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

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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

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