The culture of the beach


Bathing hour (L’heure du bain) c.1909 is one of two versions of the same painting made by Emanuel Phillips Fox, the second version entitled The bathing hour 1909. Both versions are close to the same size and are equally finished, thus, it cannot be assumed that one was a study for the other.

However it has been noted that in the earlier version, Fox has been more spontaneous in his handling, and a dark shadow falls across the face of the woman in the foreground. This effect is eliminated in the Queensland Art Gallery version, allowing Fox to add the pleasing detail of the woman’s face which was probably painted entirely within his studio.

Bathing hour depicts a woman drying a naked female child with a towel at a popular beach. The subject is somewhat unusual in some respects. it was far from normal for a female child to be exposed in such a way among polite society in the early 20th century, and equally unusual for her to be tended to by her fashionable mother, rather than by a nanny.

In the following extract, Virginia Spate has suggested that the nakedness of the child, as contrasted with the elaborate and restrictive costumes of the women in the background, hints at the processes of socialisation and constraint.

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E. Phillips Fox, Australia/France 1865-1915 / Bathing hour (L’heure du bain) c.1909 / Oil on canvas / 183.5 x 113.3cm / Purchased 1946 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

This extract by Virginia Spate on Emanuel Phillips Fox’s Bathing hour is from Brought to Light, a publication series on the Queensland Art Gallery’s Australian Art Collection. Brought to Light – Australian Art 1850-1965 is an anthology of commissioned essays on selected works of particular significance and interest.

It is easy to see why Emanuel Phillips Fox’s Bathing hour c.1909 is one of the most popular paintings in the Gallery’s Australian Art Collection: sun sparkling on a golden beach; a pretty woman in a lovely dress tenderly drying a chubby little girl; a tranquil blue sea; children bathing and making sandcastles; elegant ladies and one — rather diminished — gentleman in conversation by the shore; figures dangling their feet over the edge of a rowing boat. It is like a dream of an endless golden childhood; a dream that is vividly real in our memories.

To Australians, it is tempting immediately to associate this work with one of the aspects of Australian culture that is assumed to be essential to life: the culture of the beach; the pleasures of the body bathed by the sun, absorbed by the water… It is, however, a painting of a French beach, and of a culture very different from our own.

Fox had been trained in the academic mode of representing the human figure, learned in an arduous process of drawing from plaster casts and then from the model; students had to master learning to draw before being allowed to paint, compose compositions and use colour.

Fox had, however, also been bitten early by pleinairism, the movement that insisted that pictures be painted outdoors before the ‘motif’. Pleinairism made painters infinitely conscious of the brilliance and changeability of light, and thus led many of them to Impressionism. In an interview in 1913, Fox expressed his sense both of the difference and of the necessary interrelationship between working in nature and in the studio:

‘In art everything must start from the springboard of nature … Not that I condemn painting in the studio. One must go to nature to learn, as before nature one is objective, a servant. But in the studio one paints to express oneself, and must be a master.’

Beach culture was, at this time, highly artificial, and particularly so in the fashionable resorts on the Channel coast where the work was conceived. Bathing was not yet a popular pastime and, as Fox’s paintings show, it was very much the sphere of the upper middle classes — those who could afford holidays, the elegant summer fashions, and the nannies to look after the children. Bathing hour is unusual in showing a fashionable mother tending to her child. At most, they might promenade with their elaborately dressed daughters, as one can see in the background. The beach was a place of display, more relaxed certainly than a city promenade, but nevertheless governed by the rituals of polite society — to which this woman and child evidently belonged.

blog_E Phillips Fox_Bathing hour (detail2)

One can only speculate on why Fox should have painted such a scene. The year before he began painting Bathing hour, he had spent six months in Australia, visiting his family, and delighting in the company of his young nieces and nephews. A photograph of a family picnic on Chelsea beach near Melbourne suggests that the memory of the ‘sunny south’ may have been an inspiration for visiting the resorts on the Channel coast. The photograph indicates forms of recreation more relaxed than the social rituals of the fashionable French resorts, but for all their informality his nieces are still dressed in long skirts.

Paintings of the intimate relationship between mother and child had long been a favourite subject of the impressionists and in the Belle Epoque. Impressionist colour and loose brushwork were appropriated by more formal styles to depict the well-dressed, well-behaved children of the upper classes.

Fox’s Bathing hour suggests a tension between the child’s naked body and the elaborate gowns and parasols of the ladies on the beach. The clothed children represent an intermediate stage of socialisation. Even the loose dress worn by the mother — and perhaps influenced by the ‘natural dress’ campaign of late nineteenth-century Aestheticism — depended on corsets for its long fluid line. One could then interpret Bathing hour as a discourse on the relationship between the natural and the artificial.

The concept of ‘naturalness’ was a loaded one: In Fox’s words:

‘One must go to nature to learn, as before nature one is objective, a servant. But in the studio one paints to express oneself, and must be a master’. It is the painter’s role to master nature — and therefore the feminine.

Fox obviously presents the beach as a place of pure enjoyment in which one can experience the delights of water and sunlight, of lovely clothes, of the joys of childhood. However, the demise of this elegant, leisured world was imminent with the horrors of the First World War which broke out within five years.