Something extremely interesting is stirring in our appreciation and enjoyment of the periods preceding contemporary British art. Modernism, the dominant force between the wars, is, as all things must, fading into the dust of the past. Once terrifically trendy, it’s beginning to look a bit old hat.
In its place comes a welcome renewal of appreciation for the Romantic — and especially the Romantic British landscape, with its native trees and flowers. At its very best it is art that verges on mysticism and ancient myth — think Samuel Palmer and, more recently, David Inshaw.
Arguably the leaders of the British Neo-Romantic period were the ‘Great Bardfield’ landscape artists. Figures to look out for include Kenneth Rowntree, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious — the subject of a recent exhibition at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery.
The artists were the nucleus of Britain’s inter-war, anti-abstract movement, and formed an artists’ colony in the rural Essex village of Great Bardfield. Long neglected in favour of the titans of the opposing Modernist movement (think Ben Nicholson), today, prices have been rising for these ‘deeply unfashionable’ landscape painters.
Wiltshire Landscape — a watercolour by Ravilious — recently made £242,500 at auction, soaring above its initial estimate of £80,000-100,000. Look out for works by him and other Great Bardfield artists, because they can still be very affordable. They won’t be for long.
Prices have risen, too, for works by Graham Sutherland, whose studies depict the thorny landscape of Pembrokeshire, and for the irises painted by Cedric Morris, which he propagated with an extraordinary passion. The co-founder of Britain’s East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, Morris influenced artists including Lucian Freud — an early student — and Francis Bacon. To find out more, contact our Modern British & Irish Art department.
Also keep an eye on the rise and rise of Paul Nash, the painter who started out as a Vorticist, before fighting in the trenches with French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and becoming a war artist. The period was followed by a brief stint as a Modernist in the Unit One group, with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the 1930s, after which Nash flirted with Surrealism — before finally becoming a Neo-Romantic.
There will be a major reappraisal of Nash at Tate Britain from 26 October, which will bill him as the most important British artist of the 20th Century. In later life, Nash painted very beautiful and romantic Sussex landscapes, which seem to breathe ancient history; they remind me of the dreams of Samuel Palmer and Thomas Bewick.
David Jones is an unjustly neglected artist and poet — now making a comeback, thanks to a recent exhibition at England’s Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (now at Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham, until 5 June).
There’s also a very good book David Jones from publisher Lund Humphries. Inspired by mysticism, history and Christian lore, Jones’s painted studies of nature are extraordinarily delicate and beautiful. The art historian, broadcaster and author Kenneth Clark once said, ‘In many ways, he was the most gifted of all the younger English painters.’
But that is far from all. Deeply affected by his time as a rifleman in the First World War, Jones also took a Modernist approach to his writing. His epic poem In Parenthesis, published in 1937, was described as ‘a work of genius’ by T. S. Eliot, and hailed as a ‘masterpiece’ by W. H. Auden. What is clear is that David Jones is the nearest the 20th century has come to producing a visionary equivalent of William Blake.
‘Miniaturism’ also seems to be a current watchword. MoMA’s current retrospective of Marcel Broodthaers features The Conquest of Space: Atlas for the Use of Artists and the Military — a tiny book, measuring just 4cm x 3cm. Totally useless, its pages are far too small to be turned by human fingers. Is Atlas... a conceptual artwork or just a charming miniature? You decide.
In Milan, artist Biancoshock has turned the spaces beneath manhole covers into cramped, miniscule rooms complete with wallpaper, pictures and tiled walls. While amusing, these meticulously created small-scale installations are intended to draw attention to a more serious issue in Bucharest, where a network of tunnels and sewers has become home to hundreds of the Romanian capital’s poor.