Fallen Humanity Offends Council

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Text © Bob Davenport, from the September 2012 William Roberts Society Newsletter

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden, c.1926
Oil on canvas, 40.6 cm x 50.8 cm

One of the works in Tate Britain's 2012–13 William Roberts display was a study for his painting The Garden of Eden. When the painting was shown in a London Artists' Association exhibition in New Bond Street in June 1929 The Times described it as 'touching in its observation of fallen humanity. The disapproving deer is a comment of genius.' [1] But the picture had earlier generated a rather different reaction.

In 1928, under the title Adam and Eve, it was part of an LAA exhibition that opened at the municipal art gallery in Southport on 14 January and on the same day was reviewed by the Southport Visiter. Three works by WR received particular praise; Adam and Eve was not mentioned.

On 20 January a mayoral reception was held in the municipal buildings, and refreshments were served in the art gallery. According to the Southport Journal, 'throughout the evening small crowds of guests looked puzzled at some of the problem pictures, and the names given were entertaining if not illuminating'. [2] Although, as the Visiter noted, the 'regular patrons' of the gallery seem to have had no objection to Adam and Eve, [3] the chairman of the Libraries and Arts Committee was subsequently asked to have it withdrawn from show, and at a committee meeting on the 23rd a majority agreed to this. [4]

In London the Evening News and the Evening Standard reported this decision [5], and the Manchester Guardian commented that 'how a town councillor can find any sensuousness, any fleshly school of painting in the art of William Roberts ["the least realistic of all our notable painters"] beats comprehension.' [6] Worried about Southport being seen as 'a population of Mrs. Grundys', the Journal thought that, especially 'in these days when every daily newspaper gives us pictorial advertisements of big drapery stores that leave very little to the imagination', it would have been 'better to leave it to the public's own judgment' rather than withdraw the picture. [7]

A speaker at a meeting of the Southport Trades Council and Labour Party thought the town was 'made ridiculous' by the council's action and suggested that the Education Committee might like to have a 'nice little heresy hunt' if it found that the theory of evolution was being taught in local schools. But another speaker felt the Labour Party had 'something better to do than fritter away its time making itself look ridiculous on such a piffling subject', and that seemed to end the discussion. [8]

On the 28th the Visiter carried a letter deploring 'an unexampled bowing down to an outburst of excessive prudish "refanement"' but suggesting that London galleries be contacted urgently to 'see to it that all nude statuary may be fittingly draped, and all studies of the "fleshly school of painting" may be veiled, so as not to offend the tender susceptibilities of our super-sensitive citizens', some of whom might be visiting the capital on a rail excursion advertised for that very day. But that was apparently the only letter published for or against the council's decision, and there things seemed to rest as far as Southport was concerned.

However, the catalogue of Roberts's 1965 Arts Council retrospective states that The Garden of Eden was rejected from the Twenty-eighth Annual International Exhibition of Painting at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, in late 1929, 'on the grounds that American taste was not yet ready for such pictures' [9] – it apparently did not even make it past the selection committee, for it does not appear in the exhibition's catalogue. It is now in the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art.


[1] The Times, 18 June 1929.
[2] Southport Journal, 27 January 1928.
[3] Southport Visiter, 28 January 1928.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Evening Standard and Evening News (London), 25 January 1928.
[6] Manchester Guardian, 26 January 1928.
[7] Southport Journal, 27 January 1928.
[8] Southport Visiter, 28 January 1928.
[9] William Roberts ARA: Retrospective Exhibition (London: Arts Council, 1965), p. 13 (no. 32).

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