The Auden Generation

Rex Warner was one of the generation of English schoolboys born in the Edwardian decade who went to public schools during the war, then onto Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s, where they met, mingled and often had affairs (many of them were gay or bisexual), before going on to start their writing careers at the very start of the 1930s.

They were the generation which gave literature in England in the 1930s its distinctive tone, its schoolboy enthusiasms – for the shiny Art Deco world, for a glamorised black-and-white movie view of spies and fighting, and (since so many of them dabbled with left-wing politics) for sixth-form disapproval of unemployment and a simple-minded sort of communism.

At the time, this cohort of poets and novelists was often referred to as ‘the Auden Group’ and in hindsight is often called ‘the Auden Generation’ because of the enormously influence of the poetry and criticism of W.H. Auden. It includes:

  • Edward Upward b.1903 Repton School, Cambridge, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1934
  • Christopher Isherwood b.1904, Repton School, Kings College London
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904, Sherborne School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1935
  • Rex Warner b.1905 St George’s School Harpenden, Oxford
  • W.H. Auden b.1907 Greshams School, Oxford
  • Louis MacNeice b.1907, Marlborough, Oxford
  • Stephen Spender b.1909 Greshams School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1936
  • Benjamin Britten b.1913 Greshams School, Royal College of Music

All the guys on this list knew each other well from public school or Oxbridge, and collaborated on poems and plays and travel books which brought a new feel to English literature. They were modern and unstuffy, they rejected the values of their fuddy-duddy Edwardian parents. They were unashamed of their homosexuality or bisexuality, and rejected hypocritical old sexual morality.

They rebelled against their parents’ timid Anglican Christianity (‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda’ as Auden put it). Many of them e.g. Rex Warner and Louis MacNeice, were actually the sons of clergymen and (with a kind of inevitability which tends to disillusion you with human nature) quite a few ended up many years later reverting to the Anglican faith of their boyhoods (e.g. Rex Warner and, surprisingly, Auden himself).

They revelled in the new 1920s world of fast cars and speedboats, the excitement of air travel and the sheer glamour of steam trains with names like The Flying Scotsman. They were totally at home in the new media of radio and film, typified by Auden’s poetic commentary for a documentary about the London to Glasgow night train in 1936.

Auden’s poetry is significant because it is, arguably, the first in English literature which doesn’t reject the city and fetishise the countryside as most previous poets had. It’s true some English poets had conveyed the squalor of the late-Victorian metropolis, and T.S. Eliot had described 1920s urban crowds seen through the eyes of someone having a nervous breakdown:

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (The Waste Land lines 60 to 65)

But instead of horror or revulsion at the modern world, Auden conveys a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm for a world of factories, mine workings, racing cars, air speed records, ocean liners, electricity pylons. (Spender wrote a poem entirely about electricity pylons striding across the landscape, which led some critics to nickname the group the ‘pylon poets’).

And Auden does it in poetic forms which are popular and accessible. If Eliot’s poetry represents a crisis of Modernity in which sensitive, highly cultivated minds break down before the assault of the modern world and convey this in fragmented works packed with recondite references to the highest of European high culture (Dante, St John of the Cross), then Auden is the opposite.

Totally at home in the 20th century with its crowds and trains and trams and advertising hoardings and jazz bands and radio programmes, Auden knocks off ballads and limericks and lyrics and songs with a devil-may-care insouciance, a slapdash brilliance which a whole generation found inspiring and liberating after the psychologically intense, cramped and unhappy poetry of Modernism with its daunting battery of obscure references. Now poetry could be silly, inconsequential, as wittily throwaway as a Cole Porter lyric.

You were a great Cunarder, I
Was only a fishing smack.
Once you passed across my bows
And of course you did not look back.

It was only a single moment yet
I watch the sea and sigh,
Because my heart can never forget
The day you passed me by.

The Auden Group had all been too young to take part in or even understand, the First World War but, as impressionable teens, were exposed by their schoolmasters to endless stories of British pluck and heroism. They had all taken part in the Officer Training Corps at school and were used to playing at soldiers, wearing schoolboy soldier outfits, using schoolboy compasses and schoolboy maps to take part in pretend battles and missions.

