in the town[citation needed] and represented the area in all seasons.[1] There he was joined between 1887-93 by his childhood friend Eugène Chigot (1860-1923), who shared his interest in atmospheric light and afterwards went to stay in Paris Plage.[2]

In 1887 also, Eugène Vail (1857-1934), moved to Étaples and spent the winter there, lodging with his Irish friend Frank O'Meara, whose letters home give us information about the colony at that time.[citation needed] Amongst the other artists working there were Boudin and Francis Tattegrain, several more Irish, the English Dudley Hardy, the Americans Walter Gay and L. Birge Harrison, and the Australian Eleanor Ritchie, whom Harrison met there and married.[citation needed] While the rest were painting tranquil figures down at the harbour or in the woods, O'Meara describes Vail as ‘painting the deck of a fishing boat in a heavy sea, life-size’.[3] This was "Ready, About!", which won a first-class gold medal in the Paris Salon of 1888. In the following decade, Vail's Norwegian associate Frits Thaulow was to spend some time in Étaples while André Derain stopped there and in Montreuil-sur-mer during the summer of 1909.[4]

The period of Vail's stay was equally profitable for William Gerard Barry, who painted his scene of returning prawn fishers, Retour de la Pèche aux Crevettes, which was also accepted at the 1888 Salon.[citation needed] At the same time, Birge Harrison was completing his painting "The Return of the Mayflower". It was to be awarded a medal at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition and, for its use of an opalescent tone particularly, is seen as a precursor of American Tonalism.[5]

The colony that was in the process of being formed in Étaples and neighbouring villages such as Trépied, a mile away on the south bank of the river Canche, was in reality made up largely of English-speaking expatriates who needed to live cheaply. As Blanche McManus was to comment two decades later in the record of her travels, 'the colony has been formed by buying up, or renting, the fishermen's cottages at nominal prices and turning them into studios. Such is the popularity of art that the native fisher people importune one to be taken on for models with as much insistence as the beggars of Naples appeal to strangers for money.'[6]

Her account is supplemented by Jane Quigley's description of life there published in 1907. 'The usual plan is to live in rooms or studios and eat at the Hotel des Voyageurs or Hotel Joos – unpretentious hostelries with fairly good meals, served in an atmosphere of friendliness and stimulating talk. In winter the place is deserted, except by a group of serious workers who make it their home. Artists pay about twenty-five or thirty francs a week for board and rooms, and studios are cheap. Étaples has been called – and not without reason – a dirty little town, but it is healthy for all that. The artistic sense finds pleasure in its winding cobbled streets and mellow old houses and in the dark-complexioned southern looking people. Models are plentiful and pose well for a small payment, either in the studio or in the picturesque gardens that lie hidden behind the street doors. A great source of interest is the fishing fleet that comes up the estuary of the Canche to the quays where the fisher people and shrimpers live in a colony of their own. There is constant work for the sketch book, especially on Monday, when the boats go off for several days, the whole family helping the men and boys to start. All one can do amid this bewildering movement of boats putting up sail, and people bustling about with provisions, is to make hurried notes and sketches.'[7]

Styles and subjects[edit]

There have been references to l'École d'Étaples in the wake of an exhibition of those who were painting locally between 1880-1914.[8] But while many of them painted out of doors, as was the new fashion in those years, their styles were too diverse to constitute a school. They ranged from the plein-air style of artists' colonies to the south, through Impressionism to Post Impressionism. Among some 200 individuals from three continents, subject matter was obviously varied. However, two broad tendencies can be observed in their work. One is the treatment of light, that recommended itself to those of an Impressionist tendency, such as Boudin and Le Sidaner among the French and Wilson Steer from England. In this connection, we have to thank the journalist and amateur painter Édouard Lévêque for putting into words its quality and giving the coastal area it eventual name. Originally from Amiens, he helped develop Le Touquet as a resort and was editor of its newspaper. The phrase 'Opal Coast' was coined in an article by him in Le journal de Paris-Plage in February 1911. "Is there", he asked, "anything natural that possesses this incessantly changing diversity of colour? Yes, the opal, that precious stone with its milky tones, projecting its series of red and green glints. So let our Côte d'Opale join company with the Côte d'Azur, the Côte d'Emeraude and the Côte d'Argent."

Gallery 1: Light effects

The other tendency among the artists was to follow the Realism of such painters as Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jean-François Millet in their choice of humble everyday subjects – in the case of Étaples, the life of the fisherfolk. There are good examples in the work of the American Louis Paul Dessar, who was in the town between 1886-1901,[9] and the Anglo-Australian Tudor St George Tucker, whose first major painting, "A Picardy Shrimp Fisher", was executed in Étaples.[10] William Gerard Barry's "Time Flies" and Birge Harrison's "The Return of the Mayflower", mentioned above, are works of the same tendency.

