Posted: 2nd June 2020
This group portrait in pastel by John Byam Shaw celebrates bourgeois family life at the turn of the 20th century. I chose it because I’d like to look more closely at the human and spatial relationships within the picture, and also because Byam Shaw died tragically young in 1919 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. It seems fitting to pay tribute to the work of an artist struck down in his prime at this time when the world is experiencing another catastrophic pandemic.
The title, ‘My Wife, My Bairns and My Wee Dog, John’, points to the identity of the sitters, though not all of the people portrayed are acknowledged. In the centre of the main group is the artist’s wife, dressed fashionably in sky blue. She is accompanied by their three small children, each with a toy in hand. Completing the group are the family’s two house maids’. One of these young women, the children’s nurse, is holding the baby. The artist himself is also present, reflected in the gilt-framed mirror right of centre. He is the sole adult male, his head partly in shadow and surrounded by wafts of smoke as he observes from a distance.
Shaw was a painter, illustrator and designer. His technical and stylistic approach, use of colour and penchant for allegorical and medieval subjects, reveal his indebtedness to the Pre-Raphaelites, who were at their height almost half a century earlier. In this, his most autobiographical work, however, he turns his eye to aspects of modern life, restricting his gaze to his immediate social milieu.
This window onto an Edwardian nursery is about as far as you can get from a casual snapshot of children at play. Instead Shaw has carefully constructed a tableau in which the women join the children in a make-believe carriage pulled by the dappled toy horse. With precision and artifice, he conducts the poses of each, positioning them to achieve a strong diagonal axis from top left to bottom right were the dog, standing on its hind legs, faces them. The interplay of the pastel blues and greys of the costumes against the muted dark background, further emphasises the grouping of figures, dividing the picture space into two sections: the populated left side, which features the human interest story, and the emptier right side where a dialogue between the family pet and toy horse unfolds.
Shaw manipulates all these pictorial elements to achieve the desired composition. The reflected self-portrait in the mirror is on a much smaller scale than the foreground figures, and creates an additional space within the picture. This presence also introduces a second face-to-face interaction, this time between the artist and the oldest child seated in the centre, looking outwards to his father. As my eye takes in all these pictorial devices, I begin to wonder how long the sitting would have lasted? And whether the three little ones had to sit again and again in the same pose over many sessions.
The painting provides insights into domestic, social and gender relations, and the aspirations and material comforts of upper-middle class families at this historic moment. Shaw establishes his own identity and status as paterfamilias and artist. He both places himself within the domestic space of the picture, and distances himself from it, and thereby from the feminine space of the nursery, and the duties of running a house and caring for children. His wife, by contrast, is portrayed in her role as mother, central to the smooth running of the household. Her name was Evelyn Pyke-Nott and she too was a professionally trained artist who specialised in miniature painting. There is no hint to her artistic identity in either the painting or the possessive ‘My Wife’ of the title.
Written by Assistant Curator of Art Leonie O’Dwyer.
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