It was this bright-eyed, schoolboy innocence they brought to the world as they found it in the late 1920s and 1930s. On the one hand it was a world of thrilling opportunities, with its hot jazz and dance halls, and radio just one of the new technologies opening the horizons of millions, its fast cars and sleek trains.

But on other hand, these boys were just leaving university and looking for their first jobs as the world was plunged into the economic collapse of the Depression, a world in which something had obviously gone badly wrong if millions were unemployed, factories and mines were shut down, and the destitute of Jarrow had to march on London to beg for work.

This exciting, thrilling modern world with all its cocktails and gizmos was at the same time somehow compromised, wrong, in error, needed to be rejected, rejuvenated, overthrown. Beneath the smouldering heaps of slag which disfigured the landscapes of the Black Country and the industrial North, slumbered the dragon of change, impatient to overthrow the old regime, the Old Gang.

Auden, again, vividly captured the feeling of an entire generation of impatient, upper-middle-class young men that they’d been sold a pup, that something was badly wrong, that society was poised on the brink of some terrible catastrophic change.

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
The falling leaves know it, the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground, know it–
This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time
With underground proliferation of mould,
With constant whisper and the casual question,
To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,
To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,
To censor the play of the mind, to enforce
Conformity with the orthodox bone,
With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, we know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang; would leave them
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

Some of this is, admittedly, pretty obscure, but other bits leap out as wonderfully expressive:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

And the whole things conveys the sense of crisis, through a heady mix of 1. details picked out like close-ups in a movie:

…the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

2. Invocations of northern mythology, not the sunlit references poets usually made to Greek mythology, but something northern, darker, more sinister:

This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s…

3. Snapshots of the real derelict industrial England:

… the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground…

It was a heady mixture of technical brilliance (Auden could and did write in almost every form known to English poetry, as well as inventing a few), brilliant details which leap out at you, great phrase-making, and confident mastery of modern psychology:

… love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union

References to kinky sex:

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

And ominous threat, the vague but powerfully expressed sense that there needs to be sweeping social change if anything is to be fixed, the solution to society’s problems, it:

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang.

The confidence of his voice influenced an entire generation away from the crabbed, fractured obscurities of Modernism (epitomised by Eliot’s Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos) towards this lighter, more open, confident and often funny tone, oddly combined with its schoolboy enthusiasm for ‘revolution’, for ‘radical’ change – something which, of course, none of them really understood.

(It was this political naivety, this ‘playing’ with radical politics which led George Orwell [b.1903, educated at Eton] to despise Auden, who he described as ‘a kind of gutless Kipling’. He really hated the whole gang. In reviews of their books, Orwell frequently referred to them as ‘the pansy poets’. Two other big names of the Thirties also stood apart from the gang, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, although both were Edwardian-born chaps who attended pukka schools – Greene b.1904, Berkhamsted school, Oxford; Waugh b.1903, Lancing school, Oxford.)

Spain

This sense of Auden’s omnicompetence and omniscience is exemplified in the first half dozen stanzas of the long poem Auden wrote after visiting Spain early in the civil war, titled simply Spain, which was published as a pamphlet in order to raise money for the Republican side.

Spain opens with a succession of stanzas each of which start with the word ‘Yesterday’ and give a visionary review of early Spanish history, building up a sense of the country’s pagan primeval past, before the poem arrives at the plight of the present.

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

It’s the confident tone, and the breadth of knowledge, and the fluent technique which allows him to include all these references in such powerful striding rhythms, which thrilled and influenced all the writers, especially the poets, of the 1930s. Only a few managed to resist, to establish a voice of their own.

Stephen Spender

Spender was a key figure of the group, went to the same private school as Auden, on to Oxford, then to bohemian Germany, was bisexual, political, published his first poems in 1933, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, travelled to Spain and wrote extensively about it during the civil war. Over the years he developed extraordinary connections with writers across Europe and became a leading literary figure in post-war Britain, not least as literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967. He was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983.

