McConkey, Kenneth

views updated

McConkey, Kenneth




Office—Arts and Social Sciences, Northumbria University, Lipman Bldg., Sandyford Rd., Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 8ST, England.


Art historian, educator, and writer. Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; previously senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, beginning c. 1980.


Edwardian Portraits: Images of an Age of Opulence, Antique Collectors' Club (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England), 1987.

British Impressionism, Abrams (New York, NY), 1989.

A Free Spirit: Irish Art, 1860-1960, Antique Collectors' Club/Pyms Gallery (London, England), 1990.

Sir John Lavery, Canongate Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1993.

Impressionism in Britain, with an essay by Anna Gruetzner Robins, Yale University Press/Barbican Art Gallery (New Haven, CT), 1995.

(With Peter Risdon and Pauline Sheppard) Harold Harvey: Painter of Cornwall, Sansom/Penlee House Gallery & Museum (Clifton, Bristol, England), 2001.

Memory and Desire: Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Ashgate (Burlington, VT), 2002.

The New English: A History of the New English Art Club, Royal Academy of Arts (London, England), 2006.


Kenneth McConkey is an art historian and the author of numerous articles and books focusing on art history, including Impressionism, Modernism, and British and Irish painters. Impressionism in Britain, published in 1995, details an exhibition surveying British Impressionist painting, which was held in 1995 at both the Barbican Art Gallery in London and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in London. In addition to 160 color plates of various works, the book includes an introductory essay by the author in which he provides a history of British Impressionism. The book also includes short biographies of artists in the show and brief essays interpreting their works. "It has the look and the feel of a coffee-table book, but with the scholarly apparatus of a serious research tool," Paul B. Armstrong commented in a review in Victorian Studies. "McConkey's essay is a thorough and responsible introduction to the subject which covers many themes familiar to the student of Impressionism while introducing and contextualizing the work of a range of lesser-known English and Scottish figures."

Memory and Desire: Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century was published in 2002 and is collection of the authors' lectures and writ- ings. In this illustrated account of the art world in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, the author explores the process by which new artistic tendencies emerged and artistic tastes changed. He also examines the work of many commercially successful painters, and writes about their critical reception. Drawing on the commercially successful works of painters such as John Singer Sargent, William Orpen, George Clausen, Alfred East, John Lavery, and Philip Wilson Steer, as well as the writings of their critics and supporters, the author clarifies the significance of contemporary tastes and explores current arguments about training, aesthetics, visual memory, and the creation of new art.

Using diaries, artists' letters, and art reviews written during the artists' time, the author examines particular genres, from portraiture and landscapes to rustic scenes and historical subjects. In the process, McConkey analyzes various artists and the comments on their artwork made by leading writers of the time, including art critics, essayists, and novelists. The author also explores the many different influences on various patrons' collecting habits.

"McConkey's extraordinary study is very wide-ranging as he tries to recapture the ‘mentality of the late nineteenth century artist and the art lover in Britain,’" wrote Anthony Lacy Gully in Albion. "The examination of the multiple forces at work that triggered the imaginations of artists and the ambitions of collectors is outlined admirably in this text." Writing in Victorian Studies, Gordon Fyfe noted that in this study the author takes a different perspective in his analysis of British and Irish painting at the beginning of the twentieth century. Fyfe wrote that the author "adopts a retreatist position" and that the author is not interested only in artists who sought to achieve recognition in the modernist realm of painting. Fyfe noted: "Thus, a particularly interesting aspect of his approach is that he spends some of his time with the Victorian successes (Alfred East, for example) whose reputations were eclipsed in the twentieth century and who had no knowledge that the story of art would be told as a modernist teleology or that J.M. Turner would, one day, have a coherent reputation." Fyfe added: "This approach has enabled the author to write an important study of visual culture in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods."

In his 2007 book The New English: A History of the New English Art Club, McConkey provides a history of the club that was founded in 1886 by a group of artists going against the British art establishment, including the noted painters John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Camille Pissarro. These artists founded the New English Art Club as a reaction to the conservative art stance taken by the Royal Academy, which made it difficult for these artists to show their work. The artists based their club's membership on the principles of Impressionism, thus attracting some of the most advanced painters of their time. They also formed the club's structure and constitution with a democratic approach that included an elected jury. While the club's exhibitions over the years have not been particularly well attended by the general public, the exhibits draw a wide range of serious collectors and art critics.

In his book, McConkey follows the club's progress as it became the dominant force in British art, fell out of favor in the 1920s, and then experienced a resurgence at the end of the twentieth century. He also examines the important overall position the club held in the development of modern art. The book includes numerous illustrations. Calling The New English a "masterly handling of the club's history," Peyton Skipwith went on to write in his review in Apollo: "With great skill and delicacy, McConkey avoids concentrating exclusively on the major figures, managing to weave a tapestry in which the warp and woof recreate the texture and pattern of the club."



Albion, spring, 2004, Anthony Lacy Gully, review of Memory and Desire: Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, p. 170.

Apollo, March, 2007, Peyton Skipwith, "‘Steery, Starry, Stotty’: Peyton Skipwith Reviews a History of the New English Art Club, Which Has Provided a Lively, Democratic Platform for Exhibitions since 1884," review of The New English: A History of the New English Art Club, p. 122.

Art History, September, 1992, Fintan Cullen, review of A Free Spirit: Irish Art, 1860-1960, p. 378; December, 1993, John Gage, "The British Portrait: 1660-1960," p. 663.

Choice, June, 2003, W.S. Rodner, review of Memory and Desire, p. 1737.

International History Review, February, 1996, Richard H. Collin, "Impressionists in Britain," p. 168.

Library Journal, June 1, 1995, Ellen Bates, review of Impressionism in Britain, p. 114.

Publishers Weekly, July 14, 1989, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of British Impressionism, p. 66.

Reference & Research Book News, May, 2003, review of Memory and Desire, p. 208.

Spectator, November 27, 1993, John McEwen, review of Sir John Lavery, p. 49.

Times Higher Education Supplement, April 21, 1995, Howard Caygill, review of Impressionism in Britain, p. 20.

Times Literary Supplement, October 13, 1989, Frances Spalding, review of British Impressionism, p. 1118; April 5, 1991, Graham Reynolds, review of A Free Spirit, p. 23; February 17, 1995, Frances Spalding, review of Impressionism in Britain, p. 16.

Victorian Studies, autumn, 1996, Paul B. Armstrong, review of Impressionism in Britain, p. 175; winter, 2005, Gordon Fyfe, review of Memory and Desire, p. 315.


George Clausen and Thomas Derrick, (November 28, 2005), "Kenneth McConkey," profile of author.

Northumbria University Web site, (May 27, 2008), brief faculty profile of author.

About this article

McConkey, Kenneth

Updated About content Print Article