"We lived together... so happily". THE FRIENDSHIP OF MARIA VASILIEVNA YAKUNCHIKOVA, NETTA PEACOCK AND YELENA DMITRIEVNA POLENOVA

Louise Hardiman

Magazine issue: 
#3 2020 (68)

Until about a decade ago, very little was known about Netta Peacock (1864-1938), an English art writer who became involved in Russian art circles at the fin de siecle. Her close friendships with the artists Maria Vasilievna Yakunchikova and Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova in the 1890s led her to begin a campaign to promote knowledge of Russian art and design in western Europe.

Among the many promoters of Russian culture in Victorian England, Peacock was one of the very first to focus on art. Her activities included writing articles for foreign newspapers and art journals, providing support to her friends by arranging contacts in the West and becoming involved in art exhibitions. She travelled to Russia several times and, upon her death, bequeathed an extensive collection of photographs, mainly of Russia, to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Recent research has uncovered new information about Peacock, but she left behind few papers and piecing together a biography remains challenging.[1] Yet her story provides valuable insights into the interests of Yakunchikova and Polenova in English artistic culture and the ways in which aspirations for the progress of women's art transcended borders in the closing years of the 19th century.

Netta Peacock and Maria Yakunchikova in Paris. [1898]
Netta Peacock and Maria Yakunchikova in Paris. [1898]
Photograph © Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery

The melting pot for this transfer of ideas and the place where Peacock and Yakunchikova first met was Paris, a mecca for foreign artists and home to a growing Russian émigré community. Their friendship developed when Peacock's path crossed by chance with that of Yakunchikova, who had been living there since 1889. It was probably in about 1893 that Peacock, who was working as an English teacher, started giving lessons to the children of Aleksandra Vasilievna Golshtein, an influential intellectual who mixed with Symbolist writers and artists. Golshtein's son, Lev (Leon) Nikolaevich Weber, had recently married Yakunchikova and the two families lived in a shared apartment on Avenue Wagram. Soon, Peacock became part of this close-knit circle and would meet other Russian artists, including Polenova and Alexander Golovin.

Peacock had no prior connections to Russia, but within her character was a taste for adventure. Born in Sunderland to a family with maritime roots, she was descended on her father's side from the English mariner Captain William Bligh, famously ousted from his ship in the ‘mutiny on the Bounty’. Her mother was from a prosperous Dutch merchant family, and Peacock grew up surrounded by books in a cosmopolitan, multilingual home. However, despite her middle-class background, she was politically left-leaning and chose a career of activism over marriage. She cared about women's rights, although she is not known to have joined suffrage campaigns. A concern for the less fortunate drew her naturally to the cause of the Russian peasantry - the famine of 1891-1892 was widely reported in Britain. Accordingly, when it came to the arts, her focus turned to women's art, the kustar industry and the revival of peasant art and craft known as the ‘neo-Russian' style. In Yakunchikova, Peacock found an ally; both were educated and privileged, but bold and radical in spirit.

In summer 1895, Yakunchikova visited London. Peacock had probably facilitated the trip and arranged sightseeing for her guest. The artist's feelings about the city are captured in a letter to Polenova, in which she expresses surprise at the contrast with Paris. She wrote that she had visited several “fascinating" museums: “you can draw upon such an infinite number of things that you are simply overwhelmed".[2] Another source of inspiration was the architecture: “Houses here do not need fake decorations, there are no tangled bars of iron on the windows, no pseudo-Renaissance Empire-Rococo fagades, garlands of stucco or stone, or the like. They are just smooth, and, if they are decorated, it is with real, lively, rich creativity."[3] Knowing of Polenova's interest in ceramics, Yakunchikova mentioned pots perched on sills and sketched a few in watercolour: “In all the windows facing out towards a street, there are flower-pots. I brought lots [...] back with me for inspiration."[4]

In London, Peacock's expertise centred on the Arts-and-Crafts movement and she may have drawn her friend's attention to British artists working in these circles. In her letter to Polenova, Yakunchikova also painted the cover of “Baby's Own Aesop" - the children's alphabet primer by Walter Crane; perhaps it was this that inspired her to work on an azbuka (alphabet) of her own some years later.[5] Likewise, her sketch of the interdisciplinary Edinburgh arts journal “The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal" indicates that Yakunchikova wanted to share with Polenova the latest news in contemporary British art.

