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

Gary Day climbs on to the see-saw of the English Modernist movement and enjoys the ride

December 2, 2010

The only disappointing thing about Romantic Moderns is that it comes to an end. But this exploration of Englishness in the interwar years is so wonderfully written and has such beautiful illustrations that the reader will constantly be drawn back to enjoy its remembered delights, discovering new ones in the process.

This, though, is a pastoral with edge. It effects a quiet revolution in our perception of the 1930s. Without actually stating that she is dethroning W.H. Auden et al, that is exactly what Alexandra Harris does as she delves into that period's many-faceted project of "national self-discovery".

Her learning is formidable, and she's only 29. She must have come out of the womb with a book in her hand. Actually, make that a book in each hand. And when she isn't reading, she is visiting churches, analysing films, quizzing paintings, unearthing folklore, touring literary houses, tramping around villages and talking about the weather. Roger Fry found the English climate "extremely irritating" because it failed to live up to the ideal of art, whose role was to uncover the permanent form beneath the fleeting appearance. Others sought to redeem it. Film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger used fog in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as a "benevolent force that confounds rationalism and champions the idiosyncratic".

This is an instance of Harris' main theme, the constant see-saw between Modernism's aspiration to the universal and tradition's attachment to the particular. Ben Nicholson favoured the abstract, John Piper the concrete. The one drew circles and squares, the other churches and country houses. Modernism's motto was "make it new", but in some ways it was a return to English Puritanism. The architect Wells Coates, who designed the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, had as much distaste for ornament as the godly who smashed stained-glass windows in the cathedrals.

Modernism failed in England for the same reason that Puritanism did: both were too narrow. Le Corbusier said that "a house was a machine for living in", but a house, as the old song goes, is not a home. It needs its corners and shadows, even its dark spaces. In the early 20th century, the Victorian home represented clutter and confusion. But during the 1930s, its waxed fruits and Staffordshire dogs came to be seen not just as welcome idiosyncrasies in an increasingly uniform world, but also as symbols of permanence in a society of rented houses, fast cars and transitory relationships.

It would be wrong, though, to see Modernism as a reaction to Victorianism, or indeed the revival of interest in Victorianism simply as a reaction to Modernism for, as Harris convincingly shows, some Modernists, notably the Surrealists, were excited by the 19th- century "passion for collections, catalogues and odd juxtapositions". Photographer Angus McBean cut out a picture of comic actress Beatrice Lillie and pasted it under a glass dome placed on a heap of soil. She looks like a jolly version of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (1962).

For all its posturing, artistic Modernism stood for freedom. And, for a while, it looked as if there could be a rapprochement between the old and the new. Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts (1941), for instance, balances Modernist detachment with passionate engagement. The scenes of English history portrayed in the novel are shot through with irony and affection. This was a culture under threat. But it wasn't war that destroyed the gentle Englishness Harris celebrates, it was the managerialism that always lurked at the heart of Modernism. Empty formalism and obsession with function are all that matter today.

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

By Alexandra Harris

Thames and Hudson, 320pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780500251713

Published 4 October 2010

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