Philip Wilson Steer, A Summer's Evening

Philip Wilson Steer, A Summer’s Evening

 

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) was an English painter. I have two of his watercolours, bought at auction for very little, in my study; they are pale, thin works, sketches of coastal summer skies, topped by with warm,high clouds. They date from the 1920s and 30s, but Steer’s most famous and appreciated works date exclusively from 1886 to the early 1890s, during which he produced, in oil, some of the greatest British Impressionist pictures. I love the thrillingly intense and natural works he painted in the pretty Suffolk seaside village of Walberswick – Knucklebones with its glorious, happy innocence, the balletic, daring Girls Running and so many others. Perhaps the greatest triumph is A Summer’s Evening from 1887-88. Three naked girls are observed on the beach; the heat stifles; the girls’ insouciance makes the painter invisible; it defies eroticism by asserting purity and love. It is heavenly. In 2005 A Summer’s Evening sold for nearly £1m at auction. These great works are displayed in Tate Britain, and other excellent galleries around the country, and beyond. Sydney Art Gallery has a wonderful painting of Knaresborough. I once visited a private dealer in San Francisco who had a wonderful (if outside the catalogue) work I could have snapped up for less than $100,000 if I’d have been both insane and very wealthy.

 

Knucklebones, Steer as genius

Knucklebones, Steer as genius

Steer’s masterpieces (though many were harshly judged at the time) date from his 20s and early 30s. In 1898 he exhibited at the New English Art Club a large reclining nude called ‘Sleep.’ There is a monochrome plate of the work in Bruce Laughton’s book on Steer, and Laughton makes the comment: “the nude lies on a scarlet robe which throws reflections into flesh the colour of ripe cheese.” It does not sound good, and the reader is relieved the reproduction lacks colour. Steer’s biographer (a friend and admirer, on the whole), DS MacColl declares the painting a mistake: “For Steer can be one of the stupidest of men; he blunders magnificently.” Over the next decades, the blunders become less magnificent; Steer retreats into a kind of safe Englishness. He paints the English landscape. He does it well, but with a heavy sense of duty. The intensity has all gone. Not for Steer the crazed genius of Titian’s late years, his aged hands smearing the paint across canvases as thrillingly, chillingly violent as The Flaying of Maryas. Instead, Steer aims for accuracy, as if it were a virtue. He plods around the beauty spots of England and makes postcards.

 

Sleep, "flesh the colour of ripe cheese."

Sleep, “flesh the colour of ripe cheese.”

As a life, Steer’s seems an abject failure. The intense promise of his early years fizzles into convention and conformity. His talent and energy drain away. He becomes a jobbing painter, tolerated by the establishment, invited to lecture in the conservative academies. He appears to lack ambition, to turn his back on his own genius.

And perhaps that is what makes Steer so appealing – that failing is itself something so human – so touching in its ordinariness – that it is impossible not to admire. Steer is like each of us, when our ambitions fade. The old man Titian, raging against death, is awesomely beyond us; Steer, choosing the safe path, takes his place beside us in our offices and our homes. He puts away the guitar we used to play; he deletes the poems we wrote when we were young; he switches the TV set to the football and away from the subtitled film. He is the best and worst of you and me.

 

In 1931, a dealer calls by Steer’s Thames-side house, uninvited. He explains he wishes to buy ‘masterpieces’ and asks Steer to name his price. According to his biographer, Steer responds as a true Englishman: “‘I don’t paint masterpieces,” said Steer, and shut the door.”

 

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