Learning to discriminate
cr ove British Art' was the slogan on JLe the flyer which publicised this September's British Art Fair. For a period of five days, some 60 gallery owners and dealers, all specialising in certain aspects of the home-made product from 1900 onwards, set out their stalls on the Hyde Park edge of what was once called Albertopolis. The annual event was again hosted by the Royal College of Art in its architecturally controversial Kensington Gore premises just next to the Albert Hall.
Does the 'Love British Art' slogan, by appealing simultaneously to our aesthetic and to our patriotic impulses, deserve to survive the Fair in its own right as a praiseworthy plea?
To love a subject involves getting to know it better. At the British Art Fair, which is 17 years old, there are always discoveries to be made, not only about the diverse products of the theoretically 'modern' period which the Fair covers but also, possibly, about that intractable concept called Britishness. A high proportion of our innovative, leading modern British artists, such as Pissarro, Sickert and Gaudier-Brzeska, hail from across the Channel; or from across the Atlantic like Whistler. Epstein and Wyndham Lewis.
At the British Art Fair, striking new historical facts sometimes emerge — a littleknown Pointillist period in the work of a painter you had thought you knew backwards, for example, or an English Pop artist's rare early attempts at Abstract Expressionism. There are also discoveries to be made about one's own taste. And there's the rub. The sheer variety of images on display is eye-boggling. It would be plain promiscuous and a mistake, therefore, to love all British art since 1900. A finely honed sense of discrimination is the tool we need to hack through the undergrowth in search of reliable or exotic blooms.
This year I was asked to choose a subject and give a slide lecture on Saturday afternoon at the Art Fair. I learned that the other lecturer, my friend Roger Berthoud, biographer of Moore and Sutherland, was giving his Henry Moore lecture. I decided, therefore, to restrict my talk to painting and to focus on Moore's contemporaries.
The concept of Englishness, as distinct from Britishness, narrows things down usefully. My talk was billed as 'English Painting Between the Wars: Wadsworth, Nash. Nicholson and others'. Wadsworth and Nicholson were both members of the international group Abstraction-Creation. In 1935, Nicholson tried to turn the Seven and Five Society, a sort of artist's co-operative (which he had joined courtesy of Ivon Hitchens in 1924), into an abstract group. By 1935, we find Nicholson making John Piper, a recently joined member, paint abstracts. In contrast, Moore and Nash both showed in London's International Surrealist exhibition in 1936. When Nash tried to modernise British art by means of an exhibiting group, in 1934, he formed a committee of four, with Wadsworth, Moore and the architect Wells Coates. He originally proposed calling it 'the English Contemporary Group', but 'Unit One' was the title actually chosen. Ben Nicholson soon became a key figure. Barbara Hepworth joined. Edward Burra, normally a law unto himself, was a remarkable member. Herbert Read wrote and edited the book which publicised the work of the Unit's seven painters, two sculptors and two architects.
Despite the division between the Abstract (and Constructionist) tendency and the Surrealist tendency in Unit One, its leading artists all made a conscious effort to interpret what they saw as the true spirit of the times. To show a preponderance of slides which avoided blatant anachronism and which reflected this modern spirit was one main aim of my talk. It gave me an excuse for excluding the highly gifted, eccentric loner Stanley Spencer (considered by some experts to be an outstanding genius) because his attitude to life was fundamentally parochial, his vision seems painfully pre-Darwinian and the way he applied paint to canvas was some
what plodding and predictable. How right Francis Bacon was to prefer the sensuous, experimental way with the brush of the colourist Matthew Smith, who knew how to take advantage of accidents as he worked. I also excluded the hardcore Bloomsbury painters, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, despite being the proud possessor of a photograph of myself talking to the charming Duncan on Diana Holman-Hunt's sofa in the 1970s.
By no means all the artists featured in the talk were members of Unit One. 1 began and ended with early and late images by William Roberts. A radiant and contemplative image by Gwen John of her attic in Paris was used to emphasise the importance of Paris to many British artists, including Winifred Nicholson. Gwen John was included in the Royal Academy's vast, instructive, yet badly flawed exhibition of 1987, British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement. Due to half-baked and trendy feminist notions then current, her brother Augustus, a more ambitious, prominent, famous and in the last analysis a better painter, however uneven, was excluded. I showed some Augustus John portraits, even though much of his best work was done before 1914, partly in order to give a broader sense of the interwar period.
Towards the end of the talk I showed a portrait and an industrial landscape by William Coldstream, co-founder of the influential but somewhat reactionary Euston Road School of the late 1930s. It's odd to think that Coldstream, my kind and deeply respected art master at the Slade School, once stood, when he was a student there himself, on a corner of Gower Street just waiting to get a glimpse of his then hero, Duncan Grant.
After I had finished the slide lecture, one of the organisers of the Fair said, 'Well, at least they did their own thing!' I agree that we should love British art as the Art Fair's slogan enjoined — as long as we are discriminating and bear in mind that we are dealing with a varied and complex subject.