Ensor’s teachers

The art journalist Laura Gascoigne wrote in 2007:

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely place for a James Ensor exhibition than the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, the squeaky-clean temple to Edwardian taste in art founded by Viscount Leverhulme on the profits of soap. Among the fragrant creations of Millais, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Waterhouse and co., the dark imaginings of this Belgian proto-Expressionist look like dirty laundry tipped on to a parlour floor.

Well said but lacking discrimination. One of Millais’ most famous early paintings smells of sawdust; Dickens found the figures on Millais’ canvas unspeakably hideous. Holman Hunt’s sacrificial goat in the Dead Sea valley could make the viewer think of fragrant soap – but only in response to the animal’s olfactory notoriety.

‘I feel more English than most of the English artists now slavishly imitating the early Italians,’ Ensor declared in 1900; now here he is holed up with this slavish crew — and to rub it in, one of them fronted his ticket. The exhibition Masquerade: the work of James Ensor (1860–1949)… is on loan to the Lady Lever from the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent in exchange for Holman Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’.

There’s no bite in this because The Scapegoat is neither an imitation of any Italians nor a pretty Victorian vignette. It would also be a stretch to claim that Ensor’s “now” referred to the year 1856, when Hunt’s work was first exhibited, four years before Ensor was born. This doesn’t mean that Ensor was particularly fond of the original pre-Raphaelites. It’s that by 1900, they were gone while their distant epigones were still painting. I’d suggest Edmund Leighton, Evelyn de Morgan, John Collier perhaps, John Waterhouse, possibly.

Ensor was English on his father’s side, but what made him artistically English, in his view, was his affinity with painters active across the Channel in the late 18th and/or the first half of the 19th century. He named Turner, Constable, Crome, Gainsborough, Hogarth, and Rowlandson as his influences. Critics have added Cruikshank and Gillray.

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