- "Peeps," or "Smatter and Chatter":Late-Victorian Artists Presented as Strand Celebrities
I had not been at the hotel [in Switzerland] two hours before the parson put it [the Strand] into my hands. Certainly every person in the hotel had read it. It is true that some parts have a sickly flavour, perhaps only to us! I heard many remarks such as, "Oh! How interesting!" The rapture was general concerning your house. Such a house could scarcely have been imagined in London.1
Harry How's "Illustrated Interview" with the Royal Academician Luke Fildes in his luxurious studio house in London's Holland Park may have seemed a little "sickly" to Fildes and his brother-in-law Henry Woods, but such publicity was always welcome in an age when celebrity sold paintings. As Julie Codell demonstrates in The Victorian Artist: Artists' Lifewritings in Britain ca. 1870–1910, late nineteenth-century art periodicals played an important role in building and maintaining the public's interest in living artists. The Magazine of Art, for example, ran "Our Living Artists" from 1878, "The Homes of our Artists" from 1881, and "Half-Hours in the Studios," written by the editor Marion Harry Spielmann, from 1887. Visits to the studio—or "peeps," as the Windsor Magazine called them—were an essential element in the formation of British artists' celebrity. Codell describes how Spielmann's studio visits "upheld the academic values of respectability, institutional validation and national superiority."2 Furthermore, these articles offered "evidence … that artists were thoroughly socialised, not alienated and suffering in garrets."3 But as Woods's letter suggests, this work was not limited to art periodicals. The Strand Magazine also played a part in building the celebrity artist, just as it fuelled the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Under the ownership of the entrepreneurial George Newnes, the Strand appealed to a wide middle-class readership [End Page 311] with a mix of features and fiction that, as I will demonstrate, often focused on art. In its first decade (1891–1902) the Strand copied features from the Art Journal and the Magazine of Art while also positioning artists within a broad class of professionals.4 The long-running series "Portraits of Celebrities" and "Illustrated Interviews" focused on lawyers, politicians, writers, actors, philosophers, and philanthropists, as well as artists. Spielmann's values of "respectability, institutional validation and national superiority" are instantly recognisable in the pages of the Strand.
In this essay I examine the Strand's treatment of artists as celebrities. The character of this "sixpenny illustrated monthly with an essentially middle-class circulation" influenced the magazine's choice of artists, style of interviewing, and staff of writers.5 Doyle's biographer Andrew Lycett describes the Strand as "a journal to be savoured as a medium of instruction in the privacy of an aspiring middle-class home rather than perused as instant entertainment on a train en route to work."6 Its "London-ness" was also important, for the Strand functioned as "a self-representational microcosm produced by London's professional class and for London's professional class."7 Thus, the Strand defined celebrities as those possessing "a remarkable level of devotion and determination to excel in their fields" and, of course, a willingness to be "taken up."8 The male artists (very few women were featured) were typically Royal Academicians who belonged to the Athenaeum, the Arts Club, and the Artists' Rifles and lived in Holland Park or St. John's Wood rather than "bohemian" Chelsea.9 Furthermore, none of the writers engaged by the Strand to interview artists were regular contributors to the art periodicals. How, who worked between 1891 and 1896, is the best known now, but L. T. Meade, who interviewed Edward Burne-Jones in 1895, was one of the most successful fiction writers of the time; indeed, her stories in the Strand rivalled Arthur Conan Doyle's for popularity. Another woman novelist, Mrs. Desmond Humphreys, contributed stories about artists under the pseudonym "Rita." Other art contributors included Rudolph de Cordova, who was also an actor and screenwriter, and Frederick Dolman, a London County Councillor. Their skill was in appealing to a "public of cultivated persons."10