Ever since Europeans colonized the New World, a small but steady stream of creative and adventurous people - painters, writers, inventors, businessmen and Professional Beauties - have headed in the other direction seeking fame, fortune or a refined culture found lacking in their own land.
In a show opening this Friday, the National Portrait Gallery chronicles one group of these expatriates: "Return to Albion: Americans in England 1760-1940." For concoisseurs of high-class British soaps, it's almost "Masterpiece Theater" revisted - with paintings, drawings, clothing and mementos of Henry James, Lady Randolph Churchill, Washington Irving, James Whistler and George Peadbody, to name a few.
This is a fun show with pretty fashions dramatically arranged and paintings well displayed; but the accompanying explanations are printed in a pale, unreadable type, so you may wat to bring a flashlight and magnifying glass.
The exhibit is arranged chronologically, beginning with the originator of the American expatriate movement, Benjamin West, Fresh from his studies with the neoclassic masters in Rome, he burst upon the London art world in 1863. Shunning the fortunes he could have made in portraiture, West pursued the Roman instead: painting epic canvases of heroic events from ancient Greece and Rome. His "Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus" caught the eye of George III, who appointed him "Painter of History to the King."
News of West's fortunes spread back to the colonies, and soon he was surrounded with dozens of young students, many of whom were later to become renowned in the American art field, such as Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull and Charles Leslie. Another painter under West's influence was Robert Fulton, who, finding that he couldn't make a living as an artist, turned inventor - besides the steamship, he is credited with designed the first submarine, never tested.
In each of the chambers, the museum's curators recreated the ambiance of the particular clique. The diplomatic suit worn by Washington Irving when he served as Secretary of Legation hangs beside a portrait of him by Gilbert Stuart Newton. There are paintings and by Irving's friends as well: Washington Allston, Samuel F.B. Morse and actor John Howard Payne, who wrote "Home Sweet Home"; a recording of Joan Sutherland singing it plays in the room.
The most powerful combination of voice and art comes in the chamber recreating the world of Ezra Pound and his discovery, T.S. Elliot. These poets, from a generation that had experienced both The Great War and The Great Depression, shared a belief in pain and suffering as the basic of human existence. Elliot's haunting and lyrical voice reading "The Wasteland," which he wrote in a Swiss sanitorium while recovering from a nervous breakdown, sets the tone for the moody painting of him that Wyndham Lewis completed in 1938 Hard lines, steely grays and harsh blues depict a genteel man, born to succeed but defeated by global conflicts and personal misfortunes. The distant, weary look in the poet's eyes reflects a person who retreats further into his own world.
RETURN TO ALBION - through September 16 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F. Streets NW.