Neo-Romantic Book Illustration in Britain 1943-55 @ the Heath Robinson Museum

Although the Heath Robinson Museum is a relatively small gallery, this is a major exhibition. It is the first time a substantial collection of work by the Neo-Romantic book illustrators of the 1940s has been gathered together in one place. With nearly 50 prints, drawings, paintings and lithographs, and over 20 original book jackets from the period, this is a unique opportunity to sample a special and distinctive moment in English publishing and art history.

Neo-Romanticism in England

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

In British art history, the term ‘neo-romanticism’ is applied to a loosely affiliated school of landscape painting that emerged around 1930 and continued until the early 1950s. It was first labeled in March 1942 by the critic Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman. These painters looked back to 19th-century artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, but were also influenced by French cubist and post-cubist artists. The movement was part a response to the threat of invasion during World War II. Artists associated with the initiation of the movement include Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and especially Graham Sutherland. A younger generation followed in the same vein, including John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

This new visual style was most obvious to the general public in the form of book and magazine illustrations, particularly during the Second World War. The spirit of romanticism – a focus on nature, emotion and individual expression – was in part a reaction against the gloom of the blackout and rationing (and, possibly, against the very urban and politicised art of the 1930s).

Neo-Romantic artists looked back to the tradition of English landscape painting, drawing inspiration partly from the mystical Kent countryside portrayed by Samuel Palmer, and from the heavily stylised illustrations of William Blake.

But it’s not that simple – they also subtly acknowledged the visual possibilities opened up by more recent European art movements such as cubism and surrealism.

Book illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Book illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Government sponsorship

The war itself played a key role. It cut English artists off from all contact with European art for six long years. And it forced many artists and writers to reconsider what it meant to be English, across all the arts (for example, George Orwell’s long essay on the English character, The Lion and the Unicorn, published in 1941).

This impulse received official support when, in 1940, the British government commissioned artists including John Craxton, Leslie Hurry, David Jones, John Minton, Paul Nash and Ceri Richards, to document lives in towns and villages across the country for a project called ‘Recording Britain.’ It was intended to boost national morale during the Second World War by celebrating the nation’s landscape and architecture.

In other words, a large number of artists in the 1940s became aware, through friendships, their own experiences and official commissions, that they shared certain values and artistic approaches to romantic ideas of English landscape, English culture, English art and English writing.

Neo-Romantic book illustration

Book and magazine publishers weren’t slow to pick up on the new look, seeing an opportunity to commission illustrations from this new wave of exciting illustrators in order to make both classics and new books appear up-to-date. The result is a very distinctive style of book illustration which is immediately recognisable, and powerfully evocative of the period (say 1940 to 1955), but hard to put into words.

The style is definitely figurative, not abstract – but the figures, the landscapes and buildings, have been through the wringer of Modernism and have emerged leaner, tauter, more stylised and simplified.

Depth and perspective don’t have to be depicted with punctilious precision, as in Victorian or Edwardian illustration. Hatching and shading, colour and tinting don’t have to be perfect, but can hint and gesture towards the subject.

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster's novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster’s novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

There’s an article about Neo-Romanticism on the Tate website which uses the word ‘sombre’ and I think this opens up one way of thinking about the style. It is often mysterious, sometimes a bit threatening, often psychologically intense. There is a lot of black in many of the illustrations, often a hint of menace, of threat.

Possibly this derived from the six-year-long threat of Nazi invasion, but it was there in the 1930s work of Graham Sutherland, one of the godfathers of the new look – a darkness, a blotty inkiness,and it spills over as a vague and disturbing presence in many of the illustrations here.

Of course, this ability to convey menace and mystery was perfectly suited to many modern books, of both poetry and fiction, or travelogue – somehow conveying the troubled mood of mid-century life. And not only adult books – the ability to conjure a sense of danger is intrinsic to many children’s books, particularly adventure and mystery books.

The exhibition

The exhibition contains work by about twenty artists, to wit:

  • Keith Vaughan (12 b&w prints)
  • John Minton (8 colour, 4 b&w illustrations for Time Was Away, 3 other prints and book covers)
  • Michael Ayrton (3 illustrations to John Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller)
  • Eric Fraser (4 big colour illustrations)
  • John Piper (one dramatic ink and watercolour of an Oxfordshire tomb)
  • Edward Bawden (5 original artworks for book covers)
  • Barnett Freedman (4 colour lithographs)
  • Robin Jacques (three fine pen and ink illustrations, two for Don Quixote, in a very different style from most of the other artists)

These are the big names. They each get a substantial wall label detailing their biography, artistic career, describing their style and the books which they illustrated or provided cover art for, and so on.

