‘Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper’ reviewed by Tom Steele

Reviewed by Tom Steele

About the reviewer

Dr Tom Steele is Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His books include …


This is a remarkable study by a gifted young cultural historian of writing, painting, architecture and the arts and crafts in England from the mid 1920s to the mid 1940s. Relatively little critical and historical attention is paid to this period which, compared with the noisy modernist movements around World War One, and the re-emergence of new movements in the arts and theatre after World War Two, seems a quiet time. Harris questions this perception of the period and offers a sustained narrative of writers, artists and craftspeople bent on redefining ‘England’ for the new publics brought about by mass media, travel, and education. There is little politics in this book apart from the occasional nod to a left leaning artistic stratum, genetically linked to Bloomsbury Square. Perhaps surprisingly, Harris displays only a mild curiosity about the strains in some British youth movements that led, as with T S Eliot’s friend, Rolf Gardiner, into flirting with Hitlerism and notes the snobbishness and anti-democratic attitudes of Osbert Sitwell and Lees Milne.

Harris begins with painting and a feature of the book is the beautiful reproduction of painting and photographs (complemented by a stylish typeface on cream paper). More specifically, she starts with writing about art, centring on Roger Fry’s Vision and Design of 1920 and his widely influential concept of ‘significant form’. Clive Bell’s Art (1914) was, she says, also the bible for painters like Ivon Hitchens, where the purity and cleanliness of the French influence of abstraction seemed to carry the day. Although Fry sustains his modernist position through most of the period dealt with here, to his 1936 exhibition of the ‘Abstract and Concrete’, which said goodbye to earthly associations, the artists with whom Harrison deals and sympathises are moving in the opposite direction. For them it’s very much back to the land or at least the landscape and still lives. For Paul Nash, after the horrors of World War One, it’s a desire for national identity while John Piper was seeking the ‘Christian end’ to which medieval abstract art was aspiring. Many of the debates Harris describes took place in the journal edited by Myfanwy Evans (Mrs Piper), Axis.

A second theme in the book is architecture, beginning with the adoption of the International Style by architects such as Wells Coates in his Lawn Road Flats in London and, she might have added, his design for Tom Heron’s (the father of Patrick) Cresta Silks London shop. The reaction to the spareness and denial of ornament of International Style was matured in journals such as the Architectural Review of which John Betjeman was the assistant editor. This offered a very different valuation of Victorian curlicues and other fancies. Even the high modernist Hungarian sculptor Moholy-Nagy was softened enough to take photos for Betjeman’s An Oxford University Chest published says Harris ‘in all its old-school luxuriance’ in 1938. Increasingly, writing about architecture included novelists and Harris cites the power struggle between houses, objects and their owners in the fictions of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen. International Style itself appears to morph into neo-Georgianism, which somehow manages to combine rectilinearity and ornament. Oliver Hill’s Midland Hotel at Morecambe (one of Harris’s rare glances north of the Thames) is modernism as Regency Crescent. The poet, Edith Sitwell, celebrates the ‘seductive images of abundance’ in eighteenth century houses, while the designs for Wedgewood pottery by Eric Ravilious echo Georgian motifs.

It was then only one step to Victoriana, the very thing that classical modernism had denounced with such passion. Kenneth Clark’s The Gothic Revival (1928) celebrated Pugin and Scott and what Clark saw as a distinctly English strength of emotion and detail, while Evelyn Waugh’s petit bourgeois lamented decaying aristocrats in their grand houses. Even that great champion of modern art, Herbert Read, caught the mood, declaring that Victorian art had played a major role in the development of the Surrealist movement. Cyril Connolly’s new journal Horizon which was to the 1940s what Axis had been to the 1930s also grew weighty with nostalgia. By World War Two Virginia Woolf too had turned from the formal experimentalism of her early novels to revel in the pageant of English language in Between the Acts (1941) which Harris notes is ‘an intense celebration of her countryside’.

So by the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 the purity and clean lines of modernist architecture, the experimental formalism of writing and abstraction in painting were giving way to a blurring of focus. Not abandoning modernism altogether, claims Harris, but adapting it to domestic circumstance and imbuing it with ‘Englishness’. It was of course a peculiarly conservative Englishness, medieval and organic. F R Leavis’s book of literary criticism Revaluation of 1936 followed T S Eliot’s belief that the old organic community of England had been brutally subdued sometime prior to the industrial revolution and that literature had become estranged from ordinary experience. Milton may even have been its first casualty, subordinating perception to sonority in what Eliot had called a ‘dissociation of sensibility’. In the same groove, W H Auden’s Introduction to his anthology the Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938) looked back nostalgically to an organic medieval community. The pastoral refrain was reflected in music, most obviously in Vaughan Williams but also in Britten’s belief that ‘the vital rhythms of English music had been continuous across the ages’.

The weather had a lot to do with it, of course, captured dramatically in Bill Brandt’s photos for his book Literary Britain (1951), especially the grievingly atmospheric ‘Top Withens’ taken in 1945, which could easily have stood as a memorial to a war-wracked Britain. The émigré Brandt’s photos captured a ‘Britain’ far distant from the twisting lanes and quiet villages of rural Sussex and Hampshire which were synecdochal for the ‘England’ beloved of Bloomsbury. Here, Gilbert White’s literary Selborne was rediscovered and the painters Stanley Spencer, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell painted murals of village life in country churches (not always to the parishioners’ tastes). Village crafts were rediscovered – and transformed – Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew elevating pottery making to the status of high art. At Dartington in Devon, the Elmhirsts established a whole craft foundation. Folk dancing and traditions were seized on as evidence of a once ‘Merry England’ by movements such as the Kibbo Kift and the less savoury English Mistery and English Array of which Rolf Gardiner was a luminary. Eliot, himself, sought out his soil-bound roots in what became the Four Quartets, especially in the poem ‘East Coker’. His poetic journey from The Wasteland in the aftermath of World War One to the village of his ancestors exemplified the progress/regress of literary modernism itself in the banality of ‘History is now and England’. Although Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1939) added some historical correction to the idyll, for many writers and artists, like Stephen Spender, ‘England itself was sacred’ (204).

