Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris

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!

28 comments

  1. Dear Rachel,

    I read this book last year and when I saw you were reading it I thought to myself, “Only Rachel Fenn could perfectly describe this indescribable book.” And you did it splendidly! Have you read A. Harris’s biography of V. Woolf? You will not be disappointed; it is equally brilliant.

    1. Thank you lovely Charles! I haven’t read the Woolf biography but everyone seems to think it is wonderful so now it has gone on my must read list. I think a little Virginia Woolf reading project might be in the offing!

  2. I’ve just finished her Virginia Woolf biog, also very readable (having struggled with Hermione Lee’s mammoth tome) and short enough to finish, if not in one sitting, then certainly in two. It has certainly given me the urge to go beyond Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Lovely to read a biog that leaves you wanting more instead of feeling bloated.

    1. That sounds brilliant, Mary. I enjoyed Hermione Lee’s biography when I read it a few years ago but it was a bit turgid in places. I do struggle to get the point of a lot of Woolf’s novels so perhaps this will be the book I am looking for to provide a bit more of a key to appreciating and understanding her novels!

  3. Thank you for this – I keep reading about this book in so many other blogs and articles but was worried it was going to be too dry and academic to read for fun, but you’ve definitely persuaded me. I’m off to the bookshop after work to get a copy!

    1. I’m glad to hear it, Brenda! It’s definitely not dry and I loved every minute of reading it – I hope you managed to get hold of a copy and are enjoying it as I write this!

  4. This sounds very interesting. I love modernist literature despite being a romantic at heart. My life revolves around vintage clothes, décor and kitchenalia; local produce and whole foods cooked from scratch; organic beauty products and natural remedies. I also love the DIY fad (hoping it’s not just a fad!) and upcycling just about anything that can be put to better use. In sum, I love learning from the past, but always to make the future a better place.
    I’m about to finish The Second Common Reader and the two volumes have made me see Virginia Woolf in a different light. I had always though she just wanted “to make it new,” but silly me, I did not realize that she was not at all interested in discarding the old, but rather in adapting it for the present and future. Her last words in the first series say it all: “scan the horizon; see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come” (“How it Strikes a Contemporary”).

    1. From the sounds of it, Azahara, you would love this. Reading Harris’ analysis of Woolf in this book have made me reassess her too, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her essays to gain a greater insight into her attitude towards modernity and the past. That quote you wrote is wonderful, thank you!

  5. It’s a nice topic, R. I used to be fascinated by the millennial Victorian era as a precursor to our own; the time when Darwin and Science moved into intellectual territory formerly controlled by religion. This is the same – how another era, as you describe, had a similarly formative influence on Britain today.

    I was in Waterstones today, R. There was a new book – can’t remember either the title or author – about war time lives. Not much help I realise that….but I did think of you and your interests, and now reflect that it might be worth your investigation.

    – Bop.

    1. I am fascinated by that era too, Bop! All these pivotal periods are deeply interesting as I feel that we too are in one and could learn a lot from what came before.

      Was it Millions Like Us? I’ve heard a lot about that recently and want to read it desperately!

      1. No, not that R. It wasn’t specifically about women. I’ve Googled it and can’t find anything so its a lost idea….

        I read The Victorian Frame of Mind (Houghton ) at university, and found it more fascinating than some of the fiction. I had bad (ineffective!) study habits, which meant I took notes for every page! – for a background sociological text, when I was doing a Lit degree. Ha!

        But I think actually, there’s a productive link between that kind of book and lit from the era. As you do too.

        I don’t really read much now compared to you, R. I’m a slow reader (same at university), and I also frequently lose interest which means I can spend weeks getting through just one book.

  6. Ooooh, such an interesting topic. If it’s not too hard, I will try to get my hands on this book. I really like your question of who are today’s ‘Romantic Moderns’. These days it seems like more people are willing to embrace romanticism and I think hard edged modernity makes us long for it more than ever.

    1. It really is a fascinating topic, Lucy, and one that isn’t written about much at all. I felt very enlightened after reading it, I must say! I hope you can find a copy. I think romance is definitely something we are more open to today, though there are plenty of people who mock it still!

  7. What a beautifully written and realised assessment of this superb book, Rachel! Many congratulations.

    I would buy this at once if I hadn’t already spent a small fortune on Edward Thomas (2 books) and a huge fat book of the best LIFE photos. Thomas, of course wrote wonderfully about rural England.

    One of Elizabeth Bowen’s most memorable Collected Stories, called Attractive Modern Homes, cleverly shows how, in the thirties, people became depressed and isolated in new housing developments which had begun to eat into green land. The loss of our beautiful countryside had begun.

    My mum used to tell about moving to New Eltham after the war when there were cows looking over the fence at the bottom of our garden. You’ll know where I mean – Green Lane must once have seemed green!

    1. Thank you so much Chrissy! Make sure it goes into your next lot of amazon purchases – you will love it, I am sure!

      Thank you for telling me about that short story – I will try and track it down. I must buy her collected stories – I only have one volume of her stories and I don’t think that’s in it unfortunately.

      That’s quite funny to think of – I just drove down there yesterday on my way to Lewisham, actually! My parents still remember when Bexleyheath was a Heath – not anymore!

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