But I’ve always his poetry Stephen Spender wet and weedy. He’s too nice. He lacks the peculiar obscurity and the threat which lies behind even the most apparently accessible Auden. And he generally delivers one good phrase per poem and then the rest feels like padding. Here’s his famous pylon poem.

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

It’s a copy, a pastiche, the work of a devotee. Much of it is poor, like the opening line:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made…

The line about the electricity pylons being ‘Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret’ catches most people’s eyes, specially if they’re men. This is the best stanza:

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This has the Auden touch with its explicit reference to threat and danger and sense of the future as being ominous. ‘Whips of anger’ is good. But overall, it is (in my opinion) second rate.

Louis MacNeice

One of the contemporaries who was influenced by Auden (they all were) but maintained his independence was the car-loving, heterosexual Louis MacNiece.

MacNeice wrote funny, stylish poems which took a more mordant, sceptical look at the contemporary world than Auden’s. All Auden’s poems, when you look closely, contain a lot about his own personal unease and psychological issues. For the decade of the 1930s his inclusion of these neuroses (generally the parts of his poems which are most obscure in syntax and imagery) seemed to express the anxieties of the times.

MacNeice was a much more frank and forthright personality and so a lot of his verse has a more objective, external, sometimes journalistic vibe. Even when he starts off writing about workers in a factory, Auden ends up dragging in his own uncertainty and anxiety. MacNeice stays far more impersonal or, when he does express himself, that self is far more straightforward (maybe because he was far more straightforwardly heterosexual).

Possibly his most famous short poem or lyric is Snow.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

It isn’t neurotic or nostalgic or sentimental or depressed as so much poetry can be. It is vigorous and positive. It isn’t dressed in old-fashioned Victorian poetic rhetoric: its vocabulary and speech rhythms are absolutely modern:

… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips

What could be more prosaic and mundane? Except that, into this banal scene, MacNeice has inserted a world of wonder and, for the purpose, invented a register which allows wonder without any recourse to old-fashioned phraseology or imagery.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

No classical myths or historical figures or lady loves are invoked. Just one man in a room, sitting by a snug fire, peeling a tangerine as it starts to snow outside and suddenly he is struck by how weird and varied the world is. And how wonderful it is to be alive.

Autumn Journal

MacNeice is far more at home in his own skin than Auden. His most famous longer poem, Autumn Journal, is a wonderfully flowing verse diary he kept of the 1938 autumn of the Munich Crisis, recording day-to-day impressions of what he read and felt and saw in the London around him as everyone held their breath while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew three times to Germany to negotiate with Hitler in a bid to resolve the crisis over Czechoslovakia and prevent a world war.

It opens with a vivid depiction of the fuddy-duddy world of Edwardian colonels and village fairs which Auden, also, often satirised. But whereas Auden shoots out scattergun pellets, flying impatiently from one cinematic detail to another, note how MacNeice is much slower, more patient, describes the scene thoroughly, more like a novel.

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent. Macrocarpa and cypress
And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees
And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast
And all the inherited assets of bodily ease
And all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes…

(The poem is laid out with more visual inventiveness than above, with successive lines indented to give visual variety. This doesn’t seem to be possible in WordPress.)

Actually, rereading this opening section makes me realise how much this passage depends on the word ‘and’ to create what is, in some ways, a rather simple accretion of detail. Auden leaps from detail to detail giving you a dizzy sense of a master film director; MacNeice says: ‘and another thing…’, giving you the sense of someone leading you into an interesting story.

Whether because of the fear and censorship surrounding homosexual love, or because Auden was so much the intellectual in whatever he wrote whereas MacNeice is much closer to the pie-and-a-pint, ordinary man-in-the-street, MacNeice’s heterosexual love lyrics are simpler and more immediate that Auden’s. Less troubled. Here’s a later passage from Autumn Journal where he’s thinking about his wife:

September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
So I give her this month and the next
Though the whole of my year should be hers who has rendered already
So many of its days intolerable or perplexed
But so many more so happy.
Who has left a scent on my life, and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.

