If you love being introduced to new faces, observing for the first time a person’s work and enjoy surprises found in it that add to a body of knowledge you thought you had some modest appreciation and control of, then the story of Cayley Robinson should intrigue you.
He was of English descent, but his lifestyle took him to various places for periods of time where he both enjoyed and gained from the culture into which he temporarily settled. Being born in 1862, he was already destined to experience a lifetime filled with change, volatility and no small percentage of disappointment. His full name was Frederick Cayley Robinson and he lived until 1927, choosing as his profession painter and illustrator. As he traveled extensively, he was exposed to Europe’s great art, both its roots found in Florence, as well as its 19th century contemporary driving force, Paris, while also being influenced by the introduction of the Japanese print to Western thinking.
The volatility found in broader society was most profoundly felt in the world of art. From the mid-century on, artists were utilizing a mix of the ancient myths, looking back in themes called Historicism, flourishing through Romanticism, breaking rules in Impressionism, which went into Post-Impressionism, and the myriad branches of Western art that arise out of each attempt to push the envelope of “what is art”.
For Robinson, he found success in treasuring the past, but was most interested in moving away from realism and putting some mystery into his art. As the art world of the mid-19th century moved on, his work moved towards a stylized, mystical representation of scenes that were enigmatic and symbolic. While he enjoyed very good success during his lifetime, he only secured three one-man shows in his career, and was recently (2010) given a showing in London at the National Gallery, with this being a rare museum showing. The National Gallery exhibit was his first museum showing since 1977.
His work, while well-known and loved in his lifetime, has withdrawn to the storage of our minds and museum basements in recent times. At that exhibit, the National Gallery provided context to his own art experiences found in his travels and study by showing alongside Cayley Robinson’s works, National Gallery paintings by Piero della Francesca (The Baptism of Christ, 1450s), Sandro Botticelli (Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius, about 1500) and Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, who was his mentor at the Academie St. Julien in Paris(Summer, before 1873) by his teacher, Puvis.
When I explored those components of his life- travels, study and work- this partial unpacking led me to many questions and a blog, one of my own fun pastimes of late. Thinking back to the brackets of my life, which takes me to last mid-century, then adding another person’s life of that same length to my own birthdate, taking us back to the late 1800s, with only a third person added again to that roll and date to get us to the time just before Robinson was born, I pondered many things about his life that I could not uncover in my research through this one thought. Intriguing, isn’t it, that he could have lived his life and through some happenstance met an individual, perhaps in the 1920s, who, young in the 1920s, could have lived to overlap my own life. Then, this acquaintance of mine could have passed on all he knew of Robinson to me in my young life. Alas, that is not the case. But historical time moves quite quickly when viewed in this context.
I do now have the modern opportunity my younger self did not have, Google, the Worldwide Web and my own accumulated knowledge of art to ask some questions, make some observations and exhibit my own little showing of Robinson’s accomplishments for the small viewing public overlapping my own static/moving spark of inspiration and exposure on MaineMusings. Can we know him better just through viewing his work? By adding all we know together, I would like to speculate a bit and enjoy his work while doing so.
The first speculation: If those ghosts of the past could speak to us, what would they tell us? He was born in Brentford, Middlesex, which is now where the M4 motorway cuts through western London on its way out to Heathrow and beyond to Surrey, roads Mary and I have traveled often. His own childhood would have allowed him to wander the streets near the Thames, in Richmond. Perhaps he wandered through Kew Gardens: did his ghost look over our shoulders as we, too, ambled along those same paths some years ago?
His early studies took him to the St. Johns Wood Art School, located on Elm Tree Road just behind Lords Cricket Grounds. Again, Mary and I trod the streets of St. Johns Wood when we worked at the American School of London where we surely crisscrossed his spirit. There are pubs in the area we visited that he might well have frequented when he was a student in his twenties at the school: perhaps we sat in the same seats. Alas, the school closed in 1951 and the area has now been taken over by individuals who can afford the very rich price tag of a home in St. Johns Wood, home to the Beatles’ Abbey Road Studios.
In Robinson’s early life, one that triggered thoughts of art, what other factors moved his decision-making? In his twenties, rolling into his early thirties, he went to Florence, Paris, Cornwall and Scotland. These are among Mary’s and my favorite spots, too. He stood in front of many of the works of art we love, some of these works barely dried from their completion when Robinson first saw them, others still in their original locations in Florence having lived there for more than three hundred years at that point. The two of us surely shared the same floorspace when making our respective viewings of these fabulous works. What did he think, how did he process the lessons found within each work and how did he incorporate the works of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Raphael and the other giants of the Renaissance that peek through much of his work? He, too, must have gone through his own transformation, like Michelangelo did, while viewing the Brancacci Chapel across the Arno. It was here that Michelangelo earned and received his broken nose. What lifelong attachment was carried by Cayley for him to use in his work?
