This article was first published in High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the fin de siécle, a special centenary issue of Studio International (Volume 201, Number 1021/1023, 1993) that incorporated the catalogue to the 1993 exhibition High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
By Clive Ashwin
Its influence was felt not only in the UK, but on the continent of Europe, in Scandinavia and in the USA, and virtually all art periodicals founded in the ensuing decades owed some debt to this pioneer of art journalism.
The reaons for its success are not immediately obvious – certainly not from the perspective of a century later. The Studio was not conspicuously radical in outlook, ignoring many of the foremost art trends of the 1890s. The early issues are not ravishingly beautiful objects to see or handle, certainly in comparison with some of the publications which were to fellow, such as Pan (1895-1900) and Ver Sacrum (1898-1903). It was not even particularly about art: most of its content covered aspects of craft, design and architecture.
Its immediate and enduring success can be attributed to the business and editorial acumen of two men: its founder, Charles Holme, and its first editor, Gleeson White. Charles Holme (1848-1923) was born into a family of Derby silk merchants and at the age of 23 extended his business interests to wool in Bradford. Two years later in 1873 he attended a lecture on Eastern art and textiles which fired his interest in Asia and led to trading involvement with Turkestan, India, China and Japan. His passion for Asian artefacts was richly rewarded in terms of financial success. In 1889 he undertook a world tour and was particularly impressed by the art, design and architecture of Japan, which had only recently become accessible to Western visitors and trade, and had become such a potent influence in Europe.
He returned to the UK to become a founder-member of the Japan Society. His enthusiasm for oriental and exotic art did not prevent him from holiding at the same time a passionate commitment to major indigenous currents, such as exemplified in the Arts and Crafts Movement. He bought William Morris’s Red House at Bexleyheath and corresponded with its previous owner, bu this time a revered éminence grise of the British craft and design establishment.
In 1892 at the age of 44 Holme retired from the textile business to devote his time to the founding of The Studio and other publishing ventures. Holme’s forte was as one of those businessmen who, like Conran in our own time, was able to take the pulse of a culture and provide exactly what was wanted at a certain historical moment. He wrote little, and appears not to have had any special literary interest or ability. This was provided by his principal partner in the venture, The Studio’s first editor, Gleeson White.
Joseph Gleeson White (1851-98) does not immediately suggest the credentials of someone who was to revolutionise the world of art journalism. A rather unassuming man in pince-nez and a walrus moustache, White looks like the archetypal Victorian paterfamilias. He was raised the son of a bookseller and stationer in Christchurch, Hampshire, a quiet provinical town far from the turbulent centres of artistic ferment. White was not widely travelled, his principal access to art and culture being through the vicarious medium of the books and periodicals which passed through his father’s business. But he read intensively and widely, thereby equipping himself soon to play a leading role in the art and literary culture of London.
Ironically, White’s provincial upbringing might have been a peculiar strength in his professional formation. In order to achieve and maintain a mass circulation, an art magazine had to speak to the condition of a majority of readers who by definition did not live in the Metropolis or within easy reach of art galleries and fine design and architecture. Under White’s editorial direction The Studio was to bring information and debate on art to small provincial towns and the countryside as well as to the capital, to the amateur, the student and the enthusiast as well as the professional.
White became an accomplished and prolific author, his published work ranging from a wide variety of articles on art, craft and design to substantial volumes on painting, illustration, art criticism and poetry. Perhaps his best known book is English Illustration: The Sixties (1897), which to this day is one of the most useful works on that golden age of book illustration and an invaluable source to the historian of 19th-century graphic art. White’s enthusiasms ranged widely into music and obscure corners such as archaic rhyming forms (on which he was an expert). He was an accomplished performer on the violin and organ. He was also an active designer and graphic artist, with work ranging over furniture design, books covers and illustration, and an active member of the Art Workers’ Guild.