In Paris, Peacock was learning new things too, as she was beginning to see the importance of the Parisian Symbolist art and literary circles in which Golshtein and Yakunchikova participated. Among those she met was the artist Odilon Redon and she discussed the possibility of placing an article about his work in the English journal “The Studio".[6] Peacock told Golshtein she had advised the editor that “it was quite a disgrace that [Redon's] work was not more known here [in England]".[7] She proposed that they approach the writer Octave Uzanne to interview Redon, “for we, as novices, are quite unfit to do [Redon] justice in a magazine like The Studio".[8] Although this did not happen, a more significant coup for the women - for it was most likely organised by Peacock and Golshtein - was the publication of an article by Uzanne on Yakunchikova.[9] This discussed her recent work in aquatint (eaux fortes) and included four illustrations: “Le Soir" (“Evening"), “L'Effroi" (“Fear"), “Quietude" and an untitled landscape featuring a child playing in a small yard. (The Yakunchikova scholar Mikhail Kiselev has catalogued this as “Derevenskii Dvorik" (“Country Courtyard"), a name evocative of Vasily Polenov's “Moscow Courtyard" (1878).[10])

Not only significant for the inclusion of Yakunchikova's early Symbolist work, such as the emotionally charged “L'Effroi", this article was also one of the first in an English journal to discuss a Russian woman artist. Uzanne made reference to other (male) artists, but only Yakunchikova's prints were reproduced and he praised her highly among contemporary printmakers: “the cleverest are M. Albert Bertrand, M. Eugene Delatre, and his pupil Mlle. Marie Jacounchikoff".[11] The prevailing condescending attitudes toward women are illustrated by his comment that Yakunchikova, “by dint of enthusiastic labor, quite feminine in its ardour [...] has great gifts as a painter", but overall the article was complimentary. Uzanne asserted that Yakunchikova was more talented than her teacher, Delatre, “in her vision of things".[12]

Gaining such positive attention in England for Yakunchikova was consistent with Peacock's strategy to help her friends and promote women's art. She wrote excitedly to Golshtein of her hope that a London museum would buy “Quiétude" and “L'Effroi", as well as a third print - “L’Irréparable" - its title shared with a poem from Charles Baudelaire's 1857 cycle “Les fleurs du mal", revered by Paris Symbolists. She had attended a meeting to make arrangements: “I suppose you know that the South Kensington Museum may buy some of Marie's eaux fortes. I thought Mr. Barthold very nice [...] he has a singularly sweet smile and such refined temples."[13] A successful sale is mentioned in an anonymous press report, possibly by Peacock, which stated that: “An interesting young artist of Russian birth has lately been paying a flying visit to London. This is Mlle. Marie Vassiliovna Jacoun- chikov, who [...] has done work of an exceedingly original character. [...] There is something weird and mystic in all her productions."[14]

Netta Peacock and Maria Yakunchikova at the tea table. Circa 1896
Netta Peacock and Maria Yakunchikova at the tea table. Circa 1896
Photograph. Private collection. © 2019 Louise Hardiman

The following year, Yakunchikova invited Peacock to visit Russia for the first time. There, she was introduced to the Yakunchikov and Polenov families in meetings captured in a handful of surviving photographs. In one, she is pictured among a large group in a salon room in the Yakunchikov house; in another, she enjoys tea at a table carefully positioned in a woodland alley - thought to be at Borok (Polenovo). Writing from Morevo, near Moscow, Peacock shared her first impressions with Golshtein: “although I am not learning the language, I am doing my best to learn all else — very tiring I find the taking in of such crowds of new and foreign impressions — my brain is always at work trying to reconcile apparent inconsistencies, for yours is a land of violent contrasts. I begin to understand a little, but oh! the torture I have gone through before finding a small space of solid ground whereon to stand."[15]

In the winter of 1897-1898, Polenova spent several months in Paris. As Yakunchikova later wrote: “We lived together, she, Netta, Golovin, Mak [Leon Weber] and I, so happily, actively and affably."[16] But behind her optimistic tone lay a more complex picture of relationships, and Peacock's letters hint of rivalries. Polenova and Peacock had become close and when the artist returned to Russia, they began a regular correspondence. “Perhaps we have caught a glimpse of one another's souls", Peacock wrote.[17] She began planning for Polenova to visit Britain and meet leading designers, including Crane. However, she hesitated to tell Yakunchikova of this idea and there are hints that their relationship had become more difficult: “I have not written to Marie yet, as the complications in our affairs are too great. I cannot write without mentioning them and do not care to trouble her in her present state of health."[18] Here, Peacock was most likely referring to Yakunchikova's pregnancy, but she also knew that both her friends were suffering from illness.

