Saturday, December 4, 2010

Romantic Moderns - Alexandra Harris

When I think of the artists of the 1930s, I think of the Modernists. Art Deco ceramics & jewellery, angular, minimalist architecture & pictures. Alexandra Harris has broadened my knowledge & my definition of modernism in her new book, Romantic Moderns. The subtitle sums up the theme of the book, English Writers, Artists & the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper.

England in the 30s was seen as a bit of a backwater of the Modernist movement. The most innovative work was coming from Europe & the English were portrayed as being in love with the past, especially the rural past. The critic, Roger Fry, was immensely influential in this period. He had organised the famous Post Impressionist exhibition of 1910 & was responsible for shaking off the Victorian past. He was a member of the Bloomsbury Group & Virginia Woolf wrote his biography after his death. The Bloomsbury artists lived in the country & found their inspiration in their houses as well as decorating them with their art & the products of the Omega workshop, another Fry initiative.

The theme of the book that I found most interesting was that these artists & writers were recording their vision of England. As the 30s drew to a close & WWII began, the desire to connect with the landscape was very powerful. As well as the abstract artists who were paring their vision down to the barest & most modern minimum, there were also artists recording their joy in traditional scenes of rural life but with a modernist twist. Stanley Spencer’s pictures of Cookham have recognisable portraits of real people but also fantastic scenes like his vision of the Judgement Day when the dead will rise from the parish churchyard. Poets like T S Eliot & John Betjeman wrote of country villages & the London suburbs. Vita Sackville-West’s poems, The Land & The Garden, were celebrations of home & a reimagining of Milton’s Eden. Her retreat to her garden as war approached was a return to Eden as opposed to Milton’s Paradise Lost. During the war, she was planning the White Garden at Sissinghurst, a little bit of defiance in the face of wholesale destruction.

The 1930s really were the last opportunity for the past to be recorded & conserved before WWII swept away so many aspects of traditional English life. Florence White was collecting the traditional recipes of England that were rapidly disappearing in an age of convenience food. Her book, Good Things in England, has been reprinted by Persephone, & is full of regional specialities that may have disappeared altogether if not for her work.

This is a very inadequate review as there is so much in Alexandra Harris’s book. I’ve just picked out a few of the artists covered in chapters on subjects like the Church, the English weather, village life & the search for a home. I haven’t even mentioned John & Myfanwy Piper, Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash, the Sitwells, Evelyn Waugh & the many other writers & artists with walk-on parts. As well as fascinating reading, the book is beautifully produced, with dozens of illustrations in the text. I want to read Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts & T S Eliot’s Four Quartets & more Evelyn Waugh. It’s that kind of book that sends the reader off on to new reading paths. Romantic Moderns is a fascinating look at a neglected aspect of English Modernism.


  1. Thanks for your excellent review, I'm desperate to read this now. It sounds like a great non-fiction work to complement the writing of that era. I think I will have to own it - when it's in paperback!

  2. Oh Lyn, I hadn't read your review until this morning, what a brilliant book this is and how interesting that it's sending us both off on so many reading trails. Yes, I want to read Between the Acts too and can't think why I haven't done so before and yes to the Waugh as well, why have I never read Brideshead...

  3. Oh I'm desperate to read this! Thank you for a brilliant review. It's going on my list of books to get hold of when I'm back in England!

  4. As Lynne says, lots of reading trails to follow. I borrowed my copy from work but I think I'll have to own the paperback. So much to take in, my review didn't cover half my thoughts as I was reading.