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4 February 2017

High art in the Home Counties

Compared to the work of their Sussex contemporaries, the paintings of the Bloomsbury Set look even more threadbare than usual.

By Michael Prodger

Modernism is a wonderfully elastic term for the widespread feeling, at large in the early 20th century, that an increasingly urbanised and industrialised world had outgrown the conventional forms of art and ­society. As for what to do about it, Ezra Pound summed it up most pithily with his injunction: “Make it new!”

Sussex seems an unlikely destination for a bewildering array of artists, architects and writers determined to make it new, but this most warm-beer of counties saw, among others, the Bloomsberries clustered around Charleston; Picasso and Henry Moore staying with Roland Penrose and his photographer wife, Lee Miller, at Farley Farm House near Lewes; the painters Paul Nash and Edward Burra living at Rye; Eric Gill guiding a semi-monastic Catholic community at Ditchling; Eric Ravilious striding the Downs; and the surrealist patron Edward James hosting Salvador Dalí at West Dean.

What drew this motley of modernists away from the movement’s natural home in the city is the subject of an intriguing exhibition, “Sussex Modernism”, at Two Temple Place on the Embankment in London. The building itself is a Gothic-revival fantasy built by William Waldorf Astor, and in its 1890s excess represents everything the artists were reacting against. It acts, however, as a decorative cabinet of ­curiosities, in which the stylistic disparities on show seem less jarring.

The exhibition starts, for instance, with the work of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, in particular Gill and the mystical poet-painter David Jones. For their artisan community at Ditchling, living in the modern world involved the revival of old forms rather than the invention of new ones. Carving, weaving and lettering (strangely Edward Johnston, a guild member and the inventor of the typeface used on the London Underground, is not represented) were a means of escaping industrial production and the rule of money that came with it. But one wonders if part of the appeal for Gill was that the community offered him cover for his incestuous activities.

Something of the erotic undertow of this grouping is apparent in The Garden Enclosed of 1924, David Jones’s other-worldly little picture showing him kissing Gill’s daughter Petra, to whom he was briefly engaged, as a gaggle of geese flees the couple. There is a hint of Cézanne’s structured paintings in the image but the overall atmosphere is more one of a fairy tale than the Bible (the title comes from the Song of Solomon).

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For all the legitimate claims of Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and John Maynard Keynes as modernist pioneers in the fields of the novel, art criticism and economics, those of the maladroit Bloomsbury painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell look even more threadbare than usual alongside the intensity of Gill and Jones. Being au fait with the latest trends from the Continent did not mean they could emulate the post-impressionists, and while the chests and lampshades they decorated for Charleston farmhouse have a forgivable amateur naivety, their 1941-42 paintings for the tiny rural church at Berwick really are wretched things. The only harmonious aspect to them is that the sketches for Bell’s Annunciation and Grant’s Crucifix (for which ­Edward Le Bas posed by being strapped to an easel, which results in Christ resembling a man emerging camply from a shower rather than one suffering in his death agony) show a lack of skill that matches the painters’ lack of religious belief.

This sort of mimsy is given the lie by the murals for Chichester Cathedral and other churches painted by Hans Feibusch, a German Jew who fled the Nazis and whose work was displayed at the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. Indeed, Sussex’s proximity to the Continent is one reason why there was a strong émigré presence there. Not that foreigners were always welcome: the appointment of Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff to design the sleekly futuristic De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, shown here as a scale model, led to one local berating the town clerk for “the employment of an alien architect for the erection of a building by a public body to the exclusion of British architects”. Bexhill voted Leave in the Brexit referendum.

Bloomsbury decoration is shown up, too, by Edward James, who not only dreamed up the Mae West Lips sofa of 1938 with Dalí but designed a stair carpet for West Dean with a pattern reproducing the wet footprints of his wife, the dancer Tilly Losch. After their vituperative divorce he had a new carpet woven bearing his dog’s footprints instead.

Sussex’s modernists were also marked by a strong steak of socialism. Nowhere is this more eccentrically apparent than in a painting by Peggy “Red” Angus, the great friend of John Piper and Eric Ravilious, in which a naked woman sits deep in concentration while reading. The book in her hand, however, is not a volume of poetry but John Strachey’s 1935 The Nature of Capitalist Crisis. Indeed, if anything links the artists on show it is not so much a determination to “make it new”, but rather their belief that modernism meant the right to be themselves.

Exhibition runs until 23 April. For more details visit: twotempleplace.org

This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage