In September 1931, Barbara Hepworth invited Ben Nicholson to Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast. Both artists were married: Hepworth to the sculptor Jack Skeaping, whom she had met while on a scholarship in Rome, and Nicholson to the painter Winifred, who stayed behind at their farmhouse in Cumbria to look after their two small children and new baby. At Happisburgh, where the other invited guests included Henry Moore and Ivon Hitchens, Hepworth and Nicholson swam in the sea, played cricket and discussed ideas for their work. Nicholson photographed Hepworth’s naked back and Hepworth, after collecting driftwood and stones on the beach, described Nicholson’s head as ‘the most lovely pebble ever seen’. She was distraught when he returned to Winifred and the children in Cumbria. But she nevertheless went back to her studio in Hampstead feeling as if she was ‘coming into a new world’. She wrote to Nicholson to tell him that all ‘that has happened is for ever & ever, & always’ and that she was sure that something ‘very big’ was about to happen in her work.
Caroline Maclean argues that the holiday in Happisburgh defined a moment in British sculpture. When, a few weeks later, Hepworth pierced a hole in the centre of a piece of pink alabaster, she felt ‘intense pleasure, unlike anything she had experienced while making figurative sculptures’. The following year Moore did the same thing, later calling 1932 the ‘year of the hole’ (he claimed to have got there first). Although Nicholson had been exploring abstraction since the 1920s, in 1933 he met Braque and Brancusi in Paris and started to construct his paintings as shallow reliefs, reducing his palette to white. Hepworth called his technique ‘carving out’ and must, Maclean imagines, ‘have felt in some ways that their two art forms were merging’. That year Hepworth, Nicholson and Moore were invited to join Unit One, a group of painters, sculptors and architects brought together by Paul Nash to stand for ‘a truly contemporary spirit’ that would, he wrote in the Times, definitively bring together abstraction and Surrealism. But Maclean suggests that the decade’s innovation had already begun with the pink alabaster of Hepworth’s Pierced Form: ‘By opening up sculptural form to involve interior space Hepworth transformed 20th-century sculpture. She said later that the ten-inch sculpture formed the basis of all her work.’
From 1931 until the outbreak of war, Hampstead was the home of an emerging progressivism in art – not quite radical, a little domestic in fact, and also in thrall to the bolder experiments taking place in Paris and Berlin. Yet as a stream of European artists and architects arrived in London, the Hampstead coterie was invigorated by émigré friends. Herbert Read had visions of a British Bauhaus when Walter Gropius arrived from Berlin, László Moholy-Nagy taught Hepworth how to make photograms and Berthold Lubetkin designed the penguin pool at London Zoo. There was an opportunity, Maclean writes, to establish London as the centre of international modernism. But they couldn’t quite manage it: distracted by the onset of war, the Hampstead group let their European counterparts slip away. Hepworth called theirs ‘a movement in flight’. By 1939 she had left North London, and the Isokon building on Lawn Road, once blisteringly white and standing for all that was new in architecture and living, was painted brown to elude the Luftwaffe. The moment had passed.
But in the year of the hole, Hepworth and Nicholson (who hadn’t quite left Winifred, though he would divorce her in 1938) lived in Belsize Park, at No. 7 Mall Studios, a row of artists’ living and working spaces with skylights and twenty-foot-high windows. Herbert Read lived at No. 3, and around the corner on Parkhill Road were Henry and Irina Moore, close enough for Moore to continue the ‘sibling-like rivalry’ with Hepworth which had begun during their student days in Leeds. The set gathered around the dinner table at Jim and Helen Ede’s on Elm Row, or at the fashionable bar at the Isokon, or at Read’s studio – where ‘the hard chairs, the skimpy wine, & the very nice sensible conversation’ left Virginia Woolf cold but where, as Geoffrey Grigson remembered, one might bump into
Braque … or Jean Hélion from Paris, or Eliot gayer than his reputation, actually singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’. The exodus from Hitler’s Reich having begun, one might walk into the solemn dignified company of Gropius to find oneself face to face with slow-smiling Moholy-Nagy from the Bauhaus (furniture all round to match, as far as could be found). Ben and Barbara from next door would be there, and the Moores from down the road.
To Hepworth, England seemed suddenly ‘alive and rich’.
