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James Pryde; the Edgar Allan Poe of Painting

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The stage is an image we will return to in this discussion, just as Pryde repeatedly returned to it in his work. Theatre was central to Pryde's cultural life from an early age. His parents were dedicated theatregoers, friends of Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving (Pryde painted portraits of both actors). In 1894, in an attempt to earn a living, Pryde and his brother-in-law, the artist William Nicholson, formed Beggarstaff Brothers, a company of two, collaborating on designs for cheerfully un-gothic posters. They created advertisements for productions of Cinderella, Don Quixote, Becket and Hamlet, not all of which found favour. Colin Campbell suggests that Henry Irving's refusal to consider a poster designed by Beggarstaffs for his 1899 production of Robespierre denied the 'brothers', 'their principal ambition as designers: the creation of a poster for a contemporary drama.'3 The disappointment heralded the death knell of the company.

Pryde didn't limit his theatrical ambitions to paper. Between 1894 and 99 he played small parts in several plays. Ellen Terry's son Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Pryde toured Scotland, described 'Jimmy' as 'one of the best painters who ever lived' and 'one of the biggest hearts on earth'. But Craig had no illusions about Pryde's dramatic ability, 'as an actor he never really existed: but the idea of acting, the idea of the theatre – or rather the smell of the place, meant a lot to him. Yes, I think he got much 'inspiration' from the boards – and the thought and feel of it all, as of a magical place ...'4

Pryde's enthusiasm wasn't confined to the 'legitimate theatre'. He frequented Edinburgh's penny gaffs, small tented booths where playlets and shows were put on by travelling bands of actors and where Pryde could mix with,

Skulking jail-birds; unkempt, barefoot children; big-mouthed robust women, in a sort of uniform of striped flannel petticoat and short tartan shawl among these, a few supervising constables and a dismal sprinkling of mutineers and broken men from higher ranks in society, with some mark of better days on them, like a brand.5

James Pryde embraced bohemianism. William Orpen's oil painting 'The Café Royal, London' (1912) depicts a dapper Pryde bantering with a gypsified Augustus John. But Pryde was also interested in 'ordinary' and marginalised people and things: 'bus drivers, bowler hats, music halls, the man in the street.'6 One of his favourite pubs was The Nell Gwynn where, 'Characters straight out of Dickens abounded and one rubbed shoulders with the seedy side of Bohemian life'.7

portrait of James Pryde by
 Joseph SimpsonHis interest in the underworld found expression in the early 1900s in his Celebrated Criminals or Notable Rascals series, which was followed by Four Famous Criminals (1902). Taken mainly from the Newgate calendar, Pryde's subjects are reminiscent of those of Hogarth and Dickens in their knowing wiliness. The man in the foreground of 'The Derelicts' has like his fellows in 'Notable Rascals' (both 1902) the proud stance of an old world thespian, back straight, chin up, one foot thrust out. It's a pose favoured by today's catwalk models and indeed there's a challenge in the homeless man's posture which compliments the tattered stylishness of his clothes. Pryde's rogues favour 18th century garb, as did the painter, and like their creator some of them sport jauntily angled top hats or bowlers. Pryde was attached to his scoundrels. They can be glimpsed again on the fringes of architectural pieces such as 'The Cinder' (1911) or 'Queen Elizabeth's Bedroom, Cowdray Castle', and there's a roguish aspect to Sir Henry Irving in Pryde's 1906 portrait of the actor, 'Sir Henry Irving as Dubose in 'The Lyons Mail''.

Pryde embarked on what is perhaps his greatest work in 1909 with, 'The Doctor', subtitled, 'No 1 of a series of twelve pictures to be called The Human Comedy'. Pryde's jolly declaration, 'a bed is an important idea. Look what happens on it and how much of our lives we spend on it'8 is at odds with the gothic theatricality of the paintings. At the centre of each is a towering four-poster bed, very possibly inspired by an ornate four poster on display at Holyrood House, Edinburgh and which in Pryde's time was associated with Mary Queen of Scots. The bedchamber in which it stood was,

filled with debris and ancient clutter deliberately misleading visitors into the belief that they saw the chamber exactly as the queen had left it after the fatal stabbing of her Italian secretary David Rizzio.9

The Doctor by James Pryde

A contemporary photograph shows a secret door half-screened by an arras and the ornate bed swathed in rich but tattered fabric. It's easy to imagine how theatrical aspect of the room with its proximity to ancient history, concealed assassins and murder attracted Pryde. 'The Human Comedy' is no straightforward narrative of life. 'The Doctor' refers to a birth, but there is no cheer here. As usual Pryde's colours are sombre, his people dwarfed, their features obscured in the dim interior. The rest of the series (with the exception of the hardly joyful 'The Convalescent') seem concerned with death. Sometimes we suspect that someone huddles between the sheets, but we cannot make them out. The thirteenth and last in the series, 'Death of the Great Bed' (begun around 1929) remained unfinished at Pryde's death. Pryde's bedchambers, with their shattered silks, tumbled bedclothes and ragged headboards anticipate the ruins that dominate his later work. [...]

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3 Colin Campbell, The Beggarstaff Posters: The Work of James Pryde and William Nicholson (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1990) p. 83.

4 Derek Hudson, James Pryde: 1866-1941 (Constable, 1949) p. 37.

5 Robert Louis Stevenson, Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, 'Old Town – The Lands' (Pallas Editions, 2001 (1879)) p. 25.

6 Martin Shaw quoted in Derek Hudson, James Pryde: 1866-1941 (Constable, 1949) p. 47.

7 Martin Shaw quoted in James Pryde (Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1992) p. 22.

8 James Pryde (Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1992) p. 25.

9 Cecilia Powell, Rascals and Ruins; The Romantic Vision of James Pryde (London: The Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation, 2006) p. 21.