One particular focus of attention as a subject was the town's fish market, built in 1872 and now a maritime museum.[11] Examples include "Fish Market, Etaples", shown in 1913 at the annual exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts[12] by Clara S. Haggarty (1871-1958),[13] and two exhibited at the 1907 Royal Academy exhibition in England: the Australian James Peter Quinn's "Fish Market at Étaples", and "A corner of the market, Etaples" by the animal artist Evelyn Harke (fl.1899-1930).[14] Etchings were also made, two of which are singled out in Whitman's Print Collector's Handbook (1918):[15] Nelson Dawson's aquatint "Halles aux poisons" (1911), made after a visit to the town in 1910 and now in Georgetown University,[16] and William Lee Hankey's "Fish Market at Étaples", now in the British Museum.[17] The latter depicts baskets of fish on display in a stone hall with two women seated in the left foreground, bending towards one another as they talk, while men walk past them carrying baskets.

The market outside was equally popular, a subject bringing together folk in their distinctive local dress which was particularly adapted to the kind of saleable genre subjects that many of these artists were producing. It is shown in the oil paintings "Market Day" by the English William Holt Yates Titcomb (see Gallery 2), "Market at Etaples" by the Australian Marie Tuck (1866-1947[18] and "Market Scene at Etaples" by her compatriot Iso Rae (1860-1940).[19] There was also the charcoal and crayon drawing "Le Marché à Etaples" by Hilda Rix (1884-1961), another Australian,[20] and "Market Place, Étaples", a watercolour by the Irish artist Mima Nixon (1861-1939) that was displayed at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1909.[21]

Recently there has been some controversy over the authenticity of artistic portrayal of the life of fisherfolk. Nina Lübbren in particular has argued that the strategies employed in producing a work of art present a false picture and are chiefly aimed at satisfying market preconceptions.[22] But while a good deal that was produced is undeniably formulaic, there is evidence also of a social conscience in the paintings of some artists that is manifested in the depiction of their subjects. Walter Gay's "November" might perhaps be dismissed as merely picturesque, a posed portrayal of a peasant woman at the not particularly arduous task of hoeing her cabbage patch (Gallery 4). But George Clausen's depiction of the back-breaking work of "Gathering Potatoes", painted at nearby Dannes in 1887,[23] reflects concerns that are a constant in his output of the time. It was then too that he began to distance himself from those championing Impressionist effects precisely because drawing attention principally to technique takes it away from any other motivation for choosing the subject portrayed.[24]

Elizabeth Nourse's "Fisher Girl of Picardy" (Gallery 2) is another case of questionable authenticity. Painted on a blustery day in 1889, it shows a girl with her head slightly turned away and gazing out to sea, while her little brother shelters behind her and wipes the tears from his eyes. Elizabeth Nourse's friend Anna Schmidt later described the circumstances: "I was with Elizabeth when she painted that girl on the Etaples Dunes – it was so cold and windy the model used to weep."[25]

The same concern underlies those paintings that show the hazardous nature of the fisherman's work, such as Vail's "Ready, About!" mentioned above, or Max Bohm's "At Sea" (Gallery 3). Academic success, however, now tends to bring the artist's motivation, and so the painting's ultimate aim, into question. Since Eugène Chigot's "Lost at sea" (1891)[26] won a first prize at the Salon when it was exhibited, it might be asked whether the picture is to be viewed as a statement meant to stir the conscience of the urban diner over his fish course or alternatively as artistic exploitation of the subject in order to flatter the viewer into the belief that he has such a conscience.

Gallery 2: Fisher-folk


a) Americans

The painters of two of the colony's nationalities, Americans[27] and Australians,[28] have been the subject of special studies. Among the earliest Americans to visit the town were Walter Gay, who was making a name for himself with Realist subjects at the time, and Robert Reid,[citation needed] whose long career as a painter of young women in outside settings began with portraits of peasants in Étaples before his return to the U.S. in 1889. Another early visitor was Homer Dodge Martin, who was painting on the coast between 1882-6.[citation needed] His work included a topographical view of the harbour (Gallery 3).