In 1934 Hepworth gave birth to triplets, and despite Nicholson having left her to go to Winifred in Paris, she returned to work soon afterwards ‘nourished’ by motherhood and carving in a new and entirely abstract way. Yet the group’s broader efforts at forming a collective were failing. Nash’s initial vision for Unit One was an all-male ‘fancy’ that aimed to shift the focus of art away from Paris and create a movement of international significance in England. English art, Nash wrote, suffered from a ‘lack of structural purpose’ and new groups tended to ‘die hard’. But Nicholson refused to join without Hepworth and, despite a lively exhibition at the Mayor Gallery on Cork Street in April 1934, a secret ballot to decide membership led to its dissolution the same year. Not long after, Nash’s efforts were swept aside by the wave of Surrealism that arrived from Paris.
While his companions arranged themselves either side of the abstraction/Surrealism divide, Read embraced both, describing himself as a circus rider with his feet ‘planted astride two horses’. He was awkward and a little old-fashioned, having been a professor of fine art in Edinburgh and an editor of T.E. Hulme. He had written on ceramics and for Criterion and had recently become editor of the Burlington Magazine. But Read was ‘fascinated by the power of collectives’, Maclean writes, and acted as ‘a kind of social glue’ among his artist friends: unlike his contemporaries he could ‘make organisations work’, and after the war he founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts. In 1936 he joined Roland Penrose on the organising committee for the landmark Surrealist exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, which included Man Ray’s dreamy Lovers, showing Lee Miller’s lips floating above green hills, Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup and saucer and Eileen Agar’s objets trouvés – shells, nets and pieces of rusted metal. More than a thousand people went to the opening, at which the performance artist Sheila Legge wandered around carrying a pork chop and Dalí gave a talk in a diving suit in which he very nearly couldn’t breathe. Surrealism, Maclean notes dryly, had become ‘very chic’.
Yet as the decade progressed, smaller projects descended into turf wars. When Myfanwy Evans launched Axis in 1935, the first magazine in Britain dedicated to abstraction, she was sceptical of the term, slotting it between ‘guilty quotation marks’ throughout the issue. Designed by John Piper (with whom Myfanwy was living at Fawley Bottom, a rundown farmhouse in Oxfordshire), Axis was crisp and modern, with sans-serif lettering and experimental prose. But Myfanwy’s refusal to pin down abstraction infuriated the artists. In what Maclean calls a ‘cycle of competitive publishing’, Hepworth and Nicholson – with Leslie Martin and Naum Gabo, fresh from Abstraction-Création in Paris – launched Circle, a manifesto for abstract-constructivist art. Nicholson in particular was interested in only one kind of modernism: the search for pure form. Circle promoted the constructivism which had been banned in Germany and Russia, taking what Martin called the ‘new aesthetic’ of ‘the motor car and the aeroplane, the steel bridge and the line of the electric pylons’. The first issue was published in 1937 but Circle never appeared again. On the masthead only the three male editors were named; Hepworth and Sadie Speight, who ‘did the dirty work’ of researching, layout, correcting and proofreading, were ignored.
By 1937 the Pipers were becoming disillusioned with the increasing factionalism of their companions. John believed that movements should be ‘discovered afterwards’ and not forced, and Myfanwy finally rejected both abstraction and Surrealism in an editorial for Axis. Hepworth and Nicholson, busy with Circle, hurried to Fawley Bottom to set them straight and Myfanwy wrote in her diary simply: ‘Ben and Barbara. Hell.’ ‘Patience with the art world, even within the art world, was wearing thin,’ Maclean writes. There were ‘a thousand battles’, Myfanwy reflected in 1937, between Hampstead and Bloomsbury, Surrealism and abstraction, Spain and Germany, round and square. She had grown tired of fighting.
Perhaps the most lasting monument to all of this is the Isokon, the four-storey block of flats that sits on Lawn Road as white and serene as a docked ocean liner. The building was designed by Jack Pritchard, then an engineer at the Venesta Plywood Company, his wife, Molly, a bacteriologist, and the architect Wells Coates. They would follow the European example: a new style of urban living, one that freed people from the clutter and labour of daily life. ‘How do we want to live?’ Molly asked at the building’s opening in 1934. ‘What sort of framework must we build around ourselves to make that living as pleasant as possible?’ The 29 flats on the Lawn Road site – the first concrete block of flats in Britain – were semi-communal, with a bar, a canteen and services including bedmaking, shoe polishing, laundry and housekeeping. They were designed as workers’ housing with open gardens for the residents. The ‘idea of property’, Coates had written to Jack, where ‘this little garden is for you m’dear and this tweeny little wishy bit is for me so there! – is dead, dead, dead’. In reality, the flats were too expensive for the average worker and were marketed to middle-class professionals;the biggest garden belonged to the penthouse, which was kept aside for Molly and Jack. After the flats opened, residents complained of a lack of hot water, paint blistering on the walls and a brownish liquid seeping from the light sockets. But Marcel Breuer loved the airiness of the rooms and the wide views. He had moved into Flat 16 and from 1936 was employed as a designer for Isokon, creating their most iconic piece of furniture, the plywood Long Chair, on which residents could lounge in the bar.
