The second Spring Area Special Interest Day took place on 9 March at the Ark, Turners Hill, when popular TAS lecturer Mary Alexander presented a fascinating seminar on “Edwardian Elegance: Art, High Society and Fashion”. Mary’s uniquely conversational style of delivery invites the audience to bond with the emotions and motivations of the people presented and depicted on screen. Hence the Edwardian figures we were introduced to came to life and were not just outdated portraits of an era long past, absurd and extravagant as well as irrelevant, but in many cases the harbingers of the modernism of fashion, and with it the place of women in society, that gradually took place in the later 19th century and accelerated in the next decade and exploded after the First World War had eroded class rigidity beyond retrieval.

We were treated to numerous caricatures of figures of Edwardian High Society, many as depicted by the international portrait artist John Singer Sargent, whose skills and sometimes subtly critical depictions were instructively explored at some length. Naturally, Edward VII and his mistresses featured prominently, but we also learned of the discrete differences in tailoring, couture and jewellery that separated one level in the multi-layered upper classes from another and applied to all participants in this social elite, whether qualified by ancient aristocratic lineage, by newly acquired family wealth or by convenient foreign marriages. Finally, we learned that the influence of the non-aristocratic American upper classes, supported by great fortunes, on the mores, fashions and liaisons with the British and some other European aristocracies, all already arguably in decline.

Unusually, but pleasingly, Mary brought a number of exhibits from her personal collection of Edwardian fabrics, fashion accessories, postcards and art works. She also made frequent references to a reading list of books and articles on British Edwardian society, ranging from the sycophantic through the objective to the cynical and satirical. This is appended below, but for those who want to print it out, the link is here.

Edwardian Elegance: Art, High Society and Fashion

Autobiographical Memoirs:

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold, 1953

Elinor Glyn, Romantic Adventure, an autobiography, 1936

Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934

Maurice Baring, The Puppet Show of Memory, 1922

Cecil Beaton, The Age of Extravagance, 1956

Frederick Willis, A Book of London Yesterdays,

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians, Penguin Books, 1930

Joe Mordaunt Crook, The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches, John Murray, 199

David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, Macmillan, 1996

Gabriel Badea-Päun, The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance, Thames & Hudson, 2007

Richard Ormond, The Portraits of John Singer Sargent (Vols I-III) Yale University Press, 2007-

Shearer West, Fin de Siecle – Art & Society in an Age of Uncertainty, Bloomsbury, 1993

Jane Abdy and Charlotte Gere, The Souls, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984

Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye, Lucile Ltd: London, Paris, New York and Chicago 1890s – 1930s, V&A Publishing, 2009

Juliet Nicolson, The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911, John Murray, 2006

Alison Adburgham, Shopping in Style: London from the Restoration to Edwardian Elegance, 1979