In 1889 the Paris-based salon genre painter, Elizabeth Nourse, included the town on her tour. She created paintings there including "Milk Carrier",[29] "Fisher Girl of Picardy", "An Etaples Fair"[30] and "Street Scene".[31] Later on Eanger Couse moved to the town and lived there between 1893-6,[32] painting its streets[33] and fisher folk. His "Coastal Scene, Etaples" is particularly worth noting for its interpretation of light.[34] Myron Barlow (1873–1937) also had a home in Étaples from the late 1890s to his death and specialised particularly in figures in interiors. Among his students there was Norwood Hodge MacGilvary (1874–1949), who studied under him in the years 1904-6.[35]

Max Bohm lived in the area between 1895-1904. Described as a romantic visionary, his heroic depiction of Étaples fishermen, "En Mer" (see Gallery 3), received a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1898. He then moved out of the town to Trépied[36] and while there founded the Société Artistique de Picardie which took over arranging the annual exhibitions of work by local artists started in 1892 by Eugène Chigot.[37] In 1912 the society's president was George Senseney (1874-1943),[38] who was listed as still living in Etaples in a catalogue of works by American etchers the following year.[39]

In 1913 Senseney was succeeded as president by the African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner,[40] who had been driven abroad by prejudice and had settled in Trépied. Early in his career, Tanner painted marine scenes that showed man's struggle with the sea, but by 1895 he was creating mostly religious works. The simple resources at Étaples were well adapted to his subject matter, which in several cases featured Biblical figures in dark interiors.[citation needed] Occasionally Tanner played host at Trépied to a fellow African-American, William Edouard Scott, who painted there off and on between 1910-14.[41] In fact Tanner's son claims that he was largely responsible for establishing the foreign artistic milieu at Etaples, often entertaining up to 100 people at his Trépied summer home.[42]

Also staying in the village during this decade was Max Bohm's friend Chauncey Ryder (1868-1949).[43] As soon as he quitted the farmhouse he was renting in 1907, he was succeeded there by the landscape artist Roy Brown (1879-1956), who was to stay until war broke out in 1914.[44]

Other visitors to the area included the landscapist George W. Picknell (1864–1943)[45] and the maritime artist John "Wichita Bill" Noble (1874–1934),[46] both of whom spent some years in France at that time. Of the other painters of marine subjects associated with the town, Frederick Frary Fursman (1874-1943) spent summers there between 1906-9[47] while Augustus Koopman (1869–1914) kept a studio in Étaples from 1908 and died there in 1914.[48] Yet another visitor was Caleb Arnold Slade (1882-1961), who made annual stays for some seven years until 1915. His "Moonlight at Etaples" looks over the glimmering Canche to the silhouetted buildings of Trépied on the ridge behind[49] and justifies his description as an American Impressionist.

Students were attracted into the area to study with some of these artists. Writing in 1907, Jane Quigley testified of Max Bohm that 'He attracts a following of students by his power as a teacher and the vigorous and sincere personality which exacts good work from all who come under his influence".[7] This was certainly so of the New Zealand artist Samuel Hales (1868-1953), whose painting "La Nuit" was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1897.[50] A later student was the English Jessica Dismorr, who studied with Bohm in 1904 and went on to adopt a Fauvist and then a Vorticist style.

Gallery 3: Boats

b) British colonials

While Bohm taught in Étaples, the Australian artist Rupert Bunny did most of his teaching in Paris. But between 1893–1907 he was a frequent visitor and has left some memorable paintings, among them the atmospheric "Light on the Canche"[51] and "Low tide at Étaples",[52] both dating from 1902, the same year as "Rainy weather at Étaples" (Gallery 1). Among the students that followed him down was his fellow countrywoman Marie Tuck (1866-1947), who paid for her tuition by cleaning out his studio and came to live in Étaples between 1907–14,[53] and Arthur Baker-Clack (1877–1955), another Australian, who settled in Trépied in 1910. While there he painted a local thatched cottage, "Le Chaumine",[54] and "The boat yard" in Étaples in Neo-Impressionist style (Gallery 3).

Some twenty-five antipodean painters, twenty-two Australians and three New Zealanders, are mentioned in Jean-Claude Lesage's study.[55] Among them was E. Phillips Fox, who was connected with several of the French artists' colonies and the plein air style associated with them.[56] Two Australian women are particularly notable: Iso(bel) Rae (1860-1940), who joined the colony in 1890 and exhibited in the Paris Salons, and Emily Hilda Rix (1884-1961), who maintained a studio in Étaples between 1911–14. While there she executed the paintings "An old peasant woman in my garden", later bought by the National Gallery of Victoria,[57] "Picardy Girl" (1913)[58] and the pastel drawing "There is a Dear Old Fairy Godmother who Poses for Us".[59] There were also New Zealand women artists painting together during this time, including Frances Hodgkins, Grace Joel (1865–1924) and Constance Jenkins (1883–1961).[60]