With the Isokon came the decade’s greatest missed opportunity. When Gropius arrived in London he was a political exile with no money and nowhere to live. Jack gave him a flat in the Isokon and was anxious to find work that would keep him on British soil. Read, too, wanted him to stay. But after several projects fell through, Gropius grew frustrated with the conservative tenor of London’s art world. To the Bauhaus exiles, England had sounded like a ‘fairy tale’, a place of safety with opportunities for work and to make new friends. But the British wing of the school never materialised, and although the new arrivals liked the ‘notion of the weekend and taking tea’, as Moholy-Nagy put it, they were disappointed by the lack of ‘vitality, visual awareness, and imagination’. To Jack’s dismay, the trio left London in 1937, Gropius and Breuer for Harvard and Moholy-Nagy to set up a new Bauhaus in Chicago. The English exodus had begun.
Maclean handles her vast quantity of source material with great efficiency, plotting the decade as ten sleek chapters of mostly failed experiments. She is an unobtrusive biographer, spending little time on the romantic escapades of her subjects or the many defections of the men from their wives. When there’s a risk of the book becoming a compendium of manifestos, Maclean remedies it with flesh-and-blood detail. Best are the snapshots of friendship and revelry: the convivial evenings at the Isobar, where guests ate bison tail and blue soup; the performance of Alexander Calder’s wire circus to an audience sitting on crates and drinking beer from a barrel; or nursery tea with Hepworth and the triplets, at which Mondrian licked the jam off his knife watched intently by three pairs of eyes.
By 1938 London had begun to feel unsafe. Hepworth fled to St Ives, where she struggled to balance wartime domestic life with work; the Moores to Hertfordshire after their studio was hit by shrapnel; Read to rural Buckinghamshire. Mondrian was the last to leave, sitting in the basement of the Ormonde Hotel during the first nights of the Blitz until he secured a berth on a boat to New York. Read’s ‘nest of gentle artists’ had scattered to the winds.
If the Isokon stands for modernism’s prewar moment in Britain, then a flat-roofed glass house in the Scottish Borders gives us its postwar legacy. High Sunderland was commissioned in 1956 by the textile designer Bernat Klein, and was both his home and workplace for the next sixty years. Built on a remote hillside between Selkirk and Peebles, the house follows a simple pattern: a rectangle divided into interconnecting modules or rooms, including two courtyards and a carport. Its elongated structure is a Mondrian-like puzzle of white horizontals, honey-coloured wood and clear and coloured glass. Like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, it glows at night, as if floating among the trees. Its architect, Peter Womersley, has been largely overlooked in accounts of British modernism, perhaps because he mostly worked in northern England and the Borders, leaving only a scattering of buildings, including the University of Hull sports centre and a concrete grandstand for Gala Fairydean Rovers F.C. in Galashiels. Recently, one of his projects – a Californian-style house perched over the sea in Ayrshire – was deemed unworthy of heritage status and destroyed. High Sunderland is considered a masterpiece, Womersley’s pristine vision of modern living.
For Bernat’s daughter, Shelley Klein, growing up in a modernist house wasn’t much fun. Like the Isokon, High Sunderland was often impractical, both buildings the manifestation of high-minded aspirations for community and family living, but not always suited to either. In The See-Through House, she describes the place as both exacting and oppressive. The modernist obsession with proportion, functionality and free-flowing space resulted in a house with no doors, Klein’s bedroom opening into the kitchen corridor and exposed to the rest of the house across a concrete courtyard. Furniture was designed with comfort as the final thought: in the hallway, a steel chair by the Danish designer Poul Kjærholm was ‘an exercise in frugality’, not for sitting on, but for sitting there itself with the gravity of a sculpture; in the living room, the sofas – designed by Womersley – were straight-backed and narrow. Yet Klein was brought up to appreciate the austere beauty of the place: the floor of Italian travertine marble, which was mottled ‘like the skin of the moon’ and heated from beneath (no small luxury in the 1950s); the walnut panelling in the kitchen; and, in the vast sunken living room, the floor-to-ceiling glass which brought the outside in, the trees silhouetted onto the walls like ‘arboreal wallpaper’ and rhomboids of light dancing like ‘modernist ballets’ across the floor. The smallest details mattered: the linen table napkins in every colour; the white Rosenthal china; the parrot tulips stippling the lawn.
