A summer of Neo-romantic “modern” art

London and the south (allowing Pembrokeshire as southern) have been putting on a fabulous array of shows which specially make you glad to be British, and to have inherited a tradition which runs back to Samuel Palmer and John Constable (watercolours, not oils, for my taste) but has left us with very feeling and talented work, especially from the mid-20th Century….

The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne put out all its collection of every Lyons tea shop poster from the 1940s and 50s. The works, by many of the artists of note of the period, have that special post-war quality, roughly speaking, and much later, labelled Neo-romantic. The general view – hard to dispute – is that the love of countryside but also of every type of compatriot, both loving and unsentimental in their portrayal, flowed from having been in shared peril in two world wars. There is also a thrum of appreciation of the modern, and even of modernism, which artists felt was obligatory to post-Victorians. The gallery’s book, Tea and a Slice of Art: the Lyons lithographs 1946-1955, by Charlie Batchelor tells the story well, and makes one long to track down the rather similar patronage of Shell (also curated by Jack Beddington, and archived at Beaulieu apparently).

I first got to understand and really love not merely the images but the underlying influences which informed them when I saw the 1987 Hayward show, A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic imagination in Britian, 1935-55 (the book of the of the same title is a stunner).

The love of countryside is brilliantly on display at the St Barbe gallery in Lymington, with its show Under The Greenwood, a meditation on trees. One realised that many trails tended to lead to Paul Nash, well-represented in Eastbourne and Lymington, but the exclusive subject of a lovely prints and photos show at the Pallant in Chichester.

There was more Nash – his use of the stumps of trees as characters in their own right – in A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-22, a lovely show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s a well-named affair: Tonks’s Slade was the breeding ground for artists who had to wrestle with modernism, Cubism, mass destruction and socialism, and at the same time an older and renewed love of English verities and tastes. Some, like Nevinson, made a fair fist of going with the new flows; others, like Nash, seem to stay nearer to the old ways, even when addressing modern horrors. Stanley Spencer is alone amongst them in being transcendentally great, I suppose.  The background to the Dulwich show is precisely and well told in A Crisis of Brilliance: Five young artists and the Great War, by the event’s curator David Boyd Haycock.

At Dulwich, I picked up Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns: English writers, artists and the imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper which delivers on its title and a little more (taking in food taste and wider culture).

There was an excellent tribute to our  modern understanding of the Neo-romantic in Pembrokeshire’s Coastal Path centre and gallery in St David’s. Graham Sutherland and the Romantic Landscape had his Black Landscape  (1939-40), alongside Paul Nash, Ceri Richards, and John Piper. I am a Sutherland addict and liked the explanatory note for the painting which said that he didn’t suppose a Pembrokeshire landscape actually looked as he had painted it (darkly gloomy), but that that he was sufficiently confident to impose his own mood on it.

This bloody-minded assertiveness seems to be key to any chance of greatness in art. And I think I feel that Laura Knight missed it. Her work, beautifully displayed at the NPG, is of the generation under review, but she doesn’t get talk-of as Neo-romantic, perhaps because she wasn’t dealing with quite the same demons. Her statement-piece, the self portrait with model and painting, is an abidingly powerful image, and not least one of irritable self-doubt. It was fun to note that her best other work (in a what I find a mixed bunch) includes a saturnine gypsy man, almost all her war work, and a good few of her society paintings. I am not sure why I was a bit disappointed by the show: maybe I was just confused in what I hoped for.

My great heroes of the period are Rex Whistler and Eric Ravillious, in both of whom – and especially the former – it is tempting and wrong to see an untroubled sensibility. I never expect to see a better tribute to Whistler than presented by Salisbury’s museum this summer. A Talent Cut Short was a sort of love letter to a Bright Young Thing (of real underlying seriousness) who rapidly became a committed soldier (of real underlying humour). It is the show, in effect, of the fine and beautiful coffee table book In Search of Rex Whistler, His life and work, by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil. If you read this after the show’s closure, you can catch a goodly percentage of Whistler’s value (charm is too obvious a word) from the book, and from a visit to the room he decorated at Mottisford Abbey. This last is worth even a long trek because the room – as a piece of theatre – cannot impress on the page alone. By the way, Mottisford Abbey is also living proof that the National Trust’s modern accessibility can at least sometimes triumph in spite of an aroma of sanctity, mother pie and the patronising.

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Publication date

11 August 2013


Mind & body; On art