Another New Zealand visitor was Eric Spencer Macky (1880-1958), who went on to make a career for himself in the United States.[61] Macky had arrived with his Canadian friend A. Y. Jackson and they took a studio together between May–December 1908. Jackson painted his "Paysage embrumée" then and, rather to his surprise, it was accepted by the Paris Salon.[62] Returning in 1912, he stayed in Trépied and painted with Arthur Baker-Clack. From this period date the Neo-Impressionist "Sand dunes at Cucq"[63] and "Autumn in Picardy",[64] which was bought by the National Gallery of Canada the following year. He was next to see Étaples in 1916, when taken to the hospital there after being wounded in World War I.[65] A fellow Canadian painting in the town was the Welsh-born Robert Harris, who followed the Impressionist fascination with railway architecture and made the railway bridge over the Canche one of his subjects in 1911.[66]

Gallery 4: Exteriors

c) British and Irish

The only considerable English painter connected with Étaples was Philip Wilson Steer, who spent some time there in 1887. His misty Impressionist style is striking in such paintings as "The Beach" (Gallery 4) and "Fisher Children".[67] Another work for which he certainly made a preliminary study while there, "The Bridge", is now considered to have been painted in Walberswick, the English estuary town to which he next moved.[68] Other painters are mainly of topographical interest. Dudley Hardy (1866–1922) captured an evening effect in a watercolour of 1888, looking from the south side of the Canche and showing the windmills that dominated the town at that period.[69] Nora Cundell (1889-1948) takes us into the back parlour of the Cafe Loos, through the doorway of which one can see a few artist types at table.[70]

One English artist who visited the area over many years from 1904 onwards was William Lee Hankey. Eventually he was to have a house built in Le Touquet and maintain a studio at Étaples. His paintings include land- and seascapes such as "The Harbour",[71] and figure studies like "Mother and Child"[72] and "The Goose Girl".[73] But it was his black and white and coloured etchings of the people of the town, several developed from these paintings,[74] which gained him a reputation as 'one of the most gifted of the figurative printmakers working in original drypoint during the first thirty years of the 20th century'.[75] Several other makers of fine colour prints also stayed in Étaples, including the marine painter Nelson Dawson, four of whose prints resulting from his visit in 1910 are in the collection of his work at Georgetown University,[76] and the pioneer of Japanese-style woodblock printing, Frank Morley-Fletcher, who pictured the road from Trépied in 1910 (Gallery 5).

Among the Scots, three of the four Post-Impressionist painters known as the Scottish Colourists worked in the area. The two friends John Duncan Fergusson and Samuel Peploe regularly painted together at Paris Plage[77][78][79][80][81][82][83][84][85][86] between 1904-09 on visits which also included sessions in Étaples.[87][88][89] Leslie Hunter, the other member of this trio, only began to make a name for himself after the works he produced during his visit to Étaples in 1914 identified him too as a colourist. They included paintings of figures on the beach[90][91] and a study of "Fishing boats in the harbour".[92] A rather more permanent resident in the area was the slightly older Scot, Thomas Austen Brown (1857-1924), who was living in the nearby village of Camiers to the north and whose work was characteristically Impressionist.[93] His "Sunshine and Shadow", a view of Étaples through the trees on the south bank of the Canche,[94] is in this style while his "Shrimpers Returning" (Gallery 2) verges on the Neo-Impressionist. Brown was also a notable maker of prints and in 1919 published his Étaples: Pictures, which included 28 tipped-in illustrations, of which ten were in colour.

Gallery 5: Prints

Among those painters known as Irish Impressionists[95] were the peripatetic William Gerard Barry and the short-lived Frank O'Meara, whose early visit to Étaples has already been mentioned. Another of this group was Barry's protégé Harry Scully,[96] who stopped in the town in 1896 but was identified with many other art colonies as well. Sarah Cecilia Harrison, noted for her paintings of children and landscapes, was there in 1890 and her "On the road to Étaples" was exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy the following year.[97] In 1898 Edith Somerville was painting in the town, companioned by her friend Violet Martin. In this case, though, they profited from their stay by conceiving together the stories gathered in Some Experiences of an Irish R. M. (1899).[98] In the following decade Edward Millington Synge (1866-1913) passed some of the winter there and executed "The Thaw, Etaples" (1909), a watercolour of a muddy lane under trees with 'pale yellow sky, purple hills, dull red roof, grey and purple roadway, all obscured by patches of half melted snow’.[99] Also noted for etching, his print of a winter sunset also dates from this stay. The previous year he had married Freda Molony (1869-1924), whose name was mentioned at this period as among those painting in the town and as a successful exhibitor at the Royal Academy.[7] Among her paintings was one of "The Blessing of the Fishing Fleet" at Étaples (1906).[100] Paintings of religious processions were comparatively rare in the colony, but in this case Molony's Impressionist approach, with its photographic cutting off of the action by the frame, can be compared with Iso Rae's Post Impressionist treatment of the "Rogation Sunday" procession some seven years later (Gallery 6).