At times, she was sensitive to this, at other times less so; at one point, she told Polenova that her health concerns were just “nerves".

Peacock began work on an article for the English journal “The Artist" on Polenova's latest project - a commission from her sister-in-law, Maria Fedorovna Yakunchikova, to design the interior for a dining room in the Arts- and-Crafts style.[19] When in Russia, Peacock had visited the Yakunchikov country estate at Nara and made notes, but publishing an article on Russian art was not easy from a practical standpoint. Polenova's original designs, needed for illustrations, were at one point feared lost. The editor's attempts to return them reveal something of English ignorance about Russia or, at worst, a telling lack of care. He had simply made up an address: “E.B. / Erene Druimpiebur Tournobou / Tankour / d. Pusurdisidckaro / Moscow-Russia’’. However, Peacock thought this amusing and told Polenova: “You can imagine how we laughed over this - to hear Leon read it is a treat."[20]

If Peacock was also writing to Yakunchikova when they were apart, these letters have not been found, but her letters to Polenova are full of details, both personal and professional, that clearly convey the trio's closeness. “Are you going to Narra [Nara] soon? How I should have liked to be there! — But probably I should be a nuisance!"[21] She gives Polenova updates on Yakunchikova: “Marie is wonderfully well — lively, it seems as though all her tendons were stretching out, feeling about, much more sociable and kindly disposed toward the world in general."[22]

The three friends began to work on plans for a kustar pavilion and Russian village at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Peacock persuaded Polenova to enter the competition to design buildings, but this was not to be, for later that year, Polenova's health suddenly deteriorated and she died in November 1898. At first, the Polenov family did not feel able to inform Yakunchikova, as she had only recently given birth. Hearing the news, she mourned for the time that the three women, together with Golovin, had spent in Paris: “How Netta and I dreamed of her coming again this year. I cannot believe that there is no hope, now, when she has reached such a stage of development, the flowering of her artistic activity, that her life is spiritually broken, if not physically. It is cruelly awful."[23]

Peacock and Yakunchikova felt the loss acutely. Together with the artist's sister-in-law, Natalia Polenova, and Maria Fedorovna Yakunchikova, they continued to work on the Exposition and decided that the display should honour Polenova's work.[24] Peacock was appointed secretary to the pavilion and would do practical tasks such as showing around English and Irish visitors. Taking advantage of her language skills, she wrote articles for three prominent art journals in France (“L'art décoratif"), Germany (“Dekorative Kunst") and England (“The Studio").[25] In each case, she promoted her friends' art, her confidence as a writer now stronger than when she had ceded to Uzanne. Polenova, she wrote, was the “guiding and informing spirit of a small group of Moscovite artists who turned their attention towards decoration with such success that the movement they started is likely to grow rapidly in importance and is bound, sooner or later, to make its influence felt beyond its own country".[26] Her remarks were prescient. The next decade would bring the success of Russian design abroad, from Diaghilev's Ballet Russes to the fashion designs of Paul Poiret. Echoing Peacock's words, historians have pointed to the Exposition as a key event that sparked western interest in Russia.

If Peacock described Polenova as the leader of the new movement, for Yakunchikova she emphasised an abundance of natural talent and a break from past art. Discussing “The Girl and the Wood Spirit", a striking applique panel, Peacock points to the “entire absence of any appeal to the emotions made through the story side of the subject", deciding that “it depends entirely upon its aesthetic fitness for the genuine feeling of sympathy evoked by it".[27] She highlighted Yakunchikova's craftsmanship and artistic oversight of the project: “Mrs Jacounchik- off-Weber superintended the dyeing of the linen, the difficulty of obtaining the exact shades of green required being most successfully overcome. The cutting-out and placing of all the pieces necessary to the carrying-out of this large piece of work seems an almost impossible task, looking at it from the purely technical point of view: all of this the artist did herself, leaving simply the outline to be worked by Nastasia Ivantchouka, of Solomenka [the Solomenko embroidery workshops]."[28]

