Winifred Knights (1899-1947), Edge of Abruzzi: Boat with three people on a lake, 1924-1930. Private Collection, courtesy of LISS LLEWELLYN.
Museum MORE in Gorssel, The Netherlands
15 September 2019 – 5 January 2020
Museum MORE presents a comprehensive retrospective exhibition on British realists of the 1920s and 1930s. For Real will be the first exhibition outside the UK to focus on the subject, with 75 works by 35 different artists that tell a remarkable and fascinating story of largely forgotten art from between the two world wars.
The title For Real is intentionally ambiguous, as not all figurative art can be described as realistic. Museum MORE has assembled a carefully curated selection of dozens of works that conjure up an extraordinary and intriguing world that somehow also contrives to be familiar. There is a kinship with international neorealism, but it is also unmistakeably and quintessentially British. There are elegant stiff-upper-lip portraits, naïve working-class scenes, hushed landscapes and city views as well as alienating still lifes that contrast strongly with other highly expressive and intense works. This broad and varied spectrum introduces a fresh view on the artistic developments on the other side of the Channel in the Roaring Twenties and the Dirty Thirties. There are forgotten society portraitists such as Meredith Frampton and Gerald Leslie Brockhurst alongside war painter Christopher Nevinson and the odd-one-out, Stanley Spencer. Also included in the exhibition are several high-calibre female artists, such as Dod Procter, Hilda Carline, Winifred Knights and the Zinkeisen sisters.
Creative Director Ype Koopmans on For Real: “Museum MORE likes to take a regular look beyond the borders of the Netherlands. This autumn we will be putting the spotlight on the crème de la crème of British realistic painting in the 1920s and 1930s. Actually, we always love to highlight how prominent and powerful figurative art was all over the world during the first half of the 20th Century. After the Second World War, a number of misconceptions arose about who and what had been influential between the wars. You could almost call it a falsification of history. At the time, the early-modern avant-garde was already seen as being old-fashioned, as having run its course. But, ironically, that style happened to sit well with the tastes and opinions of post-war art critics, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. This is still the case today. This is why we would like to redress the balance, to rediscover greatness and to restore the rightful place in history to artists who dared to swim against the tide.”
The idea of For Real was born following the acclaimed exhibition True to Life at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2017. Koopmans saw the exhibition on its very last day: “Even British experts and art critics were amazed – and rather ashamed – that so much high-quality art had fallen into obscurity. They’d never even heard of some of the artists. Museum MORE has selected loans from TATE, the National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, The Ashmolean Museum, Royal Academy of Arts, Ferens Art Gallery and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, amongst others. These are supplemented with special works by artists who cannot readily be categorised as ‘British’, which makes them especially interesting. Some of these works are from private collections. It was primarily private collectors who ensured that realistic art was preserved, as museums and other institutions almost completely ignored the genre. This was not only the case in the Netherlands, but all over the world.”
For a long time, it was thought the British figurative art between the wars had been impervious to international influence. It was presumed to be essentially conventional, founded on local traditions. Koopmans: “Certainly, British art historians were convinced of this, possibly fuelled by a typically British mixture of an inferiority complex and a pride in their splendid isolation. But is this supposition correct? While we were selecting the loans and writing the exhibition catalogue we came to the conclusion that British artists must almost certainly have been more aware of international developments in art than has previously been assumed. It’s true that at the academies, students were subjected to strict regimes set out by formidable lecturers and art gurus who preached months of classical preparatory studies and traditional-craft technique, and yet these young Brits were not completely cut off from the world beyond their own shores. Many of them had endured the horrors of the trenches of the First World War on the European mainland, they had taken courses at liberal academies in Paris or travelled to Italy. Others visited the United States and elsewhere during the course
of their career. This was in stark contrast to the lack of attention paid to all those ‘European novelties’ in art publications back home, and the clarion call of the art establishment to be sure that they produced ‘typically British’ art.” They were expected to immerse themselves in their own national character, and heaven forbid that they would allow themselves to be seduced into copying the big, brash and compelling art that emanated from the continent. Above all, they should not take as examples the likes of George Grosz or Otto Dix and the German ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ with its raw, uncompromising and even ‘tasteless’ take on the state of humanity: ”We wish to avoid freaks and freakiness.”
Colin Gill (1892-1940), Allegro (Allegory) DETAIL, 1920-1921, Private collection, courtesy of LISS LLEWELLYN.
One of the artists who operated beyond these strictures was Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Spencer, who resided in obscurity for decades, is now seen as one of the foremost British artists of the first half of the 20th Century. At first, he was often viewed with suspicion as being eccentric and naïve, and obsessed with an unorthodox sense of spirituality that led him to set Biblical scenes in the wondrous décor of his home village of Cookham. Paradoxically, this approach makes Spencer’s oeuvre both pastorally English and disconcertingly expressive. It is thought that his quirky work inspired later artists such as Lucian Freud. It is easy to see what would have fascinated Freud in a work such as Spencer’s Self Portrait from 1936. This painting forms a clear link between his romantic-naturalistic and anecdotal work and his later style of painting: the frowning, slightly squinting expression, the pursed lips, the sinews on his long neck and the low-cut vest. Clearly, this painting is reminiscent of Dutch contemporaries such as Dick Ket. And it would not be far-fetched to discern a kinship with the German Neue Sachlichkeit. An interesting footnote is that the painting was promptly acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the first museum to buy a work by Spencer outside his own country. The sale is especially noteworthy due to the fact that there was very little interest in collecting contemporary foreign art at the time.