Gallery 6: Interiors


With the outbreak of war, the artists in the colony scattered elsewhere and the English army eventually turned the dune area at the back of the town into a vast transit camp, which in turn brought air attacks and some devastation to the town. Several hospitals were set up for those wounded in the nearby fighting and, sadly, what was to become a huge military cemetery. Just before he left the area in 1914, William Lee Hankey had time to observe the consequences for ordinary people of the German invasion of France and Belgium. Its result was the particularly striking etching of "The Refugees". He went on to serve with the Artists Rifles from 1915 to 1918 and then returned to his home in France.

Some American artists also hung on for a while. Writing in the New York Times in February 1915, the newly returned Arnold Slade gave an account of the military build-up in the area.[101] He also mentioned how American artists in the town had volunteered for 12-hour shifts feeding troops as they passed through the station. But almost the only artist to stay on in Étaples throughout the war and record the military activity there was Iso Rae. While working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) of the British Red Cross between 1915-1919, she produced about 200 pastel drawings of the army camp and the life of the soldiers there.[102] Made in the limited time she had spare from her duties, they are of great documentary interest but differ in style from her regular work.

Another medical volunteer connected with the camp was the Yorkshireman Fred Lawson (1888–1968),[103] who painted watercolours of the town[104] and surrounding area.[105] There were also a few who painted among those in uniform. William McDougall Anderson (1883–1917) was a Scottish stained glass artist who served as a Lance Corporal and made a few studies while passing through Étaples in October 1916.[106] Serving in the Australian army was Major Edwin Summerhayes. Originally an architect from Perth, Western Australia, he executed several watercolours of war damage in the area (and at the front) in 1917,[107] as well as a view over the Canche to Paris Plage from the notorious training grounds known as the 'bull ring'.[108]

Two war artists were present during the German air raid on Étaples in May 1918 which also targeted the hospitals. Austin Spare, who was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, recorded the scene of devastation left by the raid. A dead British soldier lies amidst hundreds of splintered planks of wood that have come from the damaged wooden huts lining the background of the composition. The arm of another dead man emerges from the debris.[109] J. Hodgson Lobley (1878–1954), also serving in the RAMC at the time, pictured men constructing an underground dug-out which would serve as a shelter.[110] John Lavery, one of the official British war artists, had been prevented by illness from leaving the country during the war but visited Étaples in 1919. Moved by the sight of the war cemetery that was served then only by a few women VADs, before it was officially designated by the War Graves Commission, he painted it in its sandy starkness.[111] He also painted the officers’ convalescent home over the bridge in privileged Le Touquet.[112]

Many soldier poets also passed through the camp at Étaples, among them Wilfred Owen, who commented unfavourably upon it.[113] However, their preoccupation was mainly with the fighting further inland and there are few poems specifically connected with the town. Most of those we know about were from authors later noted for their prose. J.R.R. Tolkien ‘wrote a poem about England’ while passing through on his way to the front in 1915.[114] C.S. Lewis was injured in 1918 and wrote many of the poems in his Spirits in Bondage (1919) while in the Liverpool Merchants Mobile Hospital at Étaples.[115] A longer term resident was Iso Rae's fellow volunteer, Vera Brittain, whose Verses of a V.A.D. (1918)[116] was written while working in the military hospital and drew on her experiences there.[117] Muriel Stuart also devoted a poem to the town in her first collection, which included several references to the war:

'Étaples', a strange, vague word
Spelled on the lips of the guns
Where all that our wild hearts loved
Went through with the regiment once![118]

A few resident artists from the colony came back after the war, among them Myron Barlow, Arthur Baker-Clack[119] and Henry Tanner, who had been working for the American Red Cross in France. In 1923 he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour for his work as an artist – as was Barlow in 1932. Iso Rae moved out of Étaples to Trépied, where she stayed until 1932, with Tanner as a neighbour. But, as the latter's biographer records, 'life at Trépied was never to be what it had been before the war. An artists’ colony still existed...but something was missing. Many of the old crowd did not return and those who did were less in step with the times.'[40] They were no longer at the cutting edge of artistic developments and the majority had preferred to take back what they had learned and renew traditional approaches in their own countries.


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