Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Eric Forbes-Robertson - Post-Impressionism and Peter Pan

Eric Forbes-Robertson, Great Expectations, 1894
A couple of years ago Northampton Museum and Art Gallery held a small exhibition chosen from their collection of British paintings in the decades before the First World War. I won't say it was a revelation, but it did introduce me to quite a few painters I'd never heard of who I wanted to know more about. Harold Speed was one, who, on investigation, proves to be reasonably well known and well represented in galleries. But the picture that struck me most forcefully is the one above. It  is by Eric Forbes-Robertson, a name that was new to me, dates from 1894 and is called Great Expectations. It was shown in the RA's Post-Impressionism exhibition in 1979, but otherwise seems to rarely leave the vaults.

The chances are that Forbes-Robertson is new to any readers this blog might have too. There are only four oils by him in British public collections, (including one in the Tate), and biographical information about him is scanty (though he does at least have a Wikipedia entry). 

I think, on the evidence of this remarkable painting alone, that he deserves to be better known. Stylistically it is advanced for a British painter at this time; there were other artists working in what I suppose we have to call the Post-Impressionist style (though this has always struck me as being a particularly unhelpful categorisation), but they were a long way from the mainstream. (Roger Fry didn't hold the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in Britain - it was Fry who invented the term, indeed -  until 1910, and even then the paintings were mostly derided by the critics and public.)

The bold colours, simplified forms, slightly odd perspective and implicit drama all mark this picture as out of the ordinary. It seems to hint at a narrative, which remains elusive. Two young women are sitting on the floor of a room with very striking wallpaper (does it suggest rising flames?); one of them is dressed in black, the other has some sort of colourful clothing, possibly oriental. Why are they dressed so noticeably differently? The one on the right is staring intently at a younger boy, who is leaning his elbow on a table which has on it a bowl of fruit and a decanter of wine. The one on the left is either staring into space or at the boy (it's hard to tell in a small scale reproduction).

He has his back to them, his eyes closed as if lost in thought or even prayer, and his right hand raised to his mouth (is he sucking his thumb?). He is impassive, while the two women have expressions not altogether easy to read. The one on the right is perhaps looking at the boy urgently, while the other, in black, looks very gloomy or even malignant. It's all very enigmatic.

And what's the significance of the fruit and wine? And the title? (There's no relation to Dickens' novel that I can see.) Are the great expectations those of the two women, who are waiting to eat and drink? If so, why are they waiting? Are they waiting for his permission? Why would they have to have permission from a child? What is the relationship between them? Is he their brother? The composition throws a lot of emphasis on him, (not only the eyeline of at least one woman, but also the edges of the table and the skirting board all lead to him), and keeps him very separate from the two women. Whatever the answer to the mystery is, perhaps it lies in him.

As I've said, it's hard to find out much about Eric Forbes-Robertson. I've trawled the internet (which I realise doesn't count as original research) and I believe that what follows is the most complete online account of his life in one place (though there's a lot that remains undiscovered). (Maybe there are more comprehensive accounts in print, but I don't have access to an academic library.) In particular, I don't think his acting career and army service have been documented alongside his artistic life before.

Eric Forbes-Robertson (1865-1935) was from a cultured and presumably prosperous background. His father, John Forbes-Robertson (1822-1903), originally from Aberdeen, was a London art and theatre critic and journalist. Eric studied at the Royal Academy from 1883, and first went to France in 1885 where he attended the Academie Julian. He visited Pont-Aven, where Paul Gaugin had been working since 1886, in August 1890. He probably went with his close friend, fellow artist and future co-founder of the Camden Town Group Robert Polhill Bevan (1865-1925), who since his centenary exhibition in 1965 has been very much better known than Forbes-Robertson.

Armand Seguin, Eric Forbes-Robertson Reading, c1892
Armand Seguin, Portrait of Eric Forbes-Robertson, c1892
Forbes-Robertson lived in Pont-Aven until 1894, and was on close terms with other artists such as Armand Seguin (?1869-1903), Paul Peruser (1864-1927) and Charles Filigree (1863-1928), and the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). He knew Gaugin well enough to have his portrait painted by him in 1894 (though I haven't been able to find this picture). He was influenced by them all, and no doubt others too, such as Vuillard, Denis and Bonnard, who were members of the loose Pont-Aven school. Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Synthesism - he absorbed them all. During this period he acquired the nickname John le Celte, in reference to his Scottish ancestry.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, page from sketchbook, c1890, V&A


Eric Forbes-Robertson, Breton Child, 1891
He also became friends with Oscar Wilde, probably via his brothers (about whom more later). A substantial number of letters to and from Wilde and the Forbes-Robertsons are extant, relating to Wilde's American lecture tour of 1882 and his 1883 lectures at the RA, and presumably other topics too.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, Breton Children, Pont-Aven, 1893 (Leicester Art Gallery)

He was the only English artist to contribute to the first issue of Jarry's L'Ymagier in January 1895, and in 1899 to the Mercure de France.
Eric Forbes-Robertson, Adam and Eve, from L'Ymagier, 1895