Peacock's detailed analysis was shaped by her close relationship with the artists. She found the links with folk culture especially inspiring, so she explained these to a foreign audience. The panel, she wrote, “deals with the popular superstition that the ‘laishi' [leshie] or genii of the woods, lure the children on until they lose their way. Hiding behind the trees, they call ‘here, here!' until the child wanders deeper and deeper into the tangle of tree and luxuriant undergrowth in trying to reach the spot whence the voice calls".[29]

But Peacock's collaboration with Yakunchikova on the Exposition was the last time they worked together, for Yakunchikova died in 1902. Perhaps the biggest hint that the two had drifted apart lies in the fact that Peacock took steps to promote Polenova's work posthumously, but not Yakunchikova's. As well as the article on the dining room, she wrote an obituary for a Russian journal. Some years later, she prepared a translation of Polenova's folk tales and exhibited the illustrations at a London gallery. Perhaps, having lost two friends in only a few years, her silence came from a temperament inclined to the stoical and she needed to move on. Although she visited Russia again in the early 1900s, with the exception of Golshtein, she lost touch with those she had met - Golovin, the Po- lenovs, Yakunchikovs and Sapozhnikovs. She wrote a few more articles on peasant art, but, by the 1920s, she was mostly working on projects unrelated to Russia, her past travels now a distant memory.

 

  1. On Peacock’s life, see Hardiman, Louise. “The Firebird’s Flight: Russian Arts and Crafts in Britain". PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2015. Pp. 81-142.
  2. “Музей обворожительные можно черпать такую безграничную массу что просто захлебнешься." M.V. Yakunchikova to E.D. Polenova, July 2/June 20, 1895. Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54 (hereafter “Yakunchikova Archive"). Item 9700. Sheets 1-2 (reverse).
  3. “Дома для жилья не требуют фалшивых украшений, нет там ни напутанных железных решеток в окнах, отлитых псевдоренесансовых empir^^ix рококовских фрунтов гирлянд из штукатурки и камня ets [etc]... просто гладко, а если украшено, то с творчестом живым сочным настоящим." Ibid.
  4. “Во всех окнах со стороны улицы вот эти горшки с цветами, которые я в большом количестве привезла с собой для вдохновения." Ibid.
  5. Kiselev M. “Mania Vasil'evna Yakunchikova 1870-1902". Moscow, 1979. Pp. 138, 178.
  6. “The Studio" concentrated on new trends such as the Arts- and-Crafts movement and Art Nouveau and featured a broad range of media, including painting, architecture, decorative arts and graphic design.
  7. Netta Peacock to Aleksandra Golshtein. August 25, 1895. Bakhmeteff Archive. Columbia University, New York (hereafter “Bakhmeteff Archive").
  8. Ibid.
  9. Uzanne, Octave ‘Modern Colour Engraving with Notes on Some Work by Marie JacounchikoffV/ “The Studio". December 1895. Vol. VI. No. 33. Pp. 148-52 (P. 152).
  10. Kiselev. P. 167.
  11. Uzanne, P. 150.
  12. Ibid. P. 152.
  13. Netta Peacock to Aleksandra Golshtein, August 25, 1895. Bakhmeteff Archive. The South Kensington Museum is now the Victoria and Albert Museum; “Mr Barthold" is presumed to be a curator.
  14. Unidentified press clipping. Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 205. Item 334. Cited in Kristen Harkness, “The Phantom of Inspiration: Elena Polenova, Mariia Iakunchikova and the Emergence of Modern Art in Russia". PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2009.
  15. Netta Peacock to Aleksandra Golshtein. August 13, 1896. Bakhmeteff Archive.
  16. “Прошла зима во время ее пребывания в Париже, прошла, как дивный сон. Мы так дружно, весело и активно прожили вместе ... она, Netta, Головин, Мака [Лев Николаевич Вебер] и я." M.V. Yakunchikova to N.V. Polenova, November 15, 1898. Sakharova, E.V. “Vasilii Dmitrievich Polenov, Elena Dmitrievna Polenova. Khronika sem'i khudozhnikov". Moscow, 1964. Pp. 583-84.
  17. N. Peacock to E.D. Polenova. May 30, 1898. Yakunchikova Archive. Item 8404.
  18. N. Peacock to E.D. Polenova. July 19, 1898. Yakunchikova Archive. Item 8406.
  19. Peacock, Netta. “A Log House Dining Room in Russia" // “The Artist". January-April 1899. No. 24. Pp. 1-7.
  20. N. Peacock to E.D. Polenova. 9 June 1898. Yakunchikova Archive. Item 8405.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. “Как мы с Nett^ мечтали об ее приезде опчть в этом году. Я не верю, что нет надежды, неужели теперь, когда она достигла настоящий степени развития, настоящего расцвета ее художественной деятельности, ее жизнь не физически, то духовно оборвется. Это жестоко ужасно." M.V. Yakunchikova to N.V. Polenova, November 15/27, 1898. Sakharova. Pp. 583-84.
  24. See Hardiman, Louise. ‘An Extraordinary Feeling for Ornament: Elena Polenova and the Neo-Russian Style in Embroideries and Textile Panels' // “Experiment: A Journal of Russian Culture". 2017. Vol. 23. Pp. 53-71; Hardiman, Louise. ‘Invisible Women: Re-examining the Arts and Crafts of Maria V. Iakunchikova at the Paris “Exposition Universelle" of 1900'// “Experiment: A Journal of Russian Culture". 2019. Vol. 25. Pp. 295-309.
  25. Peacock, Netta. ‘Das russische Dorf auf der Pariser Weltaustellung' // “Dekorative Kunst". September 1900. No. 6. Pp. 481-88; Peacock, Netta. ‘Le Village Russe et le mouvement d'art moscovite'// “L'art décoratif". 1900. No. Pp. 229-339; Peacock, Netta. ‘The New Movement in Russian Decorative Art'// “The Studio". 1901. Vol. 22. No. 98. Pp. 268-76.
  26. Peacock. ‘The New Movement'. P. 268.
  27. Ibid. P. 276.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.