Beautiful, non? In its simplicity of diction, flow and candour.

Afterlife of the Auden Group

The arts in the 1930s were a bit like the 1960s. Caught up in fast-moving turbulent times a new generation of writers, poets and artists spearheaded new forms and media and subjects, determined to overthrow the conservative certainties of their parents, especially when it came to sexual freedom and artistic experimentation – many getting mixed up with heady declarations of political and social revolution, which they spent the rest of their lives trying to live down (Day Lewis left the Communist Party in 1938, Spender in fact only lasted a few months as a member and a decade later he was one of the six leading European writers who recorded their disillusionment with communism in the seminal essay collection The God That Failed, 1949.)

And then it all suddenly ground to a halt. The abject failure of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War – ground down to defeat amid internecine conflict and bitter recriminations – broke their boyish idealistic spirit (the Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939). A few months later (September 1939) the Second World War broke out and was not at all the glamorous struggle these public schoolboys had spent a decade anticipating. Literary movements collapsed, people moved away (to America, generally, where Auden and Isherwood fled in 1939).

[Auden’s] departure with Isherwood for America in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, p.276)

The dust settled and a lot of people spent the rest of their lives writing memoirs and essays and documentaries trying to figure out what it had all meant.

Over the 80 or so years since, a small industry has developed of people who claimed to have been there at decisive moments, eye-witnesses to artistic revolutions, friends of the great – magazine editors and critics who were already lionising and mythologising Auden and his mates in the 30s and spent the rest of their lives carrying the torch (or, alternately, expressing the same animosity towards these flashy and over-successful young whippersnappers).

There are now hundreds of books and thousands of academic papers about The Auden Generation, essays galore which pore and pick to pieces every work by every member of ‘the movement’, major or minor.  What started as in-jokes and fooling between friends have been blown up into dissertations which academics have built entire careers upon.

In this respect the Auden Generation are comparable to the Bloomsbury Group which preceded them: at the core were one or two writers or artists of real note (Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury, Auden in his group) and surrounding them concentric circles of steadily less and less interesting or talented figures, often their friends or family or lovers.

They all wrote memoirs explaining how brilliant they all were, and recording every conversation, letter, diary entry and in-joke for posterity, and biographers coming afterwards have added to the pile and the complexity, dwelling at length on who said what to whom or who slept with whom and what every reference in every letter and diary really means — until it becomes difficult to penetrate the sea of obfuscation and really grasp what was important and lasting.

Auden emigrates to America

When you look at the sea of highly professional and deadening commentary which mythologised the group and the era, you can appreciate why Auden just walked away from it all, from England’s small, incestuous and parochial literary scene, and why he took ship to New York in January 1939, with sometime lover and literary collaborator, Christopher Isherwood. Years later he said in an interview:

The Ascent of F6 was the end. I knew I had to leave England when I wrote it…I knew it because I knew then that if I stayed, I would inevitably become a part of the British establishment. (quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, page 195)

A member of the Establishment like Cecil Day-Lewis, appointed poet laureate in 1968.

(Mind you, the main, practical reason for moving to America was that there was more work there for a freelance poet, playwright and critic, and a man’s got to eat. One of their literary enemies, Evelyn Waugh, was particularly scathing about the way Auden and Isherwood abandoned their native country just as the Second World War broke out, putting them into his hilarious 1940 novel Put Out More Flags as the characters Parsnip and Pimpernel).

The left-behind

Relocating to America allowed Auden to carry on developing and evolving (generally in a way his early English fans disapproved of) while the group members and hangers-on left back in England often struggled to adapt their youthfully exuberant style to the realities of post-war, austerity England, and then to the grimly conformist 1950s. None of them were ever so young again or able to recapture the first fine careless rapture of being alive in the exciting, terrible, scary and thrilling decade of the 1930s. Spender became an anti-communist, a reliable stalwart of the Cold War literary scene, eventually knighted for his services to blah blah. MacNeice wrote long boring radio plays. Reading any of them in the 1970s was like reading a sustained lament for a lost world.

The Mendelson revival

Even the American Auden became sometimes intolerably boring. In later life he suppressed a lot of his best work from the 1930s – he came to believe it was meretricious, flashy and immoral – or tinkered, rewrote and generally watered down what he did allow to be reprinted, so that for a long time it was impossible to find or read.

Only after Auden’s death in 1973, when his literary executor Edward Mendelson published a comprehensive volume of everything Auden wrote in the 1930s – The English Auden – were we able to read a) the poems Auden had banned from being reprinted for 30 years or more; b) the original, generally far more dynamic versions of his poems; c) lots of surprisingly attractive ephemera, lyrics from plays or literary magazines which had slipped through the cracks.

Which is why The English Auden isn’t just a handy collection of all Auden’s writing from the period, but 1. an incredible collection of poetry of genius, as well as 2. explaining at a stroke why Auden so dominated the period, creating a voice and style and persona and rhetoric for modern moods and feelings, in an enormous range of formats and genres, which captured a decade as few writers before or since ever have.

And even made it into a Richard Curtis movie:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Related links

Vanessa Bell @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘You have a genius in your life as well as in your art’
(Art critic Roger Fry to his sometime lover, artist Vanessa Bell)

More than anything I can write, this YouTube montage of Vanessa Bell’s paintings set to music by Chopin gives a good overview of her work.

Biography

Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) was born into an upper-middle-class and well-connected Victorian family. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, Julia being a niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, and cousin of the noted temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset.

Her siblings were a younger sister, Virginia (later renowned as a great novelist under her married name of Virginia Woolf), brothers Thoby (Clifton College and Trinity, Cambridge) and Adrian (Westminster school and Trinity, Cambridge), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (both educated at Eton, Gerald went on to found the publishing house named after him, and was able to help Virginia set up her publishing house, Hogarth Press).

The Stephen family lived in a smart house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, with lots of servants where Vanessa was home educated in languages, mathematics and history. She showed an early gift for art and had drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896, and then went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901 under John Singer Sargent.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa sold the Hyde Park Gate house and moved to Bloomsbury, along with Virginia and the brothers. Here they began socialising with the like-minded artists, writers and intellectuals who would form the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ who, in all areas of life, art and literature, set themselves to overthrow the stifling influence of their Victorian parents.

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the notoriously bisexual painter, Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918.

Vanessa and husband Clive, their lover Duncan Grant and his boyfriend ‘Bunny’, all moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle in East Sussex. By farming here the menfolk, all pacifists and conscientious objectors, evaded service in the Great War.

Here Vanessa and Grant painted and also worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops, an artists’ co-operative for decorative arts established by Roger Fry that operated between 1913 and 1919, and which produced interesting work in a Vorticist/Futurist style. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. The influence of contemporary radical experiments in Futurism and Vorticism are immediately obvious in many of these bold, colourful designs.

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell lived a long life and painted right through to the 1950s, but even her most devoted fans admit that the 1910s represent her most creative and innovative period. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s she was a member of a group of friends and acquaintances who pioneered new ways of living, open marriages and a very liberal approach to sexuality. But works from the 1940s and 50s show her slowly losing the radical edge of the period either side of the Great War, her depictions of the Sussex countryside or of interiors with vases of flowers, becoming steadily more conventional.

The exhibition

This is the first ever retrospective of Bell’s work. It brings together some 100 paintings, book jackets she designed for the Hogarth Press, ceramics, fabrics, photos, diaries and letters to present a themed overview of Bell’s life and career. As always with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it offers a beautifully laid out and informative opportunity to assess a rather neglected figure in English modern art.

Several things emerge from a slow perusal of the exhibition’s six rooms:

Blocky painting style

Bell’s earliest paintings reflect the sophisticated sheen of her teacher John Singer Sargent (note the telltale flecks of white on the vase to give the illusion of reflected light in Iceland Poppies 1908). But even then she was being exposed to the revolutionary influence of Picasso, Matisse and contemporary French painting. In fact right from the earliest portraits shown here, she seems more naturally to take a slabby, blocky approach to paintwork – instead of trying to capture the smooth contours of a fabric or a face, preferring to map out areas of solid colour, depicted with broad chunky brushstrokes. The rough, sketched-out feel, the deliberate lack of finish and the deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour are all suggestive of contemporary experiments in Europe, but are done with a distinctive English gentleness. Despite this, something of all her formal training comes out in the naturalistic outline and presence. these traits are exemplified in one of her many portraits of her novelist sister, Virginia:

Portraits of friends and family

In fact portraits of family and friends are a recurrent feature of Bell’s work and occupy one of the six rooms here.

