When we think about the art, literature and wider culture of the 1930s, romance doesn’t tend to come up in the conversation. We think of art deco; all smooth concrete and stark lines, cool chrome and sleek functionality. We think of Le Corbusier and Henry Moore, Virginia Woolf and F Scott Fitzgerald. We think of a collective throwing off of the past, a conscious disassociation from the excesses and sentimentalities of the Victorian period, and a striving towards a modern machine age of minimalism and experimentation. However, dig beneath the surface, and this stereotype soon begins to unravel. Many of the quintessential images of 1930s Britain are derived from the somewhat romanticised posters produced by the leading artists of the day for Shell petrol, and much of the literature – outside of the modernist ‘canon’ – explores an idealised, affectionately portrayed world of hazy summers and tea parties on the lawn. Even Virginia Woolf is not exempt from such misty eyed musings; her last novel, Between the Acts, is a paeon to a world feared lost in the midsts of a devastating world war. Alexandra Harris reclaims this ‘romantic modernism’ from the footnotes of history and gives it the importance it deserves, demonstrating how many of the ‘romantic moderns’ moved away from the abstract modernism they had initially been inspired by after finding that it did not allow them to connect with or appreciate the world they lived in, which was surely the whole point of artistic expression in the first place. They saw no need to cut all ties with the past and make art for art’s sake. They embraced experimentation, but they also wanted to root their experiments in what had gone before. They didn’t want to deny their heritage, or ignore the beauty of the natural world around them. In an uncertain world, they wanted to capture and celebrate their England, a land both ancient and modern, reinterpreting it for a new age without needing to leave its traditions and mythologies at the door.
Harris leads us gently through several strands of this ‘romantic modernism’, introducing us to its main proponents, such as John Piper, John Betjeman and Eric Ravilious, as well as looking at how a diverse range of artists such as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Daphne du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh and Edith Sitwell fitted into this collective artistic experimentation of what it was to be British. From buying up old country cottages to going on tours of medieval village churches, these young modernists found much inspiration and meaning in shamelessly taking possession of their heritage. They looked back to the art and literature of the 18th centuries, fascinated by and full of admiration for their romantic portrayals of the English landscape. Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh turned their backs on London and bought grand country houses, gleefully playing the Squire and adopting the walls of family portraits for their own ancestors. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant retreated to the countryside idyll of Charleston and painted murals for the local church, heretically replacing the faces of saints with that of soldiers and farm girls. Virginia Woolf wrote affectionately about a pageant in the grounds of a manor house whose inhabitants were still considered to be new to the village 150 years after their family first arrived. Vaughan Williams reclaimed folk music for a modern audience. Eric Ravilious painted rows of cabbages in a greenhouse. But looking back didn’t mean failing to look forward; nostalgia did not overwhelm a desire for progress. These artists of the 1930s were not slavishly copying what had come before, or attempting to bring back a rose tinted simpler age. Instead, they were creating their own version of the past, infusing their very modern work with the myths and legends of an ancient land, combining to create a unique yet grounded response to a world on the cusp of destruction.
What I loved about this book is how wide ranging and accessible it is. Harris does not just look at art and literature, but at food, at gardens, at music, at holidays and at home decoration, too. She demonstrates how romantic modernism was a part of a whole approach to life, not just a means of self expression. In the 1930s there was a surge of reclamation of tradition, and the kitchen was a good place to start. Now there were no servants and kitchens in new build homes were little more than cupboards in which to open tins, there had been a move towards a more simplistic and modern fare that was based on convenience. Plus, ever since the Victorian age, there had been a fetish for foreign food, with menus being hugely decadent French affairs covered in sauces and frills. This had eroded the tradition of British cooking and many people had no idea of what sorts of dishes did have roots in Britain in the first place. Florence White’s Good Things in England (republished by Persephone) set out to change this; a roll call of forgotten recipes from all of England’s regions, it reminded readers of the indigenous ingredients available to them and the delicious meals that could be made from the products of the land. Other cooks soon appeared with their own cookbooks celebrating the culinary history of Britain, calling for a return to stews and pies, cabbage and salads. For those romantic moderns who lived in draughty country cottages with old stoves and big wooden dining tables, this paean to traditional, hearty fare was strongly welcomed. The garden was another place that called for a return to tradition. The pure modernists were pulling out hedges and laying patios, calling for low maintenance spaces free of the extravagant clutter so admired by the Victorians. The romantic moderns, by contrast, liked their roses and their crazy paving, their yew trees and their hedges, creating spaces that provided scope for imagination and sensory stimulation. Vita Sackville-West’s magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst were created during this time, flying in the face of austerity and the bleakness of war time conditions to demonstrate the lasting power of tradition. Being daring didn’t necessarily mean having to be new; Benjamin Britten wrote a series of pieces based on traditional folk tunes that had been long forgotten, creating beautiful music that felt both primal and innovative.
Romantic Moderns is fascinating, absorbing, beautifully and passionately written, and the issues discussed have many intriguing parallels with the British cultural scene today. Just as John Piper and Virginia Woolf sought to reconcile their modernity with their heritage, so do we. We buy the blousy, twee florals of Cath Kidston, fetishising the domesticity of the 1950s, and we buy cosy country cottages as weekend homes, desperate to reconnect with the land we have turned our backs on and built over in our worship of the urban. We go to exhibitions of Victorian art, we read modern prize winning novels set in the heyday of Britain’s colonial past and paper our walls in reproduction William Morris wallpaper. We drink tea at National Trust properties and shop for antiques at trendy markets. At the same time, however, we can’t live without our iphones and ipads, we eat food out of plastic trays, we live in anonymous high rise blocks of flats and shop in fluorescent supermarkets surrounded by an infinite variety of stuff sourced from anywhere but our own doorsteps. We look to the past for something to ground ourselves in, but we also strive for and embrace modernity and innovation that is ironically eroding the heritage we increasingly seek. Who are our ‘Romantic Moderns’ now, I wonder, and why is it that it continues to be frowned upon by the artistic elite to be romantic? The biggest names in modern art are anything but, and yet they clearly do not represent the vision and viewpoint of the average Briton today. As such, Harris’ sensitive and ambitious portrayal of a group who dared to challenge the status quo and weren’t afraid of embracing their heritage provides much food for thought, and has a continuing relevance. She has introduced me to many artists and writers I had not heard of before, and given me a greater appreciation and understanding of the underlying cultural context of the pre war years. This is a must read for anyone interested in the interwar period; don’t be put off by the academic appearance, as it is very readable and I would even say unputdownable. I know I will return to it time and time again. Highly, highly recommended!