In 1890 White became art editor to the publishers George Bell and Sons, a company which was very active in the area of design and architectural publishing. During the same period he developed contacts with many of the individuals who, through their work and lifestyle, were creating the cultural climate of the fin de siècle. One of these was Frederick Rolfe, perhaps better known as Baron Corvo, who arrived in Christchurch and attached himself to the White household. After an initial warm friendship White and Rolfe became deeply alienated and on such hostile terms that the latter was to satirise White and his family in one of his best-known novels, Hadrian the Seventh.
It was White who, with his extensive knowledge of contemporary art, craft and design, was able to formulate the content of the early Studio and give it a distinctive editorial direction and character. The content was carefully tailored to the preferences and tastes of the middle-class art loveer and amateur. In the field of fine art it studiously avoided two extremes, on the one hand the stale academicism of the Royal Academy and its ageing mentors; and, on the other, the incomprehensible avant-garde represented by late Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. It ignored Cézanne and poured contempt on Gaugin. At the same time it castigated Royal Academicians as ‘a set of men in the enjoyment of a royal grant for the promotion of an art which they make no effort to promote’; and their annual exhibition as ‘toothless old women mumbling sentimentalities’.
The style of painting which The Studio most revered was that to which it accorded the epithet ‘decorative’, that is to say that it conformed to a concept of painting as an accessory to the house beautiful, enriching the man-made environment without presenting the viewer with problems or challenges of an aesthetic, political or psychological nature. Artists which satisfied this criterion are broadly reflected in the list of those most frequently illustrated in its pages. They include Brangwyn, Byam Shaw, Greiffenhagen, La Thangue and Sargent.
Such artists reflected most faithfully The Studio’s founders guiding artistic philosophy. The ideal was more aptly applied in the fields of design, crafts and architecture. Here the magazine acknowledged and respected the founding figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but clearly saw no purpose in promoting their work in its pages. William Morris’s company had been established more than 30 years earlier, and Morris himself, now nearly 60, neither needed nor deserved promotion by a magazine claiming to defend the best in contemporary design.
The designers and architects who best characterise the early Studio were those figures who appeared to carry the torch of design reform forward into the 1890s, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, C. R. Ashbee and C. F. A. Voysey. These younger members of the design reform movement were promoted vigorously by means of publication and discussion of their work, reports of visits and interviews, and, as in Voysey’s case, commissioning them to write about their work and their design philosophy.
So much for the range of content which characterised the early Studio. However, equally important was the graphic personality of the magazine into which it was cast. Here, White played a crucial and determinative part. At the date of its founding there were, broadly speaking, two types of periodical covering art, crafts and design. Art periodicals with a large circulation and a broad readership, like the Magazine of Art, tended predominantly to be illustratd by the medium which dominated mass publishing in the 19th century, namely reproductive wood engraving. Here a drawing or photograph was passed to a professional wood engraver who interpreted the image on wood to the best of his ability. Wood engravers were often highly skilled, but their work tended towards a visual uniformity which placed an interpretative barrier between the reader and the original. The attraction of wood engraving as a medium was that, unlike line engraving or lithography, it could be printed simultaneously with letterpress, and that the blocks (or metal casts made from the wood originals) stood up to the punishingly long runs required by an expanding circulation.
By the 1890s most popular art magazines were complementing the wood engraving with a variety of reproductive techniques, including the occasional intaglio or lithographic plate, a sprinkling of mediocre photomechanical blocks, and various hybrids such as photographic transfers onto wood. However, the reproductive wood engraving continued to be regarded as the staple illustrative form for long-run publications.
Beside the mass circulation tradition in art publishing there were the more specialised, small circulation (and often short-lived) magazines which attempted to offer a superior graphic quality, perhaps regularly binding in intaglio prints, woodcuts’ or other special graphic features. The complexity of such publications, combined with their inevitably high price, normally ensured their early demise.
Gleeson White constructed the graphic character of The Studio on a brilliant middle way between these two extremes. He renounced reproductive wood engraving altogether, adopting as the standard means of illustration the photomechanical process block, by means of which an image was transferred photographically onto a metal block either in line (black and white with no halftones) or in halftone, which would render the intermediate tones found in paintings and photographs. Although other magazines did often bind in illustrations in another reproductive medium, such as an occasional lithograph (usually referred to as ‘supplements’), The Studio was the first visually modern magazine to the extent that it adopted the reproductive medium which would dominate art publishing, indeed publishing in general, for the century to come.
