Andrew Lambirth

Alive with innovation: British art between the world wars

Frances Spalding describes how the tension of the interwar years gave rise to some of the greatest art of the 20th century

Alive with innovation: British art between the world wars
‘Train Journey’, by Eric Ravilious, 1939. [Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums/Photo History and Art Collection/Alamy]
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The Real and the Romantic:English Art Between the Wars

Frances Spalding

Thames & Hudson, pp. 384, £35

When I mentioned the subject of this book to someone reasonably well-informed about 20th-century British art, the response was: ‘Isn’t that all portrait and still-life paintings?’ Well, perhaps if you’re looking exclusively at the contents of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions – and even there landscape was another popular choice. But actually the period was alive with innovation – with abstraction and surrealism infiltrating and balancing out a new kind of realism. Art was a melting pot of competing attitudes, drawing equally on native traditions and stimulating foreign influences, principally Cézanne and Picasso.

In her enjoyable new book Frances Spalding identifies ‘a recurrent tension... between a precarious stasis on the one hand, and on the other a yearning for rapid change’. In the immediate post-war period, art was predictably reactionary. Radical art was closely allied to destruction in the public mind, and no one wanted to court such associations. Even Wyndham Lewis was no longer so willing to glorify the machine and, like many others, he answered a recall to order, investigating an idiosyncratic form of classicism. Meanwhile, Jacob Epstein literally truncated his sculpture ‘The Rock Drill’, making it more human and less aggressive.

The decades covered by this book were overshadowed by war, and one of the considerations uppermost in the minds of both artists and the Establishment was how to record and commemorate it. The scheme to appoint official war artists had not only expanded art’s potential subject matter but also demonstrated that art was for the people, not just for a discerning minority. Stanley Spencer emphasised this in his remarkable murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, painted between 1927 and 1932. He didn’t depict the war in the trenches but tried instead to redeem war with positive acts: soldiers polishing epaulettes or filling water bottles; bread being buttered.

Spalding, with acclaimed biographies of Vanessa Bell, John Minton, John and Myfanwy Piper and Gwen Raverat already to her name, is ideally placed to write a survey of these years. In some ways, the current volume can be seen as filling the gaps between her other books. She is good at establishing the historical context but doesn’t over-emphasise it. Identifying the links and structures of the art world, she explains things cogently while keeping a firm grasp of the bigger picture.

She comes into her own, as one would expect, when discussing the lives and work of individuals, offering eloquent and elegant summaries of the aims and achievements of Matthew Smith, Cedric Morris, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Paul Nash. She is particularly good on the peripatetic watercolourist and rebel Frances Hodgkins, a marvellous New Zealand painter whose work we don’t see enough of in this country.

Some of the artists she discusses, including Evelyn Dunbar, Algernon Newton and Winifred Knights, have received much critical and commercial attention in recent years. Such are the patterns of fashion and rediscovery. But others, who occupied key places in the 1920s and 1930s, deserve more prominence in a balanced historical account. Two sculptors, for instance, Frank Dobson and Leon Underwood, were both rather eclipsed by the bright comet that was Henry Moore, yet were also at the forefront of avant-garde sculptural thinking. Dobson, particularly, was an important figure, now much marginalised. Although Spalding reproduces a good early carving by him, she does not do him justice, while Underwood is mentioned just three times.

It is perhaps inevitable that Spalding’s book should reflect her enthusiasms. For instance, there is too much space accorded Duncan Grant (about whom Spalding wrote a biography), but only scant mention of John Armstrong (about whom I have written a book). Which writer is not biased to some degree? There is no mention of the Objective Abstraction movement (c.1933-36), nor is there enough about Walter Sickert, who was doing some of his most radical and influential work in these years and who exercised a profound effect on English art throughout the period. But no book can include everything, and the plus points of Spalding’s account are significant. She deploys her material with brisk intelligence and considerable perception, and is good on the ‘lay priests’ of the art world: the critics, proselytisers, philosophers and dealers, such as Roger Fry (unusual in also being an artist), Nicolete Gray, Herbert Read and Lucy Wertheim.

As Laurence Binyon wrote in 1913: ‘We cannot discard the past, we cannot throw away our heritage, but we must remould it in the fire of our necessities, we must make it new and our own’ – a sentiment as relevant today as it ever was. There’s much to be learnt from Spalding’s engaging study of a complex period.