A Crisis of Brilliance


David Bomberg, In the Hold, Tate Gallery

On a sweltering day, there is no better place to be than a picture gallery. Their cool, hushed corridors hung with the aloof eyes of the long dead are a glorious relief from the oppressive glare of the sun. As such, in heat more akin to New York than London, yesterday I went to Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is England’s oldest public art gallery. Located on a leafy street in the historic and breathtakingly beautiful South London suburb of Dulwich Village, it is surrounded by its own parkland and bordered by gorgeous Georgian houses. I have never visited before; the permanent collection of Old Masters is not really my cup of tea, but I was enticed to go along thanks to their current exhibition of five 20th century artists who I have wanted to learn more about since reading Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns.


Paul Nash, The Combat, Victoria and Albert Museum

As it happens, Alexandra Harris wrote one of the essays in the exhibition catalogue, which is marvellous, and I wish I’d read it before going as it would have enabled me to put what I saw in a wider context than the exhibition information boards can give. The catalogue is written by David Boyd Hancock, who also curated the exhibition; his multi-stranded biography of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Christopher Nevinson and Dora Carrington received such rave reviews that an exhibition of their works was called for, and thankfully Dulwich Picture Gallery responded to the demand (adding a sixth artist, David Bomberg, to the mix). I don’t know a huge amount about any of these artists; I just know that they were connected to leading figures in the cultural world in the early 20th century and I was intrigued to find out more about them and how their work reflected the period. They all attended the Slade School of Art between the years 1908 and 1912, and their teacher, the famous Henry Tonks (who was an instrumental character in a novel I read last year, Toby’s Room) referred to their extraordinary eruption of talent as a ‘crisis of brilliance’ that was never to be repeated.

PHD30535Stanley Spencer, Unveiling a War Memorial at Cookham, Private Collection

The selection of their works shown in the exhibition is fascinating. on entering, you are confronted with David Bomberg’s ‘In the Hold’, an extraordinary vision of coloured shapes that looks like it was painted yesterday. To see the date of 1913 next to it is truly amazing; it completely shattered my perception of the early 20th century mind. Walking further into the exhibition, I continued to have my existing knowledge of the period trampled over. Mark Gertler and Stanley Spencer were producing abstract and ingenious images of humanity that revealed a generation of young people railing against the status quo of their society. Self portraits and portraits of one another reveal the faces of young men and women who are uncertain and troubled about their future in a world set on war.

NPG 6736; Dora Carrington by Dora Carrington

Dora Carrington, Self Portrait, National Portrait Gallery

Many of these young artists painted their experiences of this war that would bring their world to an abrupt halt; the dreary, pain etched canvases show the devastation and disillusionment the conflict caused these passionate, idealistic creatures of an innocent age. Sadly, many of them could not cope with their artistic temperaments, killing themselves before they had a chance to truly live. Others slipped into obscurity, failing to recapture the extraordinary vision of their youth. Only Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash remained lauded throughout their lifetimes, but strangely enough theirs were the works that called to me the least in this exhibition. It was Christopher Nevinson who struck me as the real genius; his abstract, clean lines that most clearly reference the art deco movement out of all of his contemporaries reveal a dynamism that I felt the others slightly lacked. I could have stared at his amazing painting of a plane careering through the clouds all day.


Christopher Nevinson, Spiral Descent, Private Collection

If you are in a position to make it to Dulwich, I highly recommend you making the trip. If not, the exhibition catalogue is brilliant. I never normally buy exhibition catalogues as they cost a small fortune, but this one was worth every penny. I have been glued to it all weekend and I can’t wait to learn more about these artists.


Christopher Nevinson, War Profiteers, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum


  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oh, I *so* want to see this – sounds amazing. I agree with you too about Nevinson – his work is remarkable (have you seen his “Among the nerves of the world”?) and I think he’s been very unjustly neglected. Lovely review!

    1. bookssnob says:

      It’s brilliant! The catalogue really is an excellent second best. I want to read more about Nevinson now – I entirely agree, he has been neglected. Glad you enjoyed reading about the exhibition! 🙂

  2. mary says:

    I’m another Nevinson fan. He’s getting a good show in the Tate rehang, too. Loved this exhibition but, Rachel, you really should give the permanent collection another chance – it’s a gem! The Linley sisters? Van Dyck’s Venetia Stanley? That lovely Gerrit Dou?

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh really? I have to get over to the Tate this summer and see the new rehang. Oh Mary…it’s just not my cup of tea! I did like the Linley sisters though. But the rest – all those pale faces and poppy eyes…it’s just so depressing!

  3. booketta says:

    Beautiful works. I love Dulwich but since leaving London … years ago, I have never been back to Dulwich.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I love Dulwich too – you should come back for a visit!

      1. booketta says:

        Maybe I will 🙂

  4. Astonishing review, you have opened my eyes. I recently ordered the book, A Crisis of Brilliance, and now it goes to the top of the pile. I’m sick that when in London earlier this month, I didn’t get to Dulwich, but will make a point of going next year and seeing the permanent collection. I never would have been pointed in that direction if not for you – your London eyes are important to those gazing wistfully from a pond and continent away! (I did manage to have some amazing experiences this trip, though…blog at http://www.lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com)

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh, you’ll have to let me know how the book is, Diana – I was tempted to get it myself at the exhibition but I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it so I didn’t. I know you’d enjoy Dulwich – I’m glad I’ve opened your eyes! I look forward to reading about your adventures on your latest trip! 🙂

  5. It is insightful to view these paintings, isn’t it, Rachel, especially up close? I think people would have a different view of modern art if they were to take the time to visit institutes of art. A century later, I think many of us are just coming to understand this amazing era. Your post brings it to the forefront.

    I don’t often buy the catalogues either, but, the few I have are lasting treasures of reference. I think if we look to them as books rather than exhibition catalogues, they take on a different feel.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Penny – you are always so wise. I think seeing things in context like this is so eye opening. It was a wonderful experience. Oh yes – the best catalogues transcend the limitations of the exhibition they are written for and go on to have a lasting importance for people studying the topic. This will be just such a publication I think!

  6. Chrissy says:

    Stanley Spencer’s my man.

    Lucky you, to have all this beauty more or less on hand .

    So you aren’t missing the hot New York streets then?

    1. bookssnob says:

      I found Stanley Spencer’s paintings very interesting but they didn’t blow me away as much as some of the others. I am lucky indeed – I need to appreciate it more! Oh I had forgotten what it was like to be ths hot…I am taking it as a good opportunity to get reacclimatised before I go back!

  7. Deborah says:

    Thank you for alerting us to his exhibition, I must try to make it down to London before the end of the summer as I love this group of artists. Many years ago there was a tremendous exhibition of Carrington’s work at the Barbican, prompting me to read her letters and diaries – do read them if you can get hold of them, they are wonderful and very moving, and I must get round to reading “Crisis of Brilliance”! Glad to see you are enjoying the summer break!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Deborah, you must come down for it – it’s well worth the trip. I am actually very interested in reading more about Carrington – I shall get hold of those letters and diaries. Oh I wish – still not on holiday – next Wednesday afternoon is the start of my summer!

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