Illustrations

Netta Peacock
Netta Peacock
Photograph. Private collection
© 2019 Louise Hardiman
Yelena Polenova
Yelena Polenova
Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Maria Yakunchikova
Maria Yakunchikova
Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Letter from Maria Yakunchikova to Yelena Polenova. July 2 / June 20 1895
Letter from Maria Yakunchikova to Yelena Polenova. July 2 / June 20 1895
© Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery
Piccadilly Circus, London. Circa 1895
Piccadilly Circus, London. Circa 1895
Photochrom (photolithograph). 16.5 × 22.9 cm. Views of the British Isles, no. 10787 (Detroit Publishing Co.: Michigan, 1905). Wikimedia Commons
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. LʼEffroi (Fear). 1890s
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. LʼEffroi (Fear). 1890s
Aquatint. 34 × 24.8 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Country Courtyard. 1895
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Country Courtyard. 1895
Aquatint. 16.1 × 19.8 cm (plate). 26.2 × 30.2 cm (sheet)
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Le soir. 1895
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Le soir. 1895
Aquatint. 23.8 × 31.8 cm (plate). 23.8 × 31.8 cm (sheet)
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. L'irréparable. Circa 1893
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. L'irréparable. Circa 1893
Colour lithograph
© Christie’s Images
Netta Peacock at the Yakunchikov House. [1897]
Netta Peacock at the Yakunchikov House. [1897]
Photograph
© Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery
Wooden cabinet in the Russian Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle. 1900
Wooden cabinet in the Russian Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle. 1900
Photo: Maria Yakunchikova. Reprinted from: “Mir Iskusstva” (World of Art) magazine. 1900. Nos. 21-22
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Quiétude. 1895
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Quiétude. 1895
Aquatint. 19.7 × 15 cm (plate). 32.6 × 24 cm (sheet)
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Netta Peacock's ex libris. 1897
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Netta Peacock's ex libris. 1897
Etching. Reproduced from "The Studio". 1897. No. 10
Netta Peacock and Maria Yakunchikova in a Field of Daisies. Circa 1896
Netta Peacock and Maria Yakunchikova in a Field of Daisies. Circa 1896
Photograph. Private collection
© 2019 Louise Hardiman
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. The Girl and the Wood Spirit
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. The Girl and the Wood Spirit
Embroidered panel
© Christie’s Inc.
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Small Town in Winter. 1898
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Small Town in Winter. 1898
Gouache, golden paint on paper. 24.7 × 23.7 cm
© Russian Museum
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Drawing in her letter from Moscow to her sister Natalya Polenova. April 11 1888
Maria YAKUNCHIKOVA. Drawing in her letter from Moscow to her sister Natalya Polenova. April 11 1888
© Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery
Netta Peacock and Haystacks [1897–1898]
Netta Peacock and Haystacks [1897–1898]
Photograph
© Manuscript Department, Tretyakov Gallery

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