Also featured, but with less commentary, are:

  • Julian Trevelyan (two Gothic illustrations for a work by poet Kathleen Raine)
  • John Elwyn (2 small drawings)
  • John Bantin (1 book cover)
  • Bryion Winter (1 drawing)
  • Rigby Graham (three or four illustrations)
  • Leonard Rosman (two small pen and ink drawings for the Radio Times)
  • Henry Moore (four studies for illustrations to a book by Edward Sackville-West titled The Rescue, as well as a copy of the book open so we can see some of Moore’s characteristically lacerated mannequins in situ)

Several additional illustrators feature in the three display cases, which present vintage books in order to show the Neo-Romantic style of their cover art. Among them is an early edition of Mani, the travel book by Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose jacket was done by his good friend John Craxton. (Leigh Fermor and Craxton are the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently running at the British Museum.)

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

John Minton (1917 – 57)

Minton emerges as the strongest presence and the exhibition features more examples of his work than anyone else. An entire wall is devoted to the colour illustrations he did for a travel book, Time Was Away, the result of a tour he made with the writer Alan Ross around Corsica in 1947.

Minton combines a kind of rough but keen descriptive line, which is then touched and dabbed by colour washes which:

a) are in a very distinctive and limited palette (mustard yellow, dull dark green, sky blue, orange-brown)
b) only partially colour the picture

The way his colour washes deliberately don’t fill the lines creates a sense of spontaneity and openness. ‘Scrappy’ isn’t the right word, but a sense of roughness. This deliberate lack of finish contrasts oddly with the actual lines of the drawing which are quite… stiff.

Both features are clear in the picture below. The drawing is highly figurative yet stylised, not quite ‘real’. The colour is a) deliberately unnaturalistic and b) only applied in patches or washes. And look at the pose of the boy – it isn’t fluent and graceful, it is somehow stiff and hieratic, almost clunky.

Illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Oh, and Minton likes to draw people with Roman noses, I noticed a number of classic silhouettes in his pictures. The result of all these effects is an odd sort of classicism, hard to describe but instantly recognisable.

Minton was prolific, which may explain why he is the most represented artist in the show, which itself reinforces the sense of his art being one of the most memorable. There’s a copy of the edition of Treasure Island which he illustrated, open to the dramatic, full-colour, double-page illustration on the end papers.

And it was Minton who did the jacket covers for Elizabeth David’s epoch-making cookery books, which brought recipes from the Mediterranean into middle-class households across Britain. These are always cited in social histories as defining cultural products of the age, reminding grimly snowed-in Brits of the delights of sunshine and fresh fruit in far-off, exotic locations, such as Greece. A whole generation learned to cook – or at least fantasise about cooking – Mediterranean food form David – and visualised these luxury landscapes via Minton’s depictions.

Jacket illustration for Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Dust jacket illustration for Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Keith Vaughan (1912-77)

Next to the Minton is a set of black-and-white illustrations by Keith Vaughan for the children’s novel The Spirit of Jem by P.H. Newby. According to the fascinating wall label, Newby wrote 17 books, as well as being a full-time senior manager at the BBC, eventually rising to become Managing Director of BBC Radio. (He was also the recipient of the first ever Booker Prize, in 1969.)

'I wedged myself into a fork and waited' from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

‘I wedged myself into a fork and waited’ from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

The intense design of Vaughan’s drawings, like the one above – the wildness of the trees and the semi-abstract treatment of the leaves – remind me of Graham Sutherland’s intense landscapes, and reach back past him to Samuel Palmer.

You don’t necessarily need to know that Vaughan was gay and lived for some time with Minton, but it does shed light on the closeness of the artistic as well as personal relationships of the period.

Michael Ayrton (1921-75)

Speaking of close friendships, Michael Ayrton shared a studio in Paris with Minton in Paris just before the war. Ayrton went on to illustrate over 35 books as well and worked for leading magazines of the day such as the Listener, the Radio Times and Penguin New Writing.

He’s represented here by some of the illustrations he made for Thomas Nashe’s Elizabethan picaresque adventure, The Unfortunate Traveller and by some book covers, including the cover art he did for a book called The Problems of Lieutenant Knap by the Czech writer Jiri Mucha, which really caught my eye.

In this drawing the moon appearing in a kind of flame of cloud reminds me of Paul Nash or Sutherland and harks back to Samuel Palmer’s rural visions, but whatever visionary element there is in that symbolism is obviously and brutally contrasted with the random piece of military equipment leaning against the doorway and the casual bored posture of the smoking soldier.

Cover art for 'The problems of Lieutenant Knap' by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Cover art for The problems of Lieutenant Knap by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Barnett Freedman (1901-58)

The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Freedman developed a really distinctive variation on the Neo-Romantic look, a compositional style which features curled scrolls or decorative borders around his often cartoonish and childlike illustrations. Take an example of both in this fabulous poster promoting cheese which he made for the Milk Marketing Board. Look at the houses, the church spire. Childish innocence.