Klein’s memoir grapples with the guilt of finding home difficult. Despite jobs and relationships, High Sunderland was the place to which she always returned, ‘the only real “home” I have ever had’. Moving back there in her forties to look after her father, she regressed, becoming a ‘hybrid creature: half child, half adult’, impatient with his way of living. Bernat, known as Beri, banned her pots of herbs from the kitchen windowsill, accusing her of ruining ‘the line of the house’; routines were followed and every object had its place. Beri regularly adjusted his collection of ceramic bottles – some by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie – with a curator’s exactitude, and stashed the Fairy Liquid beneath the sink. Even the silver birch trees lining the drive were deemed grubby – Klein once caught her father scrubbing the lichen-covered trunks with bleach so that their whiteness would once more reflect the columns of the house. High Sunderland, she explains, was ‘not simply a house’: it was a structure which ‘dictates how one should live’. Beri had created ‘a world where order prevailed, beauty ruled, where everything, from what one wore to what one ate, read or looked at, was consciously thought about and chosen’.
Klein unravels what the house meant for her father. Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Senta in Yugoslavia, Beri learned the family textile business early, before being sent at 16 to a yeshiva in Jerusalem. On leaving, his mother gave him the cotton coverlet from her bed to remind him of home. In 1940 he abandoned the yeshiva to enrol at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where he ‘began to engage in the making process, in the creating and drawing together of objects and in the excitement of a new life’. While Beri was discovering freedom, the Axis powers had begun their invasion of Yugoslavia, rounding up Senta’s Jewish men under the age of fifty for forced labour and deporting the remaining Jews to the camps.
By the time Beri arrived in England, in 1945, most of his family had disappeared. The house in Senta, he later said, was ‘a part of my past from which I had to learn to wrench myself free’. He studied in Leeds and worked at knitwear factories in Bolton and Edinburgh before founding his own company, Colourcraft, in 1952. Four years later, unable to keep up with the orders from Marks and Spencer, he bought his own mill. There, he modernised tweed, combining different textures and weights of yarn, mohair with velvet ribbon and ‘slubby yarns with twists of three or more colours’. Success came in 1962, when Coco Chanel used a Bernat Klein cloth in her spring collection. Dior and Balenciaga quickly followed. When Chanel refused to meet Beri in Paris, he read between the lines, but was unperturbed. He liked being an outsider, his daughter writes, once describing himself as like ‘paprika in a large British stew’.
Embarking on the building of High Sunderland in 1956, Beri and Womersley formed an unusually sympathetic client/architect bond. The house fulfilled a mutual desire for an architecture that looked to the future, not back at the past. Beri wanted a house of glass ‘to banish all darkness’. He brought colour to Womersley’s designs, making curtains of cream mohair and pink lambswool cushions at the mill. Klein draws a parallel between her father’s craft and Womersley’s: weaving and architecture are ‘both structural practices’, the ‘views from within a loom and within a building disclosing multiple connections, cross-overs, layers’. Beri’s tweeds themselves exhibit a ‘three-dimensional quality’.
But despite Beri’s conviction that High Sunderland ‘was the most exhilarating place in which to live’, Klein often felt constricted and exposed. As a child in her bedroom, she was frightened by ‘the fact that at night you couldn’t see who was outside, but they could see in’. Living in a house ‘rinsed’ by sunlight gave her the feeling of being watched, of restlessness. ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m more secretive, more withholding, than I might otherwise have been because so much of my early life was, for want of a better word, transparent,’ she writes. ‘I wanted to be opaque, clouded, un-see-able-through.’ Such reflections throughout the book tend to be vague: Klein searches for, but never quite seems to reach, the truth of her feelings about the house and, by extension, about her father. After his death, she ‘moved through rooms free of detritus, yet felt as if I were stubbing my toes.’ The properties of glass taunted her – it was membranous, brittle but tough – and she became used to the dull thud of birds smashing into the windows. Outside in the dark, the house stared back at her with ‘the eyes of a dead animal’. She wanted to ‘put a fist through’ it.
Yet modernist buildings continue to cast their spell. When Klein sold High Sunderland in 2015 through the luxury estate agent the Modern House, it was celebrated as a paragon of mid-century design. Three years later, the agency also sold the penthouse flat of the Isokon. By the 1970s the flats had fallen into disrepair. Burned-out cars littered the car park and a murder took place on one of the balconies. Camden Council sold the building in 1999 and the flats were restored by Avanti Architects, reopening in 2005. In 2018, the penthouse promised all the comfort and convenience that it had in 1934, and sold for £950,000.