The ‘Monet’ of Manchester
Manchester-born Wynford Dewhurst’s passion for French impressionism led him to challenge the master at his own game, says Laura Gascoigne
On the evening of 7th July 1904, a special train left the Gare Saint-lazare loaded with 350 British working men returning from a trip to Paris marking the signing of the Entente Cordiale. The organiser of this unlikely junket, which included a meeting with the President of the Republic, a night at the Opéra and a performance by the Comédie Française, was the Manchesterborn artist Wynford Dewhurst (1864– 1941), who stood under a tricolore and gave a parting speech as the train puffed out of the station wreathed in the clouds of steam immortalised in Monet’s famous painting of thirty years earlier. It was just one of many manifestations of fervent Francophilia in the life of the forgotten artist now being celebrated in a new book by Roger Brown, Wynford Dewhurst: Manchester’s Monet (Samson & Company, £20), and an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.
Born plain Thomas William Smith in 1864 in a Manchester suburb, Dewhurst was headed for a career in law until success at placing illustrations in local papers gave him other ideas. At the age of 27 he left to study art in Paris, where, despite resisting the lure of ‘ la vie bohème’ – he later warned students at Manchester School of Art that ‘the wearing of one’s summer wardrobe in winter is no proof of talent’ – he found the work of his professors rather stuffy. (Being a natty dresser, though, he did approve of their immaculate teaching attire of silk hat and fashionable frockcoat, complete with academic insignia in the buttonhole.) On weekdays he focused exclusively on drawing, refusing to sacrifice his innate colour sense to ‘the dark and horrid mess’ which passed for painting in the academies, and at weekends he took off into the country to paint vibrant plein air studies on the lids of chocolate boxes.
An instant convert to impressionism, he became a lifelong evangelist for the faith. After changing his name by deed poll in 1895 to the more arty-sounding Wynford Dewhurst – his mother’s maiden name – and marrying fellow student Antonia von Bulow, he settled in the French countryside near Dieppe and began his mission. ‘Hammer the same nail on the head all the time,’ he later advised aspiring artists, and hammer it he did. While Antonia had children – three in France, three more after the family’s return to England – he applied himself to the imitation of his hero, Monet. The application paid off: within a few years the former Mancunian law student was painting landscapes that were barely distinguishable from the master’s.
His flattery was so sincere that it rose above imitation. As with Turner, another of his heroes, Dewhurst’s real subject was light, one reason why he returned every year to summer in France. As a painter of blistering-hot sun he is almost unrivalled, but he can also conjure the coolest, deepest shade – sometimes in the same picture. Yet under the skin of his sun-drenched landscapes lies Victorian good sense: the ladies with the large sun hats and umbrellas in ‘A Country Walk’ (c 1910) are taking a very British belt-and-braces approach to the blaze of ultraviolet rays.
Artistic homage wasn’t enough for Dewhurst. Stung by the English art establishment’s resistance to impressionism, which it viewed as a threat to national identity, he embarked on a one-man crusade to convert his countrymen to the cause. It began in 1900 with a couple of magazine articles on Claude Monet, followed by two pieces in The Studio which he expanded in 1904 into the book Impressionist Painting, Its Genesis and Development, the first history of the movement written in English. His propaganda campaign was carefully pitched. Calculating that xenophobic resistance would be dissipated if the movement were presented as essentially English, he argued that the so-called French impressionists had learned everything they knew about plein air painting from Constable and most of what they knew about colour from Turner. In the Dewhurst version of modern art history, Pissarro and Monet had experienced a chromatic coup de foudre in front of Turner’s paintings in the National Gallery in 1870. Add to that the revolutionary effect of Constable’s naturalism on the impressionists’ predecessors in the Barbizon School, et voilà: ‘English art received back an idea she had, as it proved, just lent.’
This didn’t go down so well with the French – least of all with Messrs Pissarro and Monet. ‘Mr Dewhurst has a nerve!’ fumed Camille Pissarro after reading the articles in The Studio, while Monet wrote by registered post to protest against the British press’s persistent description of
Dewhurst as his ‘pupil’. But whatever the French impressionists felt about ‘England’s Monet’, as the Daily Express crowned him in 1910, the French authorities saw things differently. They had no problem with an Englishman who had made it his life’s work to promote the French, and in 1908 they awarded him the insignia of ‘Officier d’académie’ of the ‘Ordre des Palmes Académiques’, upgraded four years later to ‘Officier de l’instruction Publique’.
In the end the energies Dewhurst poured into his various causes drained his creative juices; as his youngest son, Claude, later regretted, ‘he thought more, and did more, for the impressionist movement as a whole than he did for himself.’ After the war, during which his ill-fated investments in Russian Railway Bonds were rendered worthless by the Revolution, the family had to downsize from a large house in Tunbridge Wells to a cottage in Hampstead. He went on painting, but his pictures lost their sparkle. He failed to get elected to the Royal Academy in 1920, and his Fine Art Society exhibition of 1926 – bathetically titled Pastels of Chamonix and Elsewhere – was his last. But in his heyday he could set the world aglow, as the pictures twinkling on the walls of Manchester Art Gallery prove. In fact, in a confrontation with his radiant ‘The Old Road, Giverny’ (1896), it’s Pissarro’s misty-grey ‘Rue des Voisins’ (1871) that looks drab and English. On a drizzly December day in Manchester, Dewhurst made me feel I’d come out from under a cloud.
Reviewing his one-man show in Paris in 1911, the critic Arsène Alexandre wrote in Le Figaro: ‘He approached the physical aspects of our impressionist painting so well that his nationality would be difficult for an uninformed viewer to guess. It is rare to meet an Englishman with so little British accent in his artistic expression.’ Speaking French with a perfect accent tends to be regarded as a form of treachery by the English, but Dewhurst painted in perfect French without a qualm. No guesses as to where he would have stood on Brexit. Still, some input from an ‘Officier de l’instruction Publique’ might have benefited both sides.
Wynford Dewhurst in 1937
Above: ‘A Country Walk’ c 1910. Below: ‘The Ferryman’, Les Andelys, 1904