Again, what happened in Paris when he studied at the Academie St. Julien? This school was avant garde in so many ways:
allowing females to study art, too, often alongside the men as they pursued all manner of radical approaches to art. That Paris at this time was part of the volatility of 19th century life is an understatement of huge proportion. It had suffered immensely during the Franco-Prussian War and the war’s aftermath of the Commune, when competing empires and political beliefs led to sieges, eating rats, escapes by balloon, and executions against the wall of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. While the war and commune were more than a decade in the past of Robinson’s own experience there, his teachers were certainly formed by the world of 1848 to 1872 Paris, which was witnessing so much change. One important influence in his life, Puvis, certainly had an intriguing exposure to France’s world of art and himself influenced it mightily. Could Robinson be in this photo from the early 1880s reflecting some students of the school?
In art, there were radically competing thoughts and approaches. At this time (1870s and 80s), though not very well respected in Paris, were the Impressionists. There was already the English school of Pre-Raphaelites, who in their own way were rebelling against expected conventions taught at the major academies. These schools, influenced by technology that saw photography bring new innovations to culture and brought painters into discussions about its usefulness to their own medium. The St. Julien, like the Wiener Secessionist Movement that will shortly follow this Parisienne school’s lead, influenced so much of what happens throughout the world of art because of its work. Or, by the chemical revolution that brought new colors to the artists’ palettes and the pliable metal tube that contained them that allowed artists to venture out from the studio into plein air. The art world was beginning its wild ride in many directions that continues to this day.
Robinson veered from one to another, will ultimately choose a particular style in much of what he will do. In the discussion about the nature of art, its purpose, what should its subject be, should it be commercially viable, who was its audience and what message should be transmitted through its images, of course, Robinson engaged in all these questions.
He is labeled as a Symbolist. This means that he considered the Pre-Raphaelites, but didn’t agree with their dismissal of genre painting. He loved the Impressionists, but they were too tied to the real world. He loved the Renaissance, but he was pulled often to the mythical elements of its artists and loved to bend the rules of perspective on occasion. The mystical use of coloring he employed took him to the outer fringes of all artists, and he often had one or more of his subjects in his painting confronting the viewer with their gaze out into the present, much as Titian did in the Pesaro Altarpiece. Here Titian brought the future generation of the donor into the present, for all time. What did Robinson want to achieve when he employed this maneuver in his art?
He spent time in Cornwall, with the Newlyn School, but could not completely remain true to their goals of capturing everyday life along the Cornish coast, as, when you look at his work, he will move towards the mysterious in many of his paintings. He even spent two years living on a yacht to capture life at sea and in coastal villages. He taught in Scotland and eventually returned to London to illustrate, paint murals, do commissioned work and exhibit in galleries on his own volition. He died there in 1927.
In his lifetime, with Dickensian perspectives on society found in abundance, wildly gyrating artistic viewpoints offered throughout Europe and America, changing economic and social ideologies offered to governments and citizens either peacefully or violently, and technology’s ever persistent push towards a future that could not easily be resisted, Robinson sought to find his way through this life in his own way. I think he was uneasy with it all as you view his art. I think he appreciated comfort, the past, great skill, fine meals, good friends and a crisp claret served in crystal. That he suffered poor politicians, the failures found in the fast growth of the large cities of Europe, wars of historical proportions and exposure to a pace of change that has only been eclipsed by our recent technological changes since 1990 must have accompanied him in thought as he sipped his wine.
When his most recent exhibition was mounted at the National Gallery in London in 2010, there was every effort made to present his work through a reasoned analysis. Let’s excerpt an article from the Guardian that attempts just this and place each picture next to its analysis. I will add my own thoughts, too….
Cayley Robinson’s art now appears bizarre to the point of baffling, as opposed to quite easily understood. This does not seem to have been the case in his own day (he was born in 1862) when critics praised his timeless idylls and allegories as if they presented no mysteries whatsoever. You can see why, of course: with their cool clear tones and deliberately positioned figures, each carefully contained in outline, every scene looks perfectly lucid. Yet something odd or irrational always threatens the composure.
Three figures stand on the edge of a lake with a flock of sheep (Pastoral, 1923-4). They clearly represent three generations, as echoed by the three generations of sheep. But the child is staring straight out at you as if she wasn’t in an allegory, the dying sun is casting a neon glare on the water so loud it shatters the silence and one of the sheep is about to bump its nose on the gunmetal surface of the lake. In the distance, a windmill pops up as if this cycle of life was taking place somewhere in the Netherlands.
