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21 August 2023

The lyrical pastorals of the British neo-romantics

A new exhibition at the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden shows how the group painted the uncertainties of the mid-century years.

By Michael Prodger

In 1955, the German art and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner delivered a series of lectures on “The Englishness of English Art”. As he looked for traits and definitions he became certain of one thing: “None of the other nations of Europe has so abject an inferiority complex about its own aesthetic capabilities as England.” For all the truth of the observation, it rankled. We might not have a Picasso or a Matisse figure but we nevertheless had an artistic heritage of which to be proud. The “British genius”, claimed the artist and writer Michael Ayrton, lay in “the lyrical, the satiric, the mystical, the romantic, and the preoccupation with linear rhythms which are the bones and basis of our art, and have been for a thousand years”. Not for him was Roger Fry’s insistence on the primacy of form and his haughty disdain of this “Bird’s Custard Island”.

At the time of his writing, in 1946, Ayrton was one of a cluster of loosely linked British artists recently identified as neo-romantics, a group that flowered between roughly 1935 and 1955: the title was invented by Raymond Mortimer in this magazine in 1942. The artists – Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Craxton and Keith Vaughan among them – were linked by theme and sensibility rather than by style. Pastoralism was a key trait and in particular the works of the nature-visionary Samuel Palmer (1805-81), which provided a guide to the lyrical intensity that could be summoned up from the British landscape.

For its critics, neo-romanticism was a wan interlude – insular and nostalgic, forever trying to conjure the genius loci and seemingly in retreat from the experiments of modernism. Nevertheless, at their best, its artists produced intriguing, potent and often distinctively modern work.

“A World of Private Mystery”, a selection of neo-romantic paintings, many on loan from the Ingram Collection of modern British art, is currently on show at the delightful Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden in Essex. It is an appropriate place to see them: petite, nicely old-fashioned, on a street of Georgian and Tudor cottages in a provincial market town, and with the feel of a Women’s Institute hall or Scout hut as much as a gallery – its own spirit of place is palpable.

John Craxton, RA (1922 – 2009), Greek Dancer, 1952, hand coloured linocut. Image courtesy of The Ingram Collection © John-Paul Bland. © Estate of John Craxton, All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023

Although there are just 34 pictures on show they are enough to reveal some of neo-romanticism’s constituent parts. For example, two heavily-worked drawings of tin miners underground by Graham Sutherland transmit something of the foreboding and oppression that was in the air in 1942. At exactly this moment, Henry Moore was also depicting the underground world, having just finished a series of drawings of coal miners at work and of Tube stations packed with Londoners sheltering from air raids. If safety was to be found in burrowing, then the weight of earth above made this a precarious type of security.

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By contrast, in 1945, in Reaper in a Welsh Landscape, John Craxton conjured a scene in which the war had never happened. A farm labourer walks along a walled lane under a brilliant blue sky with a prelapsarian rolling scene of fields and ancient buildings behind him. There is no hint here of the experiences of the past six years, just as Samuel Palmer’s landscapes – of which this is a descendant – show no sign of the Captain Swing agricultural riots that set the countryside on edge in the 1830s. It is a fingers-in-ears picture in which Craxton wills a simpler and purer world into being. He soon found a real-life version when he visited Greece and started to spend increasing amounts of time in Crete.

[See also: Artificial intelligence is blurring the lines between “content” and “art”]

That there was trouble in Eden is, however, clear in many of the works on display: melancholy and unease are common traits. As in Keith Vaughan’s watercolour The Garden at Ashton Gifford (1942), for example, in which a group of six men – prisoners of war perhaps – clear a piece of overgrown walled garden. Here the central figure cradles a sheaf of weeds and stares out of the picture with eyes that are dead and hollow from what they have seen. If nature is to be restorative then it has a great deal to do.

In the front of the picture is a fallen tree, its roots an anthropomorphic tangle – a sign both of how hard it fought, like the men, against being uprooted and of the pull of the soil. Such trees appeared frequently in the work of Sutherland and Craxton too. And in the paintings of Michael Ayrton, the most complex artist of the group: in one, Loneliness (1940), a tree trunk becomes part of a rudimentary machine – propped up at one end and with a cartwheel at the other, with an abandoned wheel and axle standing like a gibbet in the distance. There is allegory here, but Ayrton feels no urge to make its meaning plain.

There is room in the hanging for other aspects of neo-romanticism too. A rare John Piper nude is tied to the landscape by tattoo-like pen and ink squiggles on the flesh, which are the same as those that delineate the foliage on which the woman in the painting lies; Vaughan’s Burning Fields (1965) is an abstract picture of enveloping greys and oranges painted after neo-romanticism had faded, evidence of the late impact of US abstract expressionism; and some blocky works by the Soho boozers “the two Roberts” ­– MacBryde and Colquhoun – show a generically modern approach, angular and stylised, to still life and figure studies.

John Minton (1917-1957), The Hop Pickers, 1945, watercolour, pen, gouache and chalk. Image courtesy The Ingram Collection © Estate of John Minton, All Rights Reserved, Bridgeman Images 2023

Intensity of feeling proved too sapping to be sustained for long and, partly driven by the changing tastes of a rapidly modernising Britain, the neo-romantics gradually moved on. Craxton remained the sunniest of the painters, preferring to be called “a kind of Arcadian” rather than a neo-romantic; Piper concentrated more on paintings of buildings; Ayrton turned to mythology; Vaughan edged towards abstraction; John Minton took his own life at 39; the two Roberts’ urge to paint was lost to alcohol. For a short while, however, they had made art that was, in its small-scale, British way, as authentic a response to the age as anything made in New York or Paris.

A World of Private Mystery: British Neo-Romantics
Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex CB10
Until 29 October

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect