- Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp, £19.95, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 500 25171 3
‘In T.S. Eliot we find the poet as farmer’: now that truly is revisionist. If the pin-striped modernist with the ‘features of clerical cut’ ever put his hand to a pitchfork, the incident has gone unreported. And yet in Romantic Moderns, her provocative critical survey of English cultural life between 1930 and 1945, Alexandra Harris points to Eliot’s lines in ‘East Coker’ about ‘Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth/Mirth of those long since under earth/Nourishing the corn.’ Harris argues that the poet was thinking about the dead farmworkers of his ancestral village in Somerset because the seasonal round symbolised by their festive dance had become integral to his vision of society. Any culture worthy of the name must build on agriculture, rather than leaning on the insidious mass delusions of advertising and propaganda. ‘The connection with the earth, the “dung and death”, was for [Eliot] the very sign of civilisation,’ writes Harris, who also quotes him urging, in 1938, the necessity ‘that the greater part of the population, of all classes (so long as we have classes), should be settled in the country and dependent on it’.
And so the poet as farmer (‘or’ – in Harris’s brisk stepping back – ‘at least as a champion of agriculture’) was in touch with the rural revivalists. Rolf Gardiner at Springhead in Dorset was trying to ‘rebuild a hill-and-vale economy along modern organic lines’, at once reducing local unemployment and staging work camps where the educated could sing and dance after heaving their forkloads of muck. Viscount Lymington, Eliot’s farming friend in Hampshire, the leader of a mini-militia called the English Array, liked to assert that ‘in loving service to the soil, men see each season how death may be cheated and learn how they must always protect the sound seed from the weeds, and how close breeding makes fine types of stock.’ In other words, his ruralism entailed anti-semitism and eugenics. The High Tory Eliot kept his distance from these doctrines of Lymington’s, but like Gardiner, the two looked towards a dirt-kicking, muscular countryside, rather than any prelapsarian pastoral. Harris contrasts the rural dancers in Eliot’s late poem to those in a modernist icon painted 30 years earlier. Whereas ‘the figures in Matisse’s La Danse float and skip through their eternal circlings on a bright originary hill top,’ those in ‘East Coker’ are ‘lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes’. These villagers are weighted by their lusts – for coupling, for eating and drinking – and like all sinful mortals, they are dancing their way into the grave.
‘East Coker’ was written in 1940, hardly the moment for visions of innocence. Harris claims that ‘Eliot did not want to distance himself from those dancers, but to join them,’ because he now wished to cleave to his adopted nation’s collective fate, to make his personal submission to ‘the life of significant soil’. She describes how ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding’ were read out, each as it was published, on the wartime BBC, and how that factored into their rhetoric. ‘“History is now and England”: that is the voice of a rousing speechmaker and it was meant to be.’ And there, in the buoyancy of Harris’s own speech rhythm, you catch what makes Romantic Moderns such a striking critical debut. Harris swoops down boldly on the writers of her chosen era, flying off with them where she will. A sure way with a phrase (‘bright originary hill top’ and the like) is matched by a far-roving curiosity. She alights not only on poems, novels, memoirs, pictures and sculptures done during the 1930s and 1940s, but on gardens, kitchens, apartment blocks, travel guides, films and operas. The survey abounds in bright synchronic leaps, arriving for instance at Eliot’s thoughts on farming via the pottery of Bernard Leach and Thomas Hennell’s 1939 drawings of discarded scythes and harrows for H.J. Massingham’s Country Relics.
These are threaded together by a historian’s fascination with how the past conceived its own past. How did 1930s sensibilities, from John Betjeman to Cecil Beaton, engage with Georgian and Victorian architecture? What of the interwar flirtation with the Baroque, spoken for by Sacheverell Sitwell, or the period’s notions of Neolithic Britain? (Massingham, a long-out-of-print ruralist, envisaged Silbury and Cerne Abbas as pointers to a lost pagan Eden.) Equally, how did individual reputations fare? Harris loves to lean over one artist’s shoulder as he or she leans over another’s. And so, as she pores over Virginia Woolf’s posthumous reinterpretation of her friend Roger Fry and Evelyn Waugh’s thoughts about Rossetti, she notes Eliot’s essay on Kipling, published just after ‘East Coker’. The author of Puck of Pook’s Hill was ‘another literary exile who had sought out an English home and taken possession of it in his writing’. Each by his own procedures came upon the richer texture of history that Harris herself seeks after. ‘What Eliot called “the contemporaneity of the past” in Kipling’s landscape was precisely what he wanted to evoke in his own Four Quartets.’