A DEADLY BEAUTY
At the other end of the spectrum we can find Meredith Frampton (1894-1984), who was one of the most respected society painters of his generation. His chic clientele included the Duke of York, later King George VI, whose portrait he painted. One of Frampton’s most celebrated works is A Game of Patience. The model was Miss Margaret Austin-Jones, a redhead who was 25 years old at the time. The painting had its first public airing during the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1937. A critic for The Scotsman described it: “It is a tour-de-force of fastidious craftsmanship. The subject is a girl seated at a table playing cards (...) surely no Englishman has painted in a way so learned and so deadly”. Frampton’s particular attention to hands and faces is immediately evident in his paintings. The painstaking precision of his work resulted in his only being able to complete a small number of paintings each year. Frampton’s elegantly cool and impassive work bears a certain resemblance to the Dutch painter Carel Willink.
Only recently, has the ‘modest’ oeuvre of the short life of Winifred Knights (1899-1947) been rediscovered. She was recognised at a very early age as one of the most extraordinary talents of her generation. Knights studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, a college that had admitted female students from its inception in 1871. In 1920, she competed in and won the Prix de Rome as the first woman ever, with a monumental canvas in a modern figurative style that bore influences of the Italian art of the Quattrocento. After winning this prestigious award, Knights was allowed to stay at the British School in Rome where she met her future husband Walter Thomas Monnington who had also won the Prix de Rome. They returned to Italy in 1924, where she began work, in the mountain village of Piediluco, on Edge of Abruzzi, a work she would only finish in 1930. This work saw her previously muted colour palette give way to a vibrant, sun-kissed panoramic landscape and a lake, its still surface like a mirror. There are three tiny figures in a rowing boat: Monnington at the stern with an oar, the reclining, bearded man in the middle, a Swedish artist whom they had met in Rome, and Knights herself at the bow. There is no trace of any action as the trio float in an inert landscape. The first owner of the work was Stephen Courtauld, a member of the famous family of textile barons and a well-known patron of the arts. It is unlikely that Knights would have sold many more works to collectors, as her perfectionism meant that it would often take years for her to finally let a painting go.
A CLASSICAL REVOLUTION
Winifred Knights was one of many British realists in the 1920s and 1930s who embarked upon a form of ‘Classical Revolution’, not unlike that of their counterparts in Continental Europe. They built on the typically British Pre-Raphaelite movement, but also delved further back into history with Italian Renaissance art and the Flemish Primitives, modernising ‘classical’ styles and methods along the way. The reverse was also true, they were packaging contemporary themes in classical forms, each artist doing so in their own inimitable fashion. The scale is so broad that there was no such things as an actual movement. It is worth noting that the British, in contrast to their Dutch colleagues, were mostly academically trained in painting and drawing techniques including tempera and laborious glazing techniques. This allowed them to achieve a smooth and technically perfect touch. Koopmans: “Dutch painters such as Carel Willink, Pyke Koch, Dick Ket, Wim Schuhmacher and Jan Mankes were never taught these techniques. They were expected to educate themselves in the tricks of their trade and pored over Max Doerner’s famous 1921 manual as if it were a self-help book.” Visitors to For Real will have the opportunity of seeing Museum MORE’s own collection of neorealists as well as those in the British exhibition. Koopmans: “There is certainly a fascinating contrast: The uncertainties and fears of the 1930s are sometimes clearly present in the works of our Dutch artists, but the British seem less afraid of an unpredictable future. Theirs is sooner a sense of melancholic yearning for a sheltered and private paradise.”
MUSEUM MORE - Hoofdstraat 28, 7213 CW Gorssel, The Netherlands - www.museummore.nl
Winifred Knights (1899-1947), Compositional study for The Marriage at Cana, c.1922,
by Paton Skipwith
Art, Faith & Modernity, Mercers’ Hall, 6, Frederick Place, London EC2 and Liverpool Cathedral.
A travelling exhibition gives long-overdue recognition to the important place of religious art in 20th-century Britain, says Peyton Skipwith
The legacy of ground-breaking exhibitions is often greater in retrospect than in their immediate impact, especially when associated with a book or catalogue of enduring worth. Such is likely to be the case with ‘Art, Faith & Modernity’, a travelling show, with moving parts, conceived by the Liss Llewellyn partnership, accompanied by an illustrated 200-page book of the same title, edited by Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss, with a thought-provoking essay by Alan Powers (£25).
