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Fitzwilliam Museum: Exhibition to reveal rarely seen posters by The Brothers Beggarstaff


By Alex Spencer


Rare posters created by the Brothers Beggarstaff will be seen for the first time in decades at an exhibition in Cambridge.

Kassama Corn Flower poster (8830996)
Kassama Corn Flower poster (8830996)

Inventing an entirely novel technique involving collage and stencilling directly onto huge sheets of plain brown wrapping paper, the painters, William Nicholson, and his brother-in-law, James Pryde, created some of the most innovative and memorable poster images of all time.

Under the name the Brothers Beggarstaff, these works included their celebrated Don Quixote poster for Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre production. Six of these original Beggarstaff poster designs have been loaned by the V&A. The largest of these works on paper – some almost 3m by 2m – have been kept in storage, rolled up and unseen for many years.

The exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, curated by Stephen Calloway, will illustrate for the first time the fascinating ways in which these young artists’ shared love of striking subject matter worked on their wildly differing temperaments to inspire two remarkable careers.

In the 1890s the Beggarstaffs formed a ground-breaking artistic partnership. Both rejected conventional artistic training and began working together as the Brothers Beggarstaff. Now, for the first time, their cutting-edge graphic posters will go on show after decades, alongside their finest individual works as painters, many lent from private collections.

The Brothers Beggarstaff often painted their posters on brown paper (9322949)
The Brothers Beggarstaff often painted their posters on brown paper (9322949)

Initially both Nicholson and Pryde became obsessed with the imagery of legendary rogues, villains and other ‘notable rascals’ of history and literature. This fascination in turn led them both to the depiction of sinister scenes in real or imagined city streets.

In the early years of the 20th century, both Nicholson and Pryde, though no longer as close as in earlier times, were acclaimed as leading modern British painters: Nicholson for the subtlety of his portraits and the naturalism of his still-life and flower studies and landscapes; Pryde for the darker, stage-set quality of his street-scenes and imaginary views of sinister ruins.

Over time Pryde continued to express his more brooding and romantic temperament in depictions of ruined buildings and macabre interiors inspired by recollections of the Old Town in his native Edinburgh.

Pryde - The Death Bed (8830368)
Pryde - The Death Bed (8830368)

Pryde’s greatest artistic projects were two series of pictures: the group of large capricci painted for Dunecht, the house of his Scottish patron Annie, Lady Cowdray, and his ‘Human Comedy’, a sequence of canvases depicting vast four-poster beds and charting the milestones of life – birth, courtship, illness and death – and ending with the
decay and destruction of the great bed itself.

Pride and Nicholson established themselves at the heart of London’s artistic avant-garde and became prominent figures in the bohemian circles that met in draughty studios, down-at-heel pubs or the grand rooms of the Cafe Royal. That vibrant and amusing world is documented in the exhibition through photographs and personal drawings made by the two painters of each other and those made of them by their many artist friends such as William Open, James Gunn and Augustus John.

The free exhibition runs at the Fitzwilliam Museum until August 4.

Image credits:

The Beggarstaff Brothers, ‘Kassama’ Corn Flour, 1894

© Desmond Banks / Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

William Nicholson (with Quatorzains by W.E. Henley), News-boy – The City from London Types, 1898 © Desmond Banks

James Pryde, The Death Bed, 1913 © The Fitzwilliam Museum



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