Following which, Harris swings back – as so often – to the career that gives backbone to her narrative, that of John Piper. ‘As Eliot worked on “Little Gidding” in 1941, Piper painted Muchelney Abbey’ – ruins in which he discovered, she writes, an ‘articulate quality’ that ‘might also be called “the contemporaneity of the past”’. Piper, whom we meet on the opening page of Romantic Moderns and return to in its closing lines, is crucial to Harris because of the way his work changed course during the 1930s and because of the way he gave voice to that change. In 1933, as her protagonist turned 30, his painting and art criticism moved on from a student’s reverence for Braque towards an excitement about abstraction. He joined a London exhibiting group headed by Ben Nicholson, whose pure white reliefs were the nearest indigenous parallel to the work of Continental avantgardists such as Mondrian, and devised his own handsomely workmanlike ‘Constructions’. In 1935 Piper’s girlfriend Myfanwy Evans launched Axis, a review of ‘“Abstract” Painting and Sculpture’ that brought their English contemporaries – Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ivon Hitchens – into a common fold with Kandinsky, Miró, Calder and Arp, all then working in Paris. At roughly the same moment two or three shows of abstract art opened in London galleries. The press, to whom the phenomenon was new, greeted it with scepticism, if not derision.
Very soon after this, however, Piper started leaning towards scepticism himself. Abstract art couldn’t deliver a symbolic charge to match that of Constable or Turner, he complained in 1936. He summarised his change of heart a year later in an essay tellingly entitled ‘Lost, a Valuable Object’. ‘It will be a good thing to get back to the tree in the field that everyone is working for … Get back to it as fact, as a reality. As something more than an ideal.’ Piper’s art from this point turned increasingly on facts of history and topography. By 1939 the stormlit, nervy rhapsodies over ruins for which he is now best known had won over Kenneth Clark, who as director of the National Gallery had been a powerful foe to abstraction and who would henceforward prove an equally powerful patron.
Harris makes this switcharound in Piper’s career a model for changes across the board in English culture. Away from the ideal, towards the specific; away from abstractionist ‘purity’, towards a revaluing of evocation and emotion; away from high-handed internationalism, towards a concern for Englishness itself: the trend is evident, she claims, whichever way we look. The crux came during ‘three years, 1936-39, in which aesthetic values seemed to have shifted perhaps more dramatically than in any other short spell in English history’. Or – note the ‘seemed’, note the ‘perhaps’ – was the supposed transition anything like that abrupt? Yes, Virginia Woolf (a touchstone for Harris) published The Waves, ‘her most abstract novel’, in 1931, while in 1940 she was composing the ‘impure, inclusive and very English’ Between the Acts. But those epithets could equally be applied to Orlando, which had appeared back in 1928. Whereas in cooking – since that, too, becomes a candidate to represent the zeitgeist – international-modernist tendencies, such as Escoffier’s ‘no frills’ approach and the Francophilia of 1920s Bloomsbury (Woolf’s kerfuffle about the boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse), were already being countered by 1932, when Florence White brought out Good Things in England. Well, sometimes a historical thesis bites off more than it can chew. ‘It would be wrong to make the recuperation of English cooking sound clear-cut. If Englishness was increasingly in vogue, so were many other things.’ Hard to argue with that.
The thesis clearly reflects broad historical realities to the extent that cultural production got overshadowed by the long-arriving Second World War. The more the international situation became a cause for despair, the more tempting it became to concentrate your attention on your own offshore island. The more mandatory, you might claim: some sort of patriotism was forced on artists, pushing them together. Between the Acts, imagining a parody-pageant of English history staged in the final days of peace, was indeed being written while Piper painted the bomb-blasted Gothic traceries of Coventry Cathedral. Yet an argument turning on such ‘meanwhiles’ is describing a kind of parallax effect. The overlapping vehicles aren’t heading the same way. Woolf, like Eliot (or for that matter like Paul Nash or Stanley Spencer, both brought in as supporting testimony), was by the late 1930s a middle-aged artist with a reputation to live up to, or live down: in each of these acts, a major dynamic had become internal dialogue. Piper by contrast remained as yet one more contender trying to stick his head into the limelight, a tussle in which alertness to outward trends was absolutely crucial. Pushing old hands and tyros down the same road, you lose sight of where they’re coming from. Harris thinks she hears an unqualified commitment to rural England in those lines from ‘East Coker’, but she won’t listen to the underlying drone of revulsion (‘the coupling of man and woman/And that of beasts’) that links them to Eliot’s exemplary modernist performance, The Waste Land, 19 years earlier. Dwelling on Piper – and on other landscapists, such as Hitchens and Eric Ravilious – she turns her back on so much of his own generation. William Coldstream, whose urban-realist Euston Road School was surely a headline act in late 1930s England, remains strictly offstage. Coldstream’s friend Auden, still more obviously central to any account of the period, only steps out from the wings to introduce an Oxford Book of Light Verse that is a ‘brilliant correction’ of his own poetry’s ‘wayward obscurity’, and to serve as an unlikely ally to the avowedly nostalgic John Betjeman. Likewise, we get no more than a brief sidelong glimpse of George Orwell.
So be it. Let’s say that Harris’s concern is with a certain strand of artistic production, rather than with an overarching historical narrative. She has chosen Romantic Moderns as her title because she believes that in all her favourite work of the period – and that stretches to the writings of Elizabeth Bowen and to Peter Grimes, the opera with which Benjamin Britten returned from the States to England in 1942 – we encounter sensibilities thoroughly au fait with European modernism who nonetheless adopted the passion for the particular that is the hallmark of Romanticism. That is how Harris responds to the age-old Anglophobe’s accusation of ‘insularity’, and it’s a line of thought that opens up intriguing connections. Why does landscape art in the 1930s tend to concentrate on the south of England, the downlands? Because, Harris suggests, ‘chalk (as white as Nicholson’s white reliefs) is inherently more modern than granite or sandstone.’ Likewise, the stark triliths of Stonehenge told the modernist that England was ancestrally his by right. Walter Gropius came to photograph them, while his Bauhaus colleague László Moholy-Nagy became an unlikely colleague for John Betjeman as they worked together on a book about Oxford architecture: the reputed opposition between island values and international modernism has been rather over-egged, Harris often likes to claim.
Her stable of artists are ‘romantic moderns’ because it is good to be ‘modern’: instinctively, we recognise the word as a call to cultural virtue. And yet, as with the word ‘virtue’ itself, we tend to resent it and recoil from it. Harris’s study reflects this ambivalence as it pictures the mid-1930s art scene, at the point when Nicholson’s abstraction hit London: ‘Modernism asked whether the artist could engineer a tidier world … This philosophy crossed the Channel: in British art galleries the new orderliness reigned supreme.’ The tone is distinctly supercilious. ‘In declining to represent anything, abstract art could claim freedom from everything.’ Suspicious, too, in an age-old insular manner: this Continental invasion that supposedly ‘reigned supreme’ via a couple of poor-selling exhibitions looks like a phantasm drawn from the pages of the 1935 Daily Mail. Harris imputes ‘controversial’ boldness to Piper as ‘he challenged the left-leaning politics of the whole abstract movement’ in 1938 with his pronouncement that ‘Abstraction is a luxury.’
