November 15th 2012, in London, South Kensington, the famous auction society Christie’s, during the sale « Victorian & British Impressionist Art », sold for 4.375 GBP an artwork from the British painter George Hyde Pownall (1876 – 1932), called Piccadily Circus, made after 1910.
Georges Hyde Pownall, Piccadily Circus, aft. 1910, oil on wood, private collection
Image Source : Christie’s
If the subject represented by the artist, road junction and pedestrian place situated in Westminster district in London, in the past looked as the center of Britannic Empire, and still nowadays as one of the neuralgic centers of the British capital city, George Hyde Pownall is on the other hand a bit less known by the public, as less the French one. However this artist allowed to immortalize many views of the Londoner rural space at the end of the XIXth century and the beginning of the XXth, before he emigrated to Australia, in 1914.
By interesting us to this artwork, Piccadily Circus, we are going to try to discover an artist. We will of course first have to reconsider this painter and then the picture, what is representing in and what is its meaning. Then, we will get further interest in the manner the artist chose to represent this subject, in what artistic current he is close to, the chosen angle. finally, we will explore the work of the artist, the other representations he made of Piccadily Circus, but also of other views of London, and then how other painters of that period represented London.
Let’s first begin with the artist, George Hyde Pownall. He was born in 1876, in Raddcliffe-on-Trent, in Notthinghamshire County in Great Britain ; we do not know many things about his life or his formation : he married Mary-Blanche Pownall, with whom he had two daugthers, and lived until 1912 in London, in Kensington District (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea), in Cambridge Gardens, a district know for its bourses population, and in which some districts are among the richest of London. So can we assume that the situation of the artist was better-off. Around 1914, he left Great Britain to emigrate in Australia, first in Sydney, then, after 1924, in Melbourne, in St Kilda District. He died there, on January the 24th 1932.
Portrait of George Hyde Pownall
Image Source : Wikipédia
If we actually do not know much about George Hyde Pownall, we better know the subjects this artist liked to represent in his paintings : Londoner streets scenes. Numerous representations of Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Bridge, Tower Bridge or St. Paul cathedral present us London at a time when cars with horses and with motors still cohabited, when electricity had not yet pervaded the streets, gas floor lamps still mostly illuminating the city in this so diffuse and fluet manner.
London, Picadilly Circus, 2008
Image Source : Wikimedia Commons
The subject represented in this small painting (15,8 by 24,2 centimeters), is the famous walking place, Piccadilly Circus, located in the Londoner Westminster District, at the crossroads of four big arteries of West End (Piccadilly, Regent Stree, Glasshouse Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street), crossing the aristocratic district of Mayfaire and the one of West End’s theaters, Soho and Leicester Square. Created in 1819, Piccadilly Circus lost its circular aspect in 1886, when Shaftesbury Square was built. Crossroads with intense traffic, this meeting point of the Londoner society hosted, among other monuments, Criterion theater (at the south), Long Pavillon (at the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street), numerous important shops, which hosted the first lighted advertisings, that functioned with incandescence lamps, in 1920, London Trocadero, great ballroom during Victorian era, and in its center Shaftesbury Memorial fountain, built in 1893, which was originally overcome by an angel of christian’s charity statue, which was after taken off and then moved in the south-west corner of the place.
This painting made by George Hyde Pownall is a picture with small dimensions : 15,8 by 24,2 centimeters. It is paint with oil on a wood panel. In the left lower corner, the artist put his signature : « Geo Hyde » ; in the back of the painting, another inscription : « Piccadilly Circus/Geo Hyde P ».
The view proposed by the artist of the famous Londoner crossroads is taken walking from the street, from the sidewalk of the shop situated at the west of the place. the whole is divided in two grounds : in the foreground, the ground and the passers-by circulating, some cars ; in the second ground, the buildings and big streets which sculpt the place. These two grounds are standing out from each other with Shaftesbury Memorial, which rises in the right center of the painting, its shape emerging in the illuminated facades of the background. Light indeed takes a central place in this composition : represented during the night, the place, its streets and the dark silhouettes of passers-by are enlightened by the brights colors of the big buildings bordering the place. The floor lamp’s light in the left tries with difficulties to compete with all that clarity flowing from these meeting and living places of the Londoner district. It is the end of incandescence light, and the beginning of the era of electric lighting, the end of a century and the start of another.
