In the early 1900s, an increasing number of works by British artists were shown at the Venice Biennale, some of whom were presented with gold medals. This growing presence of British art at the biennial led to the opening of a separate exhibition space in 1909 called the British Pavilion.
With the turn of the century came another successful year for British artists at the Venice Biennale. In 1901, 36 British artists were chosen to exhibit, including George Clausen and Frank Brangwyn, both of whom have works in the British Council Collection.
Works by English painter Sir Alfred East and Scottish painter E.A. Walton were purchased for the International Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna) in Venice.
For a short period between 1903 and 1907, the Venice Biennale awarded gold medals to the most acclaimed artists on display, and in 1903, the Irish painter John Lavery received one for his work.
Part of the Biennale exhibition was dedicated to modern portraits and included works by Lavery, Whistler, and Hubert von Herkomer. Among the 38 British artists exhibiting that year was the painter and printmaker Walter Richard Sickert, a pupil and assistant of Whistler (who had been commended in the first Biennale of 1895), and a highly influential figure in British avant-garde painting.
British art was going from strength to strength. At the Venice Biennale there was now a room in the main exhibition dedicated to British art called the 'English Room', and the Biennale authorities for the first time invited three British artists to be its commissioners and to select the artworks: artists Walter Crane and Alfred East, and the sculptor George Frampton.
They chose 58 British artists to present work, both in the English Room and in other parts of the Biennale exhibition, including British Council Collection artists Frank Short, Francis Derwent Wood, Sydney Lee and Sir William Nicholson (the father of the celebrated abstract 20th century painter Ben Nicholson).
The artist-craftsman Frank Brangwyn designed the English Room and was awarded a gold medal for the four panels he painted for it. Another great honour was given this year as Alfred East was was made president of the Venice Biennale's overall Jury, meaning he also judged the Italian and international exhibitions.
Take a look at the exhibition in 1907 and the new British Pavilion in 1909:
Artist Frank Brangwyn was heavily involved in the Biennale in 1907. For the second time, he decorated the walls of the English Room as well as being the commissioner who chose its artworks. His designs included murals of Venetian serenaders, commerce, steelworkers and agricultural labourers. Brangwyn also served on the Venice Biennale Jury and was awarded a gold medal.
American-born artist John Singer Sargent was also awarded a medal for the painting he showed that year. Part of New English Art Club (NEAC), a group of artists founded in London in 1886 who embraced impressionism, he showed works at the Biennale along with fellow members, such as George Clausen, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert.
The Venice Biennale’s Secretary General Antonio Fradeletto was very supportive of plans for a British Pavilion, which had been proposed by a small committee of British art enthusiasts who wanted to showcase the best artwork from the UK. This committee would be responsible for organising its exhibitions and finding the funds to pay for it.
The first Committee was comprised of: Earl of Plymouth (Chairman), Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (Vice-Chairman), Thomas Lane Devitt, Sam Wilson, Robert Alfred Workman, Marcus Bourne Huish (Treasurer) and Paul George Konody (Secretary).
Time was scarce, with only a few months until the 8th Venice Biennale exhibition, and so Fradeletto offered the Committee an existing building situated in the Giardini parkland area. This neo-classical building, constructed as a café-restaurant in 1887 by Enrico Trevisanato, the chief engineer of the local municipality (Comune of Venice), was purchased for £3,000 and was leased to the Committee for a nominal rent of ten shillings a year.
British architect E. A. Rickards managed the conversion of the café-restaurant into what became known as the British Pavilion. He made modest alterations to the building in order to create more exhibition space and a marble tablet inscribed with 'GRAN BRETAGNA' was fixed over the entrance. Ever since, the pavilion layout has remained the same, comprising a large central room flanked with five smaller galleries.
The British Pavilion opened on 22 April 1909 alongside two other new pavilions, those of Hungary and Bavaria (renamed the German Pavilion from 1912).
In 1909, an unprecedented 110 British artists presented work at the British Pavilion and within the Biennale’s International Rooms. Artists Frank Brangwyn, Grosvenor Thomas and Sir George Frampton formed the Artistic Sub-Committee who chose which artists to showcase. Thomas also hung the works and Brangwyn's designs, including the benches he has created for the English Room, decorated the interior of the Pavilion.
You can read Britain at the Venice Biennale 1895-1995. Published by the British Council, 1995. Edited by Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot.
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