In this connection, an episode in White’s experience played a crucial role. During 1890/91 he spent about a year working in New York, as associate editor of a magazine called The Art Amateur. At this time American process work was significantly more advanced in quality than anything available in the UK, or even in Europe. American block makers and printers had systematically eliminated many of the problems associated with photomechanical reproduction, such as so-called ‘rotten’ blocks, where the etching process had got out of control.
When he returned to London, White was able to identify and demand a better standard of process reproduction than had hitherto been known, enabling The Studio to renounce completely the stale and dated look of the reproductive wood engraving. This, to the contemporary public, astonishing innovation coincided with the presentation in the launch issue of the first significant drawings by a new graphic artist working for photomechanical reproduction – Aubrey Beardsley. In addition to an illustrated feature, Beardsley also provided a striking cover design.
Joseph Pennell, an American graphic artist and a perceptive commentator on graphic art, provided a eulogistic article, pointing out that Beardsley’s drawings represented a perfect union of style and reproductive means. Pehraps even Pennell did not appreciate how far-sighted and prophetic his words were to prove, for in the long history of process reproduction which was to ensue it is arguable that no artist ever excelled Beardsley in the exploitation of the medium.
White probably edited The Studio for a short period of between one and two years, after which his onerous duties at Bell’s forced him to hand over to Holme and his staff. He did, however, continue to write for the magazine both signed articles and contributions as ‘The Lay Figure’. He lived and, ironically, died in the service of art. In 1898, exhausted from his manifold commitments and having had no vacation for five years, he joined a study visit to Italy organised by the Art Workers’ Guild It was here that he contracted typhoid, which took him away in the October of that year.
The Studio remained as a monument to his ability as an editor and author. The magazine was received with more or less universal enthusiasm in Britain, Europe and the USA. The Yorkshire Post described it as ‘this admirable art magazine, in regard to both the number and quality of its illustrations’. Even after a price rise, The Glagow Evening News reported with customary thrift that ‘its pictorial features are themselves worth the shilling charged for the number’. And the New York World warned that ‘American painters who fail to read The Studio not only miss much that is entertaining but are in danger of hopelessly falling behind the band wagon in these “art and craft” days’.
Very little documentation remains which would help us to draw up a profile of The Studio’s readership and circulation. We can, however, infer a great deal from its content and editorial style. We know that it was read by some professionals from the fact that it is mentioned by, for example, Sickert, albeit disparagingly. But White and Holme must have assumed that professional artists and designers would constitute only a small proportion of its readership. It set out to appeal to the growing army of art amateurs, with its advice of art and craft techniques, to the do-it-yourself fraternity with its guidance on aesthetic home improvement, and to students with its competitions and reports on art schools. All of these groups merged with perhaps an even larger public – those who simply wished to feel themselves well informed about art, craft and design in the contemporary world.
Clive Ashwin. ‘The Studio and modernism: a periodical’s progress.’ Studio International Vol, 193 No. 983, Sept. 1976, pp. 103-12.
Clive Ashwin. ‘Graphic imagery: a Victorian revolution.’ Art History Vol. 1, No. 3, Sept. 1978, pp.360-70.
Clive Ashwin. ‘Gleeson White: aesthete and editor.’ Apollo Vol. CVIII, Oct. 1978, pp256-61.
Clive Ashwin. ‘The early Studio and its illustrations.’ Studio International Vol 196, No. 1003, 1983, pp.22-29.
D. J. Gordon. ‘Dilemmas: The Studio in 1893-4.’ Studio International Vol. CLXXV, No. 899, May 1968, pp. 175-83.
Trevor Fawcett and Clive Phillpot (eds). The Art Press. Two Centuries of Art Magazines. The Art Book Company, 1976.