America’s 200-plus-year fascination with the British aristocracy has not wavered. The Wichita Art Museum’s newest installation shows off a collection of English watercolors painted during the era that the critically acclaimed television drama, “Downton Abbey” takes place.
Viewers will see real-life depictions of castles, drawing rooms and turn-of-the-century ocean liners.
“This was a wonderful opportunity for us to draw from our collection,” said Patricia McDonnell, director of the Wichita Art Museum. “One of the castle’s in the collection is nearly a spitting image for Highclere Castle” (depicted in “Downton Abbey”).
Many of the 12 watercolors will have small snapshots from the television series located in the corner of the selection so that viewers can envision how the show fits in with art from the time period.
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“We were thinking of some of the scenes in the television series and showing how they were representing societal issues and how the art was styling the period,” McDonnell said. “There’s even a comparison with the wonderful kitchen maid Daisy.”
A recipient of Golden Globe and Emmy awards, “Downton Abbey” strives to depict the historical elements of the time period, beginning in 1912 and continuing through the 1920s.
This British television series, as seen on PBS in the U.S., re-enacts the cultural clash between the middle class and the aristocracy. During this era, the aristocracy is faced with the challenge of keeping its manor houses.
“People are becoming more and more aware of how important this era is,” said Helen Hundley, professor of British and Russian history at Wichita State University. “This is the beginning of how to handle these economic stresses of this day.”
Hundley references the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and the changing political roles as signposts in the series.
“There’s this change coming. You see this through the technological changes,” Hundley said. “There are changing political roles and new roles for women.”
Hundley said that the television family’s economic ups and downs are historically accurate for many of the gentry of that time.
By seeing firsthand the artwork of the Edwardian Era, one can get a sense of the opulence and the class distinctions.
“They were counting on continuing economic growth,” Hundley said. “After World War I there was no money to invest. A lot of the aristocracy lost their shirts.”
Through these watercolors from the museum’s permanent collection, one can envision a different era. The gilded frames that surround each picture are offset by the deep-blue walls on which they are hanging.
Because of the popularity of the television show, and the innovation of the museum’s staff in pairing the art with the drama, the opening gala quickly sold out.
“This show (“Downton Abbey”) looks at the whole legacy of the landed aristocracy in England,” McDonnell said. “This is an opportunity to pull wonderful watercolors in our collection and have them on view.”