I don’t. You might more reasonably argue that he was kicking a cause when it was down – Nicholson, whose persistence with abstraction led him heavily into debt, could have told him that it was anything but an easy option. From here, though, I see Piper as falling in step on three separate levels. He was reverting to his own earliest artistic instincts; he was surfing the wake of Picasso’s 1937 Guernica; and he was responding to the long-standing dynamics of the English art market. There has been a pattern of pictorial reverie, accented towards landscape and history, in Europe’s most urbanised and least invaded nation ever since the late 18th century, a continuity continually co-opting or deflecting intruders such as international modernism. I have no quarrel with Piper’s exercises in this vein, and indeed share many of Harris’s enthusiasms, for instance for what she characterises as the ‘witty neo-Georgian style’ of Ravilious and Edward Bawden. (She is illuminating on all such past-on-past affinities.) But I’d avoid the terms ‘modernist’ and ‘avant-garde’ in arguing the cogency of such art, when that art is so utterly at a tangent to dictionary-definition instances of modernism such as Mondrian. ‘It seems counter-intuitive to describe English villages as centres for the avant-garde,’ a chapter on them tauntingly begins: Harris is longing to superimpose what she finds aesthetically exciting on her love for the countryside. But – setting aside the 1940s abstract group in St Ives, which she declines to mention – the proposition is not simply counter-intuitive, it’s a plain misuse of a historically meaningful term. As is her claim that the wartime murals done by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in the Sussex church of Berwick, 30 years after their moment at London’s artistic forefront, somehow represent a ‘homecoming of modernism’: on the contrary, the artists were reverting to their Slade education in Italian fresco as if they’d never seen a Cézanne. She wants the term ‘modernism’ to validate such tradition-hugging. She also wants it to stand for cold, alien, purist ‘engineering’. It’s have your cake and eat it too.
Romantic Moderns is a very fruity cake – lovingly served up in a superb book design – and all this picks away at a very thin slice. Much the same complex of sentiments could be traced through Harris’s accounts of architecture. The less I knew about the subject at hand, the more I enjoyed her warm-hearted commentaries – the sections on the Sitwells for instance, or on the fate of stately homes during the Second World War. Anyone who opens the book will be the richer for fresh critical connections and recommendations. The more it approached the familiar, however, the more Romantic Moderns seemed to present a parallel-universe 1930s to the decade inhabited by my parents. A cosmos minus a dimension or two. I suppose Harris writes in appreciation rather than in analysis. Even so, to push the era’s politics so far into the periphery as she does, and never even to look at issues of class consciousness, makes for a kind of unreality. The reader is placed in insulation, within the reveries (Romantic, pastoral, purist) of the haut-bourgeois – reveries that just occasionally make contact with the actual unemployed (as at Gardiner’s Springhead) or actual political evil (Lymington).
‘Bourgeois? You can’t still use that term!’ On the contrary, Frank Kermode argued (in History and Value, 1988, advancing an approach developed more recently by Alison Light and Nicola Humble): the 1930s was ‘a brief period during which politics so polarised books and their writers – demanded so close an attention to questions of class – that one can hardly discuss that bit of literary history without frequent use of the term and its partner “proletarian”’. Or if you won’t take Kermode’s word for it, try Woolf’s. Off-duty from the composition of Between the Acts, she gave a talk about the 1930s generation – Auden et al – to the Workers’ Educational Association. She didn’t care much for her juniors, she explained, but she was intrigued by the anxiety they displayed. Like herself – and like Harris’s ‘romantic moderns’ in general – those artists stood on a tower of class privilege: only, looking out on the world after the Crash of 1929, they sensed that this once solid tower was now tottering. It was this socio-political vertigo, Woolf believed, that gave 1930s art (whatever its superficial allegiances) a distinctive imaginative timbre.
What future lay ahead? The right-wing Eliot, with his ‘classes (so long as we have classes)’, was anxious that agricultural substrate and intellectual superstructure should interdependently remain. Woolf, married to a Labour Party activist, toyed in ‘The Leaning Tower’ with the hope that they wouldn’t:
If the pressure of the income tax continues, classes will disappear … Very likely that will be the end of the novel as we know it. Remove the hedges from Jane Austen’s world, from Trollope’s world, and how much of their comedy and tragedy would remain? We shall regret our Jane Austens and our Trollopes; they gave us comedy, tragedy and beauty. But much of that old-class literature was very petty; very false; very dull. Much is already unreadable. The novel of a classless and towerless world should be a better novel than the old novel. The novelist will have more interesting people to describe – people who have had a chance to develop their humour, their gifts, their tastes; real people, not people cramped and squashed.
Maybe that’s what’s happened here, in the field of cultural criticism. We can now break through to some post-class-conscious vision of art between 1930 and 1945 – freed up to see its originality afresh, without all that hackneyed scolding. Revisionism indeed. I don’t quite believe it, though.