They represent a decisive break with Victorian naturalism and Salon art, and a wholesale incorporation of the unreal colours, simplification of pattern, crude brushstrokes and awkward anti-aesthetic shapes found across the continent in the work of Gauguin, Die Brucke, the Fauves and so on.

The portraits of her sister are among the most persuasive or gripping. I think this is the best one, all the more powerful for its ‘modern’ blanking of the face, the part which should, traditionally, be the most detailed, revealing the sitter’s character etc. All that has been rejected in favour of an interest in composition and colour.

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the portraits, as in her other genres, the later work becomes noticably more conservative and straighforwardly figurative. Enjoyable, but in a different way.

Derivative

After a few rooms I felt I had seen a lot of these paintings before, or ones very much like them – most recently in the early-twentieth-century rooms of the excellent Courtauld Gallery, which contains works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Bonnard and other post-impressionists. (The term ‘Post-impressionism’ was in fact coined by Vanessa’s friend and sometime lover, art critic Roger Fry, as an umbrella term to cover developments in French art since Manet.)

This feeling was confirmed by many of the wall labels for individual paintings and by the (very useful) audioguide by exhibition co-curator Sarah Milroy. Both frequently pointed out the influence of the Nabis (a group name given to the French painters Vuillard, Bonnard et al), of Cézanne, of Matisse, of Picasso, on individual Bell works.

For example, it is hard not to see the largest work in the show, The Other Room (1930) as anything other than a homage to Matisse – the emphasis on design and areas of bright colour over detail, the interest in the design on fabrics (the curtains, the chair cover), the wilful indifference to anatomical realism in the human figures.

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Landscapes

When Bell moved to the country, she took the urban continental style developed in her portraits (and the occasional, rare depiction of urban scenery) with her and applied it to numerous images of the landscape around the Sussex farmhouse. Many of these are strikingly composed in a kind of flat, blocky, post-impressionist style. They apply a continental mentality to the south of England countryside, a blockiness derived from Cézanne, along with the big slab brushwork of maybe Vlaminck or Derain.

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell painted landscapes for the rest of her life and the selection here allows you to see how her style, over the decades, lost the modernist edge it once had, and reverted to a tamer figurativeness. Thirty years separate the painting above from the one below.

Flowers and vases

Bell painted flowers and vases throughout her long working life. There is a room devoted just to this subject. I found these a lot less interesting than the landscapes or portraits.

Once again, a careful examination of the chronology suggests a falling away of intensity in the later paintings. The later flower paintings lack oomph. Maybe they’re content. Happy.

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

A note on colour and reproduction

Despite the brightness of many of the images included in this review, the colour which perhaps came over most from these paintings was a kind of turd brown, obvious in a work like The Conversation, or the double portrait of Frederick and Jessie Etchells (1912). A congeries of dark and murky browns, emphasised by the often plain wooden frames.

Without exception all the reproductions I’ve seen online – and even the reproductions on the hand-held audioguide – come out brighter and more colourful than the actual works themselves which, in the flesh, are mostly dour and drab, with a particular deep brown the prevailing tone. As one of the commenters I quote below put its – with some notable exceptions – ‘muddy’ gives a good summary of the majority of the paintings’ visual impact. In fact, the main visual takeaway from the show has been to make me notice just how much brown there is around us in everyday life – bricks of walls and houses, reddy-brown roof tiling, brown fences and so on.

The Bloomsbury group

More than enough has been written about the loose group of artists, writers, novelists and critics, economists and philosophers who lived in and around Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, and also had connections with Trinity College Cambridge. They shared a desire to overthrow the stuffy prudery of their Victorian parents. The philosopher G.E. Moore in his vast Principia Ethica emphasised the centrality of honest personal relationships in his definition of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life’. This represented a massive break with the strongly social basis of Victorian ideals of Duty, Honour and so on.

Thus Bell’s wholesale rejection of the Victorian naturalistic tradition in painting can be seen as part of the wider rejection of Victorian values among her wider family and friends, and her ‘open’ marriage and the complex love lives of herself and her friends constituted a breath-taking departure from the norms of her parents and the stuffy Edwardian society she worked in.

The importance of Bloomsbury as a hotbed of new ways of seeing and living is emphasised throughout the exhibition – it is unavoidable since her portraits were all unofficial depictions of her family and close friends, and so the audiocommentary and wall labels insistently namecheck members of the Group, providing details of Bell’s lovers and associates. The show features a display case showing photographs of friends and family together in the garden of the Sussex house, which convey the casual informality of this impressive group of thinkers and artists.

Bell and feminism

The Canadian curator Sarah Milroy emphasises that Vanessa was a feminist pioneer. The first wall panel claims that Bell’s

‘portraits of women offer bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new force and agency.’

With the best will in the world, I couldn’t quite see this. Some of the earliest work captures an odd, alien effect which I enjoyed, for example the worrying intensity of the female figures in –

and many of the first room of portraits are deliberately unnerving and unsettling –

and amount to a full-frontal assault on Victorian aesthetics of female beauty –

The commentary tells us that the strange and ominous Studland Beach is considered one of her masterpieces. It certainly has a kind of Expressionist alienation and Symbolist portentousness. But I don’t see it as particularly giving the women depicted in it ‘agency and force’.

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

And these are exceptions to the majority of works here. The more frequent portraits of Virginia, Iris, Molly and so on, although modernist in form, are supremely calm and placid in tone. Her sitters are generally ensconced in a comfy chair in a nicely furnished living room – and the presence in the surrounding rooms of so many depictions of the peaceful Sussex countryside, not to mention the umpteen paintings of tasteful vases of flowers – the overall effect is a great feeling of calm and tranquility.

And the early experimentalism in this genre, as in the others, slips away as the later paintings become more conventional.

The final wall label repeats this feminist emphasis, which is clearly important to the show’s organisers:

‘One of Bell’s greatest legacies is her reimagining of the image of womanhood, with her powerful female bodies and countenances claiming pictorial space with a kind of brute force.’

Many of the female portraits from her glory years around the Great War are strange rebellions, and just focusing on the work from that specific period does emphasise their originality in the hidebound English tradition. But even the weirdest of them feel to me static and dreamlike. ‘Brute force’ is just not a phrase I would apply to Bell’s work.

As to subverting or revolutionising women’s roles, which the commentary claims she did, I also couldn’t really see it. Bell designed fabrics and painted vases of flowers; she moved to a lovely farmhouse in the countryside where she hosted charming weekends for her artistic friends; she was the loving mother of two adorable sons (Julian, who went to private school and King’s College before becoming a poet, and Quentin, who went to private school before becoming an art historian). I genuinely don’t see how this is revolutionary or subversive.

Possibly I don’t understand the times well enough, and the ongoing weight of conformity to Victorian gender stereotypes which most of her contemporaries endured. Maybe it was precisely Bell and her friends who opened the door to this kind of lifestyle, which eventually became so widespread as to become a cliché in succeeding generations.

The Omega workshop and abstraction

The works of Bell’s which approach nearest to the dynamic abstractions of her contemporaries on the English art scene – Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg or C.R.W. Nevinson – derive from her period with the Omega workshop, set up by close friends Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with the idea of producing fabrics and textiles based on their own designs. It opened in 1913, produced a wide range of domestic furnishings to modernist designs, before closing in 1920.

One of the six rooms is dedicated to Bell’s Omega phase, with patterns and designs for rugs, curtains and so on, for example the Design for Omega Workshops Fabric reproduced above. There are also examples of the book jacket illustrations she provided for the Hogarth Press, the small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917.

The biggest object in the show is the painted screen from this period, Tents and Figures – a big powerful work which conveys Bell’s interest in abstraction and bold geometric design – but with a power, you can’t help thinking, borrowed from Cezanne’s landscapes and the Fauvist use of African masks for the faces. It’s good but haven’t I seen these clashing diagonals and mask-faced figures before?

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Conclusion

I found many of the the early portraits novel and fresh, some of her odder stuff (e.g. The Conversation) bracingly disconcerting, the Omega workshop designs and artefacts an interesting variation on the Modernism of her contemporaries. I found a number of the landscapes evocative, especially the earlier, more modernist ones, and some of the still lifes prettily decorative.

But, in general, the paintings which make the biggest impact are the ones most obviously derived from Continental exemplars. Bell is an interesting artist, who produced lots of good work but maybe, in the end, is an example of the way hundreds, maybe thousands of artists in the 1910s, were gripped and liberated by wholly new ways of seeing and painting created by a handful of pioneers in France and Germany (the Expressionists, the Fauves).

One of the best paintings in the show is Nude with Poppies – admirable but… isn’t it almost entirely Matisse?

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I worried that maybe I was failing to ‘get’ Bell, so I was reassured by these comments added to the online Guardian review of the exhibition:

  • “Looks very derivative to me. Not a patch on the originals, ie. Matisse, Mondrian, Gauguin, Munch”
  • “Not in the same league as the greats of the period, though, but still… pretty pictures.”
  • “I love her early work – the abstracts and experimental portraits. The later stuff is too muddy and repetitive, and the radical edge disappears pretty quickly.”
  • “Probably nice above the mantlepiece in a suburban villa. Nowt wrong with that, I’m a great lover of domestic art. But put her in a public gallery and her work withers to almost nothing. A very second rate artist.”
  • “you really have to work hard at liking them – and that’s because they are poor; badly done, lazily composed, arrogantly confident. “

Summary

So – some arresting and some eerie portraits, a few impressive semi-abstract landscapes, lots of vases of flowers. But with the nagging sense that they are very derivative, throughout. And – to step back a bit – the enormous social, political and philosophical upheavals which were going on at exactly this time (1914-1930) and are represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art – or the impact and experience of the two cataclysmic world wars as captured in, say, the recent big exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain – are completely absent.

It is interesting that the curators chose to arrange the exhibition by theme and not chronologically. Is it because a chronological presentation would highlight the way the impact of the European post-impressionists set off a storm of creativity in Bell’s work during the 1910s – but also show how that energy faded in the 1920s so that by the 1940s and 1950s she is painting capable enough works, but many so bland they wouldn’t be out of place in a local jumble sale.

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

As ever with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s a thorough, well-presented and elegant exhibition of a neglected artist, and so a welcome opportunity to find out more, to range over Bell’s work, to try and formulate a view. Maybe I’m missing something but for me, although it contains some arresting work and some surprises and convinces me that her name should be better known and more of her work displayed in public collections – it ultimately doesn’t persuade me that Vanessa Bell was in any way a major figure.

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Unintentional comedy There are three articles about this show in the Guardian, all of which complain that Bell has too long been in the shadow of the more famous Bloomsburyites. But ironically, the subtitles of all three articles define her in precisely the terms they claim to be trying to rescue her from:

  • “Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show – The sister of Virginia Woolf and lover of Duncan Grant is long overdue recognition as pioneer of modern art, say curators”
  • “Vanessa Bell: stepping out of the shadows of the Bloomsbury set – The artist, best known for her tangled love life and being Virginia Woolf’s sister, gets her first major solo show”
  • “Design and desires: how Vanessa Bell put the bloom in Bloomsbury – She was best known as a member of the Bloomsbury group and sister of Virginia Woolf – but will the first major show of her artwork change her reputation?”

The answer to the last question is surely – No, not as long as her biggest fans, her most knowledgeable curators and her most supportive journalists, continue to define her in terms of her better-known sister, her numerous lovers and her social set – and not as an artist in her own right, which is surely how she should be presented.

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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