EA Hornel: From Camera to Canvas at the City Art Centre is the first major Hornel exhibition in over 35 years. This was meant to be on a bigger scale but has been curtailed by Covid restrictions and disruptions. The fact that it has gone ahead anyway is heartening.
Displaying works from his collection at Broughton House and the City Art Centre collection, the exhibition also views his work through a contemporary lens. The interpretive text acknowledges that attitudes, privileges and practices that were commonplace in the 19th Century art world are, as ever when looking at history, less acceptable in the 21st century.
Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) studied art in Edinburgh. He visited Japan in the 1890s and other British colonies of Sri Lanka and also Myanmar in the early 20th Century to experience the ‘novelty’ of different cultures and art – as many artists did. Hornel associated with the Glasgow Boys, a group which became fascinated with the Japanese artistic convention of vertical composition and flat-plane perspective. Hornel brought this influence into his work on returning to Scotland.
Hornel’s interest in photography included studying the poses of young women and girls which he then used in his oil paintings. He also took photos of young local women posing whilst on his travels. He also collected Japanese woodblock prints and shashin – hand-coloured photography made for tourist souvenirs, often depicting beautiful women dressed in Japanese garments and inspired by traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints. A Japanese woman playing a shamisen (c.1921-25) is shown with the original photo by Tamamura Kozaburo that inspired it to show how Hornel transposed from photograph to painting.
Here in the exhibition, you can view items from Hornel’s collection and get a feel (and appreciation) for his particular style of brushstroke, use of vibrant colour and idyllic floral displays wrought from his imagination. His works are known for their subtle sensuality. These idealistic fantasy scenes with realistic details and features came from studying the photographs closely rather than the live model. Here you can get a good idea of how photography contributed to a particularly detailed technique – his depiction of faces and hands with ever more detailed features must have seemed striking at the time.
The exhibition includes oil paintings, sketches, cameras, tools and objects related to the artist, many of which come from Broughton House & Garden in Kirkcudbright where Hornel lived for most of his life – now under the care of NTS. The artist bought the house in 1901 and his purpose-made studio and gallery remained at the house until he died in 1933.
He lived there with his sister Elizabeth who was his assistant and travel companion. She supervised his photographic posing sessions with the young girls at their home. There’s been quite a bit of speculation about his personal interest in posing young women and girls, which sits uncomfortably with the contemporary viewer. However, Hornel was in tune with the aesthetic tastes and fashions of his culture. Indeed images of young girls posing were commercially very popular at the time. He has also been criticised for depicting the ‘exotic’ femininity of the places he visited and without any geographic or anthropological details. Again, this is quite typical of the Western colonialist male gaze at this time in history.
This exhibition makes great effort to highlight the complications of looking at historical British art and images and its context of economic power and colonialism. It also adds a fascinating insight into the processes of making art and images – always inspiring to any creative practice.
To see many more artworks from E A Hornel as well as his extensive photography collection, you can visit Broughton House with its Japanese-themed garden by appointment here.
With grateful thanks to Julie Boyne for this review.