We notice that the artist tried to represent this neuralgic place of London the most realistic he could, not in the touch but in the atmosphere that comes from it. Indeed, it is directly inherited from Impressionist painting of the second part of the XIXth century : first the format, because those artists liked to use small dimensions’ canvas, in opposition to the gigantic ones of History paintings that were in vogue in that time in academical art. Brushstrokes are also visible, the characters are not represented with details. the subject itself is specific to Impressionism, which the first represented daily life’s scenes, in order to transmit with painting an atmosphere, climatic and luminous phenomenons, instead o the stable and conceptual aspect of things. It is in this way that, we saw it before, the artist choses to represent Piccadilly Circus by night and not by day ; obscurity allows to reveal the agitation and life that is taking over the place by night ; by day, we would probably have seen London’s workers and citizens in their daily occupations, buldings would not have the same importance that they have in George Hyde Pownall’s painting ; by night, modernity is revealed, because it’s in this period that walls dress up electric lights, transforming in this way landscapes of big cities of the beginning of the XXth century. The artist also transmits the Londoner climate, lights’ reflections on the ground showing that it has been raining, in echo to the numerous downpours that rhythm Londoners’ life. Townsmen presence, whose dresses shows a wealthy population, let understand the worldly and festive life which animates this district, until late by night, with theaters bals’ rooms, big shops… All a world before the First World War.
George Hyde Pownall made other representations of Piccadilly Circus, always by night, and most of time from the same place ; each time we can find these populations and cars which animate the place, the famous statue, and those lights illuminating buildings. Always the same small dimensions, painted on wood with oil. In one of these representations, the artist exceptionally chose a raised place, certainly from the windows of a building. But the ambience is the same : night, lights, agitation, and still the statue overhanging the composition.
Georges Hyde Pownall, Picadilly Circus, XXth century, private collection
Image Source : Wikimedia Commons
Geoges Hyde Pownall, Picadilly Circus, XXth century, private collection
Image Source : Artnet
We may notice that in other representations the artist made of other Londoner places, he always privilege nocturnal scenes, or at the edge or the dusk of the day ; sometimes we can find representations in which we don’t know if it is the ay or the night, sky being invaded by fog. Anyway, the light, natural or artificial, has a central place in George Hyde Pownall’s compositions : small stains piercing the darkness, or clusters of light invading a space, sky or building, the light takes, for the British artist, a central place in the Londoner capital city. We can fell the agitation animating it : passers-by, cars, boats… the city seems to be in constant activity, by day and by night.
George Hyde Pownall, Big Ben over Westminster Bridge, XXth century, oil on wood, private collection (?)
Image Source : Londontopia
George Hyde Pownall’s work has often been compared to John Atkinson Grimshaw’s one (1836 – 1893) or James Abbott McNeill Whistelr’s one (1834 – 1903), who also represented views of London. However, if we can find in their compositions those nocturnal visions of London, where light takes a central place, the look of these two artists offers a much calmer atmospher, more silencious, that the one represented by George Hyde Pownall. This one seems to always offer to his public a look on a capital city in full expansion, even by night, a modern and active city, entering in the XXth century with determination.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Whitby Harbor by Moonlight, XIXth century, private collection
Image Source : Wikiart
James Abbott Mcneill Whistler, Nocturne : Blue and Gold – Hold Battersea Bridge, 1872, Tate Britain (London)
Image Source : Tate
This discovery of the British artist, George Hyde Pawnall through his picture, Piccadilly Circus, offers us a particular view of London at dawn of the XXth century : a modern and active city, animated by day and night, in which light takes a central place, of course by night, but also by night, Londoner climate often requiring to enlighten streets in order to pierce the fog or the rain. This climate, specific to London, offers atmospheric effects that the painters tried, and succeeded in, to brong to loght in his paintings, setting on the wood images of the British capitale city in a particular moment with a particular atmosphere, both similarly and differently from a photography.
UPJV – M2 Histoire de l’art