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

The scroll and especially the font whose letters contain shading and decoration put me in mind of the posters and promotional material for the Ealing Comedies of this period, and the wall label points out that Freedman did, indeed, help to create the Ealing Studios look and logo.

Freedman also created a host of eye-catching book covers during the period, the most distinctive example being the cover for a complete edition of the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.

Cover of the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

Cover of The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

One Freedman piece which stood out for me was a wonderful colour illustration, apparently for a Christmas card. For its precision, its gentleness, its warm vision of the English scene, and for its use of the gentle, understated palette which so many of these pictures used (was it a limitation of the printing technology of the day?) I found myself returning to this particular picture again and again.

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Edward Bawden (1903-89)

I’ll be writing at length about Edward Bawden when the retrospective exhibition devoted to him opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May.

What the five book covers by him here bring out is something of the childishness of some of these covers. None of these illustrators were amateurs – the opposite, many of them made very successful careers as commercial artists. But many of the illustrations and covers deliberately accentuate a kind of hand-drawn, childish or naive style. This is one of the things that give them such a strong sense of nostalgic warmth and comfort – they are sub-consciously infantilising – you want to say ‘aaaah’ at so many of them. Atmosphere of the nursery. And the artlessness of the imagery deliberately connects them with an older tradition of English arts and crafts, foregrounding the hand-made and the hand-drawn.

Take this cover by Bawden for Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind In Jamaica. Everything about it is deliberately hand made and naive – the very hand-drawn figures of the centaurs, the simplicity of the horizontal mustard-coloured bands representing the fields, but above all the highly decorative border round the main illustration, with its deliberately artless use of details i.e. sheafs of wheat or clumps of grapes woven into the composition.

Edward Bawden's cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Edward Bawden’s cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

What came next

In the second half of the 1950s, a new look came in. Book covers and magazines began to reflect the influx of new consumer goods into Britain, and the rise of consumer culture. Harsher covers using the language of Abstract Expressionism became popular and, by the end of the 1950s, imagery inspired by the shiny high gloss look of American advertising and movies.

The world became modern, shiny and urban – the exact opposite of Neo-Romantic imagery showing an underpopulated countryside or Mediterranean harbours or childish, hand-drawn figures – a shininess which went on to be celebrated and/or mocked in the plastic brightness of Pop Art.

The Neo-Romantic look was old hat by 1955 and quickly disappeared, surviving as dog-eared copies of beautiful old editions in the kind of provincial library where I first came across them as a boy.

Conclusion

This exhibition chronicles a relatively brief period of highly distinctive book covers and illustrations which, looking back, now seems classic, warm and overdue for a revival.

It has clearly been a labour of love on the part of exhibition curator, Geoffrey Beare, to track down and retrieve many of the prints and paintings, drawings and lithographs from public and private collections around the country, and bring them all together for our enjoyment. And it’s been a very worthwhile effort.

This is a lovely exhibition, which inspires you to explore further, to find out more about Minton, Craxton, Vaughan, Freedman – about this whole generation of wonderful and under-appreciated illustrators.

The promotional video


Related links

NOTE ONE: there is currently an excellent exhibition about Craxton and Leigh Fermor which features many examples of Craxton’s art and illustrations from this period, at the British Museum.

NOTE TWO: A major retrospective of Edward Bawden opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May this year.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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4 Comments

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

     /  March 17, 2018

    Excellent post and excellent exhibition by Heath Robinson Museum.

    Yes the war itself played a key role, so it was just as well the British government found the money to commission artists .. at a time when resources were very scarce. Perhaps the project called ‘Recording Britain was to boost morale, but it possibly also to document the nation’s existing landscape and architecture, before it disappeared for ever.

    I am very familiar with Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens, Barnett Freedman and Graham Sutherland but not with the younger artists.

    Reply
  2. Geoffrey Beare

     /  March 18, 2018

    Dear Simon,
    Thank you for another excellent review. I am pleased that you enjoyed the exhibition.
    May I please offer a few corrections to the details that you give:
    The ten Keith Vaughan images for ‘The Spirit of Jem’ are original pen and ink drawings, as is the one for Tom Sawyer.
    The eight coloured images by John Minton are plates from the book, but all of the other designs by him are original artwork.
    There are only two designs by Eric Fraser and they are pen, pencil and watercolour designs for book jackets.
    The Barnett Freedman illustration for the Memoirs of an infantry officer is an original watercolour.
    Best wishes, Geoffrey

    Reply
  3. George Walker

     /  March 19, 2018

    How about one about H. M. Bateman, Simon?

    George

    ________________________________

    Reply

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