Watching goldfish in the nude: Thomas Benjamin Kennington’s Idlesse

T. B. Kennington, Idlesse, 1888

Is the painting Idlesse by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856–1916) a late Victorian time-bomb, which would have delighted intellectual guru Michel Foucault, author of The History of Sexuality? Or is it an unjustly overlooked, chaste, white masterpiece, a victim of prudery and puritanism in its lack of exposure since its acquisition by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts over a century ago? Just who and what is depicted and what are they doing? ‘Idlesse’, a poetic word for ‘idleness’, offers us a clue in answering this – little or nothing! But why then paint nothing? What were the artist’s aims and objectives? What should our abiding thoughts be in experiencing this beautiful yet challenging painting?

Notice that when referring to the subject, I say ‘they’. This is not through political correctness, but because Kennington deliberately avoids making the idle child gender specific. The figure is probably female but this is not conclusive. They look six or seven years old, and we know from Victorian social history that young boys stopped wearing long hair aged four or five. The headband seems to confirm their femininity, but the length of the hair reveals that this is no Alice in Wonderland. The reclining pose, like a miniaturised frontal version of Diego Velazquez’s famous painting the Rokeby Venus, is consistent with the mood and title – but it could just be an older Cupid! In later Victorian painting, particularly that of the Aesthetic Movement, when ‘art for art’s sake’ was the catch-cry, female figures are usually depicted doing very little, either dreaming or day-dreaming, and this is really no exception. Perhaps the clinching evidence is when we consider Kennington’s wider body of work, particularly his slightly later Idle Hours (1892), in which a smartly dressed young woman dips her fingers into another goldfish bowl.

T. B. Kennington, Idle Hours (The Goldfish Bowl

T. B. Kennington, Idle Hours (a.k.a. The Goldfish Bowl), 1892. Private Collection. © Christie’s Images Limited (1999)

Goldfish in art is a potentially fascinating sub-theme, and the art historian immediately thinks of Henri Matisse, working a generation later than Kennington, in this context. Matisse painted a series of Fauvist still lifes incorporating goldfish in a bowl, the most famous version of which is in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow (1912). The emphasis for both artists is on the relaxed and contemplative nature of goldfish watching. Matisse is well aware of how piquantly the brilliant orange of the fish contrasts with surrounding, subtler pinks and greens – and in Kennington’s case the far more muted and nuanced whites, greys, gold and flesh. Both artists are modern, and Kennington rather more so than has been traditionally recognised. For both of them formal beauty is all that a painting need offer; any involved storyline is a mere distraction. The protagonists don’t need to do, they can just be. Hence also the absence of any allegorical or mythological messages in Kennington, while they are a world away from Matisse.

A credible alternative title for Kennington’s painting might be ‘Study in White and Orange: the Goldfish’, and this would at once link him with the pioneer of art for art’s sake, James Whistler. Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl (1861-62) depicts a figure (Whistler’s mistress, Jo Heffernan), dressed in white, standing on a wolf skin in front of a white curtain. In its compelling whiteness and its avowed subjectlessness, it announced a new genius and a new philosophy to the often stiflingly conservative British art world.

James Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-62.  National Gallery of Art, Washington.  (Wikimedia Commons)

James Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-62. National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

Idlesse, down to the fur rug, is little short of a tribute to Whistler, while the handling of tonal value is second to none. In lesser hands the improbably placed goldfish bowl would spell visual disaster, for fish and painting alike. Although there is no documentation of his friendship with Whistler, Kennington was the Secretary of the progressively inclined New English Art Club between 1886-88, precisely when the Anglo-American was exhibiting there and Idlesse was painted. Another fascinating art historical link is William Stott’s ‘all-white’ Wild Flower (1881), whose sexuality – and hint at tainted innocence –  is far more blatant and which remains far more controversial even today. Stott was a protégé of Whistler but also a close contemporary of Kennington. Both men studied in Paris at the same time during the early 1880s, under the leading academic painters of the time, Stott with Jean-Leon Gérôme, and Kennington with William Adolphe Bouguereau at the Académie Julian. It wouldn’t be fanciful to imagine Kennington cleverly fusing Whistler and Stott in one go, with Idlesse as the outcome.

wild flower compressed for web

William Stott, Wild Flower, 1881. Gallery Oldham.

Can we convincingly draw a veil over the sexuality of Idlesse? Not really; its very ambivalence troubles and tantalises the viewer all the more. In our discussion of sex, we tend to moralise (if we are conservative and religious), or else we rationalise (if we are secular liberals). As Foucault observed, the outcome is ultimately one of repression rather than understanding, and these responses reveal more about ourselves today rather than what Kennington might have intended or indeed how the art public of 1887 might have responded. Tate Britain curator Alison Smith observes that at the time, child nudes in art were ‘regarded as simple and natural’, and were less subject to accusations of vulgarity, or indeed obscenity, ‘than the exacting adult body’.

Thomas Kennington was a prolific, successful and respected painter over nearly forty years, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy. He was also a powerful advocate for artists’ rights as a founding figure of the Imperial Arts League (1909), later the Artists’ League of Great Britain. His other paintings – including excellent examples in Timaru, Christchurch, Bendigo and Adelaide  – reveal a consistent richness of tone, smooth handling of paint and an affecting social conscience. Yet they are altogether more ‘obvious’ than Idlesse in tugging at the heartstrings and eliciting the viewer’s sympathy for children of the urban poor, as their very titles, e.g. Widowed and Fatherless (1885) and The Pinch of Poverty (1891) convey. In contrast, Te Papa’s painting is more enigmatic and daring. It stimulates us not to tell stories but to ask questions.

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