Two women sit in a bare wintry room with a view of the dark city outside. The window opposite is cheerily lit – as in the bright side of the street. It looks a straightforward homily: women without men, perhaps widows, reduced to seamstressing to keep body and soul together. But the sewing machine on the table is so superbly painted in all its black ungainly force that it upstages everything else. A future in surrealism beckons. (In my own contemplation, Robinson has one figure confront you, the viewer, in the future, whenever that might be. Is he unhappy with their options? What judgments are being made about their lives?)
At first it seems as though some of these anomalies are hapless or cack-handed; plenty of effects in art are accidental. But not when one encounters the central works of the show: four vast oil paintings commissioned for the entrance hall of the Middlesex Hospital in London, on the theme of Acts of Mercy, that are fraught with internal tensions.
Two split-screen panels show a procession of orphans, all sad-eyed and identically dressed in blue and white uniforms, winding their way through the orphanage refectory to receive identical bowls of milk. They could be little nuns – or little nurses – in their starched aprons. Calm, clean, orderly, serene: the ideal vision, the ideal conditions, for a hospital.
But one of the orphans breaks the frame, turning to look directly at the viewer. She is all pensive sadness. Nurses at the Middlesex, exhausted and frightened by the spectacle of death on the wards, have reported identifying with this girl as they passed her in the hall. Another orphan droops her head, disconsolate; those queuing on the staircase could be descending into a tomb, so sepulchral is the room with its massive walls. The panel on the left recalls Leonardo’s The Last Supper in its composition: the panel on the right is filled, so to speak, with emptiness – blank wall, bare table, vacant floor. The quality of mercy appears extremely strained.
How to read the tone of these paintings, made between 1915 and 1920 (the hospital’s purpose during this time was to heal, as best it could, the surviving victims of The Great War)? It gets even harder with the next two pictures, which show the hospital itself from the outside. Here the wounded of the First World War are arranged on the steps in their “convalescent blues” – loathed regulation garments – like figures in a Renaissance fresco, except that they are blank-eyed and listless. (We now know these damaged men were going to live a their remaining life woefully unsupported in their attempts to deal with both their physical and psychological wounds…did Cayley understand that as he worked on this commission?)
In the strange balance of this painting, as much weight is given to a patient as to his carpet slippers, and each man is cast as a type. It is an enactment, staged, distanced, almost alien in its ascetic clarity: an empty performance of real life.
It has been suggested that the doctor in the final painting is some sort of self-portrait, though I can’t see it myself. He raises his hand in blessing over a bandaged child and her kneeling mother, as if elevated to secular messiah. Is this sardonic or sincere, this vision of a world in which religion has been usurped by medicine? The meaning remains elusive.
But the bug-eyed gargoyle of a dog in that scene undermines the apparent piety of it all, like the self-possessed cat in the middle of the orphanage. The elements of these paintings are always pulling in opposite directions. You could make an atheist or a pacifist out of Cayley Robinson, you could deduce a contempt for doctors who see themselves as gods, for hospitals as grand as palaces, for a system in which patients are dressed like convicts. But you could never say he was putting politics before the patient’s need for visual calm and clarity.
What do they feel, what do they think? All the answers are frustrated. Why is there a grandiose equestrian statue on the right? Who is the emaciated figure in evening dress? No doubt Cayley Robinson had been looking at Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ – which the National Gallery has introduced into the proceedings as if it were a piece of evidence – but that still silent masterpiece offers no clues for anyone trying to enter into the artist’s thinking.
The look of Cayley Robinson’s paintings, so distinctive, so clear, turns out to be much more than a synthesis of past art. It is precisely what allows subversion to hide in plain sight.
RETURNING TO THE BLOG AND ME: Looking at more of his work in the following section, I will pose some questions for us to consider, which, in their asking allows for bias in the viewer. If you have a few more to add, please comment to add to the discussion if you wish.
In the following painting, called Winter Evening, three females of various ages, one most likely the mother, pass the time. There is obviously an issue consuming the trio and it does not seem as though it will be resolved. The female near the window is also involved with a pamphlet or magazine. They share an uneasy understanding of some recent passing. Why the harp?
another painting with one figure addressing the viewer…what takes precedent in the work’s next moment: the next checkers move, the repose being served, a comment from the seamstress or the comment from the girl looking at us, who seems to have been interrupted by her thoughts by us, just walking into the room?
this painting reflects the artist’s view of the languishing sailor, viewing a huge liner in the distance. Does he bemoan its presence or wish to be on it?