In 1897 Forbes-Robertson married a Polish art student, Janina Flamm, in Jersey. The bridesmaid was Stanislawa de Karlowska (1876-1952), who was to become a notable artist herself (she's now represented in many British public collections). Bevan met her at the wedding and married her in Warsaw later the same year.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, In the Forest, Pont-Aven, c1895 (Tate Gallery)
Eric Forbes-Robertson, Trois Baigneuses, 1897


Forbes-Robertson returned to England in 1900, but continued to spend time in France. This brings to an end his best documented period as an artist, though he exhibited at the Allied Artists Association, a platform for modernist art, from 1911. Unfortunately, it's hard to find images of his pictures from this late period on the web. This might suggest that his early talent had evaporated by the time he was in his mid 30s, or it might just be bad luck that the wonderful pictures he painted later have all disappeared into private collections.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, Untitled, 1915 - This picture is currently for sale for $500 on rubylane.com
When the First World War broke out he was 49, but determined to fight. Being rather old, and having no military experience, his chances of doing so must have seemed slim, but he lied about his age (possibly with the connivance of the authorities), joined the ranks of the Royal Fusiliers as a corporal and went back to France. I wonder what experiences he had; they must have been very different to his earlier adventures in that country. He must have pleased his superiors, though, because he rose to commissioned rank and served in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant.

Forbes-Roberston had ten brothers and sisters, at least four of whom became well known in their own right. His sister Frances (1866-1956) married Henry Dawes Harrod, and, as Frances Forbes-Robertson Harrod, became a prolific late Victorian and Edwardian novelist, producing for example The Potentate in 1898. Some of her books are still available as print on demand editions, so they must still have a readership.

Three of his brothers, Johnston (1853-1937), Norman (1858-1932), and Ian (1859-1936) became actors (Norman sometimes dropped the 'Robertson' from his stage name). Johnstone was generally agreed, by critics such as Bernard Shaw, to be the finest Hamlet of his time (despite apparently not enjoying acting, feeling that he was temperamentally unsuited to the profession). He made six films, including a silent version of Hamlet in 1913, which survives complete; there are some brief extracts from it on Youtube (see here and here), and, even more excitingly, he recorded some Shakespearean speeches, sounding, it has to be said, very stagey and mannered to modern ears (see here). He was knighted in 1913, being among the first actors to be thus honoured, and wrote an autobiography, which presumably contains more details about Eric. As if all this wasn't enough, he was also an accomplished painter (see here). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the name Forbes-Robertson would have meant (Sir) Johnston to most people.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet

Eric was also an actor. He created the almost silent role of Noodler the pirate in the first production of Peter Pan in 1904, and it was his proud boast that he played this role in every production of the play  for 30 years, until his death. There's a contemporary account of him on stage, as a 'tall, bearded petticoated pirate who waggled his Forbes-Robertson fingers when he danced the hornpipe.' Apparently he would vanish completely when the spring tour was over, only to reappear in time for new rehearsals for the next production.

Programme for Peter Pan at the Palladium. 1932, with Eric ('John Kelt') as Noodler, and his niece as Peter
He acted not under his real name but as John Kelt, obviously a jokey reference to his youthful nickname, and this is why (presumably) earlier accounts of him have overlooked this aspect of his life. We can only guess why he adopted a stage name; perhaps he didn't want to upset Johnstone, who was playing serious roles, by bringing his surname into disrepute by associating it with light entertainment. He (Eric) also acted in eight films, including one talkie, Bucket of Blood, based on the Edgar Allen Poe story 'The Tell-Tale Heart'. As far as I can discover, none of these films survive, though there are some stills from Bucket of Blood on the BFI website.

The four acting Forbes-Robertson brothers between them established a stage dynasty. There are too many of them to list here, but, for example, Johnstone was the father of Jean Forbes-Robertson (1905-1962), and Norman the grandfather of Meriel Forbes (1913-2000), who, as well as being an accomplished actress herself, was the wife of Sir Ralph Richardson. The granddaughter of Johnston (and therefore the great niece of Eric) is Joanna Van Gyseghem, born in 1941 and still acting now (her most recent IMDb credit is from 2009), who is a living link with the painter of the picture which initially triggered this indagation.

Haydn Reynolds Mackey (1881-1979), Les Cabotins: Portrait of Eric Forbes-Robertson, the Actor, with the Artist (detail), 1932



Norman was knocked down and killed by a car in Exeter in September 1932, and, sadly, in March 1935 Eric suffered the same fate (I assume in London). He was sixty-nine. He died a Catholic (whether he was a convert, or whether his family were lifelong Catholics, I've been unable to discover); a requiem mass was said for him in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington, and he's buried in the Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green.

There's a great deal more that I'd like to know about him. I'd particularly like to be able to see the pictures he produced after c1900, though it's possible that his creative energies went mostly into his acting career then. (After all, in the title of the above painting, from near the end of his life,  he is described as an actor, not an artist.) Did he produce any art inspired by the war, or the stage? How did his work develop stylistically? Perhaps one day these questions will be answered, but in the meantime we'll have to be satisfied with his small but remarkable known body of work.