Bank Holiday is the official term for public holiday in the United Kingdom, so called because banks are closed on those days. In practice they are legal public holidays throughout the country, for all businesses. Two days, Christmas Day and Good Friday are holidays by common law; the others were defined by statute in the Bank Holidays Act 1871 and have been amended occasionally since then.

Other banks followed the practice of the Bank of England, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century observed 33 saints' days as holidays, reduced to 18 in 1830 and four in 1834. The bank holidays include New Year's Day, Boxing Day, Easter Monday, May Day, and Whit Monday. These days when no-one talks about Whitsuntide, some of them have bland secular names: Late Spring Bank Holiday (last Monday in May) and August Bank Holiday. Of course they occur on the weekday nearest the actual day.

They vary slightly in the different countries of the UK: St Patrick's Day is one in Northern Ireland, and the second of January is a bank holiday in Scotland, with compensatory loss of one of the others.


I didn't want to talk about bank holidays, but am amazed to find the term hadn't been noded yet. I just wanted to talk about the painting Bank Holiday. Now for that.

Bank Holiday, by William Strang
1912
oil on canvas, 122.6 cm x 152.7 cm
presented to the Tate Gallery 1922

This painting represents a young couple having a day out on a bank holiday. They're sitting at a café table, the young man is looking through a menu or wine list while his young woman watches him, and a waiter stands behind him awaiting his order. That's the essence of the scene, yet I have no idea how to read it.

If I knew more about the time and the costume and the little social niceties of Edwardian society, I could perhaps make more specific claims. The man's light brown suit and hat, with its black bow tie: is he very awkward in them? Do they mark him out as a bumpkin, a Cockney, a rube? Or are they just what an elegant and fashionable middle class man of no pretension might wear routinely to such an establishment?

Her white, or very palest pink dress, thinly belted with black, the long white gloves, the rich purple velvet hat with that round metallic ornament on the hatband: are these sophisticated extravagances, or the vulgar excess of a shopgirl?

On a seat before her is a dapper little black dog, a fox terrier I think, also looking over at the young man with an expectant air: will there be some of those nice madeira cake crumbs this time? On a chair by him is a big bunch of flowers, mainly daffodils. If I knew more of the period, could I place their class, their aspirations, their intentions on this holiday, if I knew what kind of person gave such flowers, carried such dogs, sat at cafés where they had just such a flower-patterned plate and just that kind of gold-lettered red menu (or wine list)?

Perhaps I could say more, but I feel sure that William Strang intended his spectators of 1912 to feel the same ambivalence that I feel. They would have homed in on the class and tone, but it would not have answered the basic questions. Does the young man know what he is doing? Does the young woman know him well, expect him to, admire him, is she exasperated with him? Is the waiter raising his eyebrows with mockery or with respect? I can't tell. The more I look at this the more I find it perfectly balanced between contradictory interpretations.

Their expressions are very detailed and precise, all three of them, but you can simultaneously read all three in various ways. She's very beautiful: her eyebrows have a very slight uprise to them, and her small red mouth has just a tiny downturn at the corner. She is gazing intently? at him. Serenely? Confidently? Lovingly but seeing him as a silly vacillating duffer? Just beginning to wonder as his cool façade begins to crack, or awaiting as they have many times before his expert judgement? I can't tell.

He's fresh-faced and clean-shaven, handsome and innocent, but has he tarted himself up for a special occasion or are the slight tilt of the eyebrow and pursing of the lips the way he ponders a list of fine wines all of which he knows? Is the waiter very sceptical of this tarted-up hooray Henry, or is he calmly and admiringly seeing what good taste the young gentleman has?

The Bank Holiday outing is a traditional trope of illustrations of the period, I think. Jolly Cockney gangs bowled up to fun spots like Hampstead Heath in a motorized omnibus and were mocked by gentleman artists for their dropped H's and vulgar love of funfairs.

I might be wrong, but I don't think William Strang was doing anything so transparent. He's not a major name artist, but this is one of the most intriguing paintings I have ever seen.

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