Looking for a new England

It is hard to imagine a place further removed from the nightmare of the Western Front than the sleepy Chilterns village of Chalfont St Giles, but the war’s detritus arrived there in 1918, in the form of “a truck load of shards” delivered to the studio of John and Paul Nash. Both brothers had, understandably, declined invitations to return to battlefields they had agreed to depict for the British War Memorials Committee. Instead, they worked from the shards and from memory. That summer, living in village peace with his brother and both of their wives, working on “Oppy Wood, 1917. Evening” and recalling scenes he described as “pure murder”, it seemed to John that “the only justification of what I do now” would be to “help to rob war of the last shred of glory, the last shine of glamor.” After their paintings were finished, though, the question of what to do next was less clear. Completing his contribution, “The Menin Road” (1919), left Paul facing what he called the “struggles of a war artist without a war”.

Where could an artist go in 1919? The difficulty was not only, as Frances Spalding puts it in her beautifully produced new study of English art between the wars, that elements of modernism like the “aggressive pursuit of the machine-age aesthetic” had taken on a different hue in the aftermath of industrial warfare, but also that the “fearlessness” of the avant-garde was gone.

These were not years of dazzling leaps forward. Page after page in this generously illustrated book suggests artists trying to put something back together, to recover wholeness after so much shattering and find a restorative place after trauma. It is easy to look at the landscapes and the still lifes, the vogue for revivalism, and see art in retreat. Spalding invites a second look. By picking out the “real” she is not speaking strictly of the realism common in the period, but of the search for authenticity beyond accurate representation – something “deeper than a mere visual record”. “Romantic” speaks also to possibilities for realism, implying, in her use, “an emotional register that contrasts with the outwardly objective and dispassionate pursuit of realism.” Throughout she shows artists doing something more interesting than simply taking refuge in England’s past, or in its green and pleasant fields, or in the realistic depiction of them. Winifred Nicholson, for instance, is celebrated by Spalding as being “among the first artists in England in the 1920s to understand that painting, to be modern, did not necessarily need new subject matter, but instead a change in approach”.

“The Menin Road” and “Oppy Wood” were both exhibited in The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records, which opened at the Royal Academy in December 1919. The naming is significant. State patronage during the war had expanded the audience for art; the 1920s saw a widening conception of who could produce and consume it. Spalding’s book is similarly inclusive (though she returns to a core of familiar names throughout). Making selective use of biography, she surveys ideas, preoccupations and styles, and pays attention to sculpture, architecture and design as well as painting. The book takes in social and cultural history alongside the art criticism, and recognizes the influential figures around the artists – critics and collectors, especially (many of them women) – who played their parts in the directions art was taking.

Intensely felt in both “Oppy Wood” and “The Menin Road” is grief for what war did to landscape. What was once French or Belgian countryside has been razed into undistinguishable battleground, desolation conveyed not least by the wreckage of the trees. When Paul Nash suffered a breakdown in 1921, his recovery in Dymchurch, on the Kent coast, was in part expressed – or secured – through an obsessive depiction of, as he put it, “The Sea. The Shore. The Wall”. His images of the sea wall are as various as they are repetitive; Moody and agitated and controlled in turn, the untameable and its containment suggesting a working-through of traumatic memories.

Spalding credits Nash with “reinvigorat[ing] the English landscape tradition in modern terms”. Eric Ravilious, one of Nash’s students, adorns the cover of The Real and the Romantic with “Train Landscape” (1940), which pulls new and ancient into proximity by depicting the Westbury Horse from a carriage window, and draws together rural and urban, traditional and modern, in its very title. Ravilious, now regarded as a “romantic modern”, was a key figure in the revival of English watercolor – a medium long overlooked by art historians. He was intensely aware of the devastating effects of the rural depression of the 1930s and the encroachment of development. “Far from being bucolic”, Spalding writes, “[his watercolours] convey a brittle tension which is modern.” In these landscapes, too – in, say, Evelyn Dunbar’s tender depictions of countryside scenes (Spalding singles out a later painting, “A Land Girl and the Bail Bull”, 1945, as her best) – it is tempting to see painters looking for new, less compromised ways of loving England after the jingoism of the war years.

Stillness – in evidence from the unpeopled urban landscapes of Elwin Hawthorne to Gwen John’s meditative interiors and portraits, or the limpid light of Winifred Knights’s immaculate “Edge of Abruzzi” – was also of use to the surrealists, through its ability to unsettle. By the 1930s the questions of the previous decade had not resulted in an obvious way forward, but in several. Or, as Spalding puts it, “a multiplicity of styles, all competing against each other, made for a lively confusion in the art world”. Two major competitors were represented in important exhibitions in London in 1936. Abstract and Concrete showcased the abstraction championed by the likes of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. The International Surrealist Exhibitionwhich included Paul Nash’s “Harbor and Room”, understandably drew bigger crowds – it was the one Salvador Dalí attended wearing a diving suit, which later had to be prised open with a billiards cue when heat and diminishing oxygen made the downsides of surrealist costume life-threateningly apparent.

One slight drawback of Spalding’s particular attention to individual or groups is that it makes the artists of English art scene seem extremely small (which perhaps it was). It also makes it difficult to judge how widely the enthusiasms or experimentation she identifies permeated – though the inclusion of a chapter on “Modern Art in a Philistine World” perhaps answers that question. But in the context of the late 1930s, the roving she documents (she neatly describes Wyndham Lewis, for instance, “hopp”).[ing] between styles with great dexterity”) begins to look like an appealing openness and flexibility. “Art is in transition”, the critic Herbert Read announced in 1936. “We should be content with the fact that art is alive – more vital and experimental than at any time since the Renaissance.” Events on the Continent were making it clear that this was no mean feat in itself.

Before the 1936 face-off there had been another significant exhibition in London: Artists Against Fascism and War in 1935, which displayed an inclusive spectrum of styles. The Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, was widely seen in liberal circles as an opportunity to halt the advance of fascism in Europe. Spalding reclaims the Spanish war from the poets, reminding us that it marked “a high point for the making of protest or propaganda art in England”. ‘[M]uch talent and energy”, in the form of “cartoons, posters, banners and mimeographed newspapers”, was poured into collaborative anti-fascist campaigning.

In opening The Real and the Romantic With war, Spalding starts with the inescapable, and she ends with it too. The final illustration is John Minton’s “The Desolate Stage” (1939), an ink and wash drawing of “a tense theatrical scene under a darkening sky”. A dishevelled figure stands on a raised platform. She could be about to deliver a lament, or be on her way to the gallows; perhaps she is a stunned survivor, looking out over a fresh disaster.

The interwar period is rarely allowed to be more than a doomed interlude, easily skipped over to the meatier disasters of the 1940s. Britain was a poorer, less powerful nation in 1919 than it had been in 1914, and what had been lost was much clearer and more keenly felt than what the future might hold. Recent scholarship and curation hasn, recognized what artists in this period achieved and Spalding argues that disillusionment, trauma and, eventually, foreboding did not create a lacuna in the history of English art, but prompted a “moder” response. She describes a period of confused seeking among artists – and demonstrates that asking questions of art is good for it.

Sarah Watling is the author of Noble Savagesa biography of the Olivier sisters. Tomorrow Perhaps the Futureher book on taking sides and the Spanish Civil War, will be published early next year

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