TB Kennington’s Idlesse
Ordinary Meeting of Fellows (Fellows and Guests Only)
Watching Goldfish in the Nude: TB Kennington’s Idlesse
Lecture by Dr Mark Stocker, FSA.
This proposed lecture is about an astonishing late Victorian painting by the significant but still underrated artist T. B. Kennington (1856–1916), which is in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Due to that country’s puritanism, it has rarely been put on public view.
Idlesse was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, when Kennington’s career was on the rise. It is a marked departure from his better known social realist paintings which movingly document the plight of the Victorian poor (though critic Richard Dorment has deemed them ‘poverty porn’). Idlesse is a particularly problematic to viewers today because it depicts a nude child, contemplating a goldfish in a bowl, and lying sensuously but incongruously on a fur rug. Stocker will argue that we are in danger of seeing it in 21st century eyes when in 1887 child nudity was the least controversial aspect of the nude in art. Kennington’s motives were primarily aesthetic – Stocker traced its ancestry from Whistler to William Stott of Oldham and Edward Poynter – and in turn to Matisse’s famous Goldfish in the Hermitage, with which it has more in common than people may think. Stocker will also look at criticism of the work at the time. Is it of a girl, as many people suppose? Inevitably he will compare it, but also differentiate it, from Lewis Carroll’s still more problematic photography. Lastly, thanks to Stocker's blog on the painting, Kennington’s descendants wrote to him and informed him of his tragic family history, with which – without being too determinist – Idlesse can be contextualised.
Stocker's research on this painting will be published in a chapter in a forthcoming book, but this largely excludes Kennington’s family history. In delivering this lecture, Stocker believes he is honouring Te Papa’s mission, which is to risk ‘saying unsafe things in safe places’.
Mark Stocker, PhD, FSA, is Curator, Historical International Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Before his current position, he taught for many years at the universities of Canterbury and Otago. He has over 200 publications to his credit, in such areas as Victorian sculpture and public monuments, New Zealand art and numismatics of the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent publications are (with Phillip Lindley), Tributes to Jean Michel Massing: Towards a Global Art History (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016); and (with Conal McCarthy), Colonial Gothic to Maori Renaissance: Essays in Honour of Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017). He is a frequent contributor to the Burlington Magazine and this visit coincides with his review of Impressionists in England. French Artists in Exile 1870-1904.