By now Eliot had reconnected the imaginary organic ‘England’ of poetic yearning to the Christianity of his faith. Frustrated in his hopes of joining the Roman Catholic Church, because of the Vatican’s excommunication of the leader of the proto-fascist Action Française, Charles Maurras, in whom Eliot had placed great hopes, he turned to high Anglicanism. His Idea of a Christian Society (1939) was a dream of organic unity in which the Anglican Church was cast as the hub of the nation’s cultural life. (Curiously, through his membership of Joe Oldham’s largely Christian Socialist ‘Moot’, Eliot was much influenced by his exchanges with the émigré sociologist, Karl Mannheim, a fellow member and agnostic). Even Raymond Williams (who Harris does not mention in this book) found much to value in this book claiming Eliot was a conservative the Left should take notice of. It stimulated him to respond with his own revaluation, Culture and Society, published two decades later. It’s a pity Harris ignores Williams, because his book The Country and the City (1973) is still the best critique of the faux organicism of Eliot, Leavis and co. that she appears to admire.

This reinvention of England spread beyond the writers and artists visited here and Harris provides entertaining sub-chapters on cooking and gardening. The English Folk Cookery Association published Good Things in England in 1932 , while Florence White and Jane Grigson, the wife of the poet Geoffrey Grigson, promoted an ‘authentic’ English cookery. It didn’t convince Elizabeth David, however, who returned to England and decided too much home cooking was not necessarily a good thing and wrote majestically about Mediterranean and French provincial food for the post-war generation. In the garden, Gertrude Jekyll had discovered that April was not necessarily the cruellest month and planted ‘bright swathes of perennials’ while William Robinson let loose the ‘wild’ garden, celebrating the abundance of nature (229). Though soon to become a land of allotments for the war effort, England could once more become a garden, as exemplified in Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst. As Harris notes, ‘The White Garden would have to wait until after the war, but just to imagine it was a kind of defiance’ (242).

Another of Harris’s interesting byways from high art to what was only just being called ‘popular culture’ is her description of the role played by the petrol company Shell-Mex’s advertising campaign, which featured gleaming posters of English landscapes painted by Ravilous, Piper, Dobson, Vanessa Bell and others. In these fine popular prints another England of prehistoric depth was revealed, presenting a kind of ageless landscape of priapic giants (modestly blotted by cloud shadow), fertile valleys, meandering streams and church towers beckoning the motorised tourist, with not a factory chimney in sight. Mass travel had now become a possibility and travelogues multiplied. Some correction to Shell’s ‘England of villages’ was made by J B Priestley’s English Journey (1935) which, following in the tradition of Defoe and Cobbett , now traced a vision of England united by popular travel – ironically, over a million working people had been forced to move, usually south, because of unemployment – and no longer a place of discrete provinces. But for Priestley the north was also a part of England and he encouraged his readers to get out and look not just at beauty spots but at those parts less easy on the eye. This did indeed prompt George Orwell and Bill Brandt, as we have seen, to go and see industrial towns for themselves and record their experiences and feelings. It’s a pity Harris does not spend more time on this other England; Spencer and Nash, for example, both spend time in the industrial north but their contributions are not noted here.

This is a rewarding but ultimately limited book, beautifully written and illustrated, celebrating the peculiarities of the English of the inter-war period when continental modernism in art and architecture was domesticated and house trained. It is of course only one such story of ‘England’ in these years and one in which Bloomsbury and its outriders loom large. But England was at least two nations – and ‘Britain’ was considerably more. As already noted, the north of England features only fleetingly and Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (1936) is mentioned only in passing. But the author’s riposte could be that this is to misunderstand what the book is about. It’s about a certain kind of Romanticism, nurtured by writers and painters, who tried to imagine a modern but not modernist England, while preserving its continuities with the past. In this they hoped to establish a modernised English identity which both looked to the future but honoured its traditions. How far could this really be called modern, let alone modernist; after all if Betjeman could be inducted into the camp of the moderns then anyone could? In The Englishness of English Art (Peregrine Books, 1964) Nicolaus Pevsner was much less generously disposed to the work of the artists celebrated here. He believed they failed to interact with the spirit of the age in the way, for example, Hogarth and Blake so vigorously had and were not ‘wholly original interpreters’ but merely a mild reflection of continental movements (p.193). For Pevsner they were a pleasant diversion only.

How quickly the mood changed. The ‘Englishness’ of the 1930s writers and artists was rudely shoved aside by the post-war painting of Francis Bacon, the ‘kitchen sink’ theatre of Osborne and co., the Angry Young Men of literature, the northern working-class realist novels and Coronation Street. Their ambitions for the Anglican Church of becoming the centre of the national culture evaporated in a welter of radical social movements, commonwealth immigration and universal education. The mass media, American popular culture and ultimately, globalisation, were to transform ‘England’ in more ways than any could have imagined and even nostalgia could never be the same. Whether the aspirations of the writers and painters considered here are any more than a romantic detour into an elegant English cul de sac, is open for debate.

8 May 2011

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