Remembering the peace before World War One

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If there was an era in history to which you could time-travel in order to warn people of what was to come, which period would that be?

Many people posed with this question may well choose the years leading up to World War One, otherwise known as the Golden Age.

For more than 40 years before 1914, Europe enjoyed a time of prosperity, peace and innovation. The poor were still critically poor, but for the wealthy and upwardly mobile, life was good in many ways.

A little of the feeling and atmosphere of this Downton Abbey-esque Golden Age has now been captured in a new exhibition at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery; just one of a series of events being planned to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

The Golden Age collection on show from the museum’s own stores includes paintings and sculpture dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and will be displayed until March 23.

Works include La Petite Parisienne bronze sculpture, by the famous artist Paul Gauguin; a painting called The Little Rogue, by Edward Samuel Harper; and a depiction of Kew Gardens in London, by Lucien Pissarro.

Jane Seddon, who co-curated the exhibition with Susannah Burningham, said: “In England it’s called the Golden Age, in America, it’s the Gilded Age and in France, the Belle Epoque. It is the period before World War One and, in terms of what is happening, Europe is stable, there is innovation in technology and art and it is an interesting period. It is the rise of the nouveau riche.

“There were people who had money to support arts, science and technology. But there was disparity between the classes. Yet it was the people in the working classes
who provided the fuel for this development.

“It is a really interesting 
period and it is ended by World War One. We can look back in hindsight, but they didn’t know what lay ahead. There was a feeling it would all be ‘over by Christmas’.”

The last painting in the exhibition is Harold Speed’s 1914 work, The Pity Of It, which is the only one on display which hints at the trauma of World War One. Showing a woman’s thoughtful face, it is said to depict the anguish of womanhood upon the outbreak of war.

Jane said: “We chose to end the exhibition on this painting. Speed actually said he wanted to infuse into this picture the feeling of horror that the Great War caused in people. All families were touched by some sort of anguish in the war.”