Dr Powers’s publications range from Eric Ravilious and Enid Marx to his recently published Bauhaus Goes West. Sacha Llewellyn’s biography of Winifred Knights, published in 2016 to coincide with Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition of the artist’s work, won the Berger Prize in 2018. Her long immersion in Knights’s work initially put the match to the fuse, triggering her investigations into the lives of neglected women artists, the fate of prize-winners at the British School at Rome and visual expressions of faith in an increasingly secular age.
Winifred Knights (1899–1947), the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, was largely forgotten until the mid 1990s, when an exhibition of her work, coupled with Tate Britain’s acquisition of her prize-winning painting The Deluge, brought her and other winners of the Prix de Rome back into the public forum.
The Deluge is now regarded as one of the key works in the history of British Modernism. In Dr Powers’s words: ‘It has become in many ways the touchstone of a new evaluation of British art between the wars… It should now be impossible to dismiss this painting as a minor version of a Stanley Spencer or a failed attempt at the summit of Modernism. In that alternative universe, Knights might have moved from here in the manner of one of her successors in the Rome Scholarship, Barbara Hepworth, to become a leader of abstraction in the 1930s, but she went the other way, and so was forgotten.’
It is this alternative universe, the marrying of faiths – not exclusively Christian – to art and modernity that provides the rich and varied theme for this show.
The book illustrates and deals with more than 170 works by 73 different artists, ranging from Arthur Dixon’s extraordinarily kitschy oil, Offerings, of 1902 to Rachel Reckitt’s bizarrely enigmatic How High the Heavens, rendered in wood and sheet metal and dating from the late 1960s.
The exhibition at Liverpool Cathedral – a reduction of the recent showing at Mercers’ Hall in London, an altered version of which can be seen by appointment – contains only a relatively small portion of these, although, happily, it does include two of Knights’s studies for The Marriage at Cana, the principal painting she executed in Rome. The two paintings closest to Knights’s Modernist aesthetic are Gladys Hynes’s Noah’s Ark (1919) and Scene from the Book of Job by Helen Blair (wife of the glass engraver John Hutton), painted in the early 1930s, before Blair left New Zealand.
It is Job’s text – ‘And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness and smote the four corners of the house and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead’ – that inspires the highly stylised young men in their death throes, but the structure of the work as a whole, with its heaving landscape and collapsing walls, surely reflects Blair’s familiarity with earthquakes.
In the five years before the date of this painting, New Zealand endured five major quakes, including that at Hawke’s Bay in 1931, which killed more than 250 people and injured thousands more.
Not surprisingly, the advent of war, both in 1914 and 1939, and its aftermath provoked a resurgence of faith, as is reflected in such works as Hal Hurst’s cloyingly symbolic The Hero (1915), Percy Jowett’s 1918 triptych, England, Dorothea MacLagan’s Allegory: Truth and Beauty Comforting Each Other (about 1920), William Farley’s cynical Woodland Music with Concomitant Gentlemen, Francis Spear’s stained-glass Martyr Soldier (1941), Edward Halliday’s reredos design War and Peace and Alan Sorrell’s A Confusion of Symbols, both from 1939.
Perhaps the most poignant such image is The Good Samaritan, painted immediately after the First World War by an artist as yet unidentified. In this otherwise overwhelmingly sombre horizontal composition, the strong, upright form of a be-clogged, secular ‘Madonna’ ministering to the wounded and battle-weary is neatly balanced by the verticality of the wayside crucifix.
Liss Llewellyn is to be congratulated on confronting a controversial subject that has vexed many people, especially those responsible for the repair of war-damaged churches and cathedrals across Northern Europe. Is there, somewhere, a major institution with the vision and courage to take up the challenge of mounting an international survey of faith in Modern art?
‘Art, Faith & Modernity’ is at the Mercers’ Hall, 6, Frederick Place, London EC2, until August 22, and at Liverpool Cathedral, until August 30.
This article appeared in the 7 August, 2019 edition of Country Life.
The Good Samaritan, c. 1920, artist unknown.
Keeping the Faith in Art: Hidden Gems go on Show
by Lucy Lethbridge
Art, Faith & Modernity
Mercers’ Hall, London, and touring to Liverpool Cathedral
Bombs can obliterate the present, but they can also resurrect the past. Among the revelations of post-war reconstruction in the City of London was a beautiful recumbent Statue of The Dead Christ, a miraculous survival of pre-Reformation sacred art found buried beneath the floor of the Mercers’ Chapel.
Since its star appearance in Tate Britain’s 2013 exhibition “Art under Attack”, The Dead Christ has been back behind the grille separating the rebuilt chapel from the Mercers’ Hall. But this month the statue is in congenial company as the hall hosts the exhibition “Art, Faith & Modernity” (viewable by appointment until 26 July, then at Liverpool Cathedral 6-30 August), designed by curators Liss Llewellyn to show that the best efforts of Protestant iconoclasts did not eradicate the religious impulse from the modern British soul.
The definition of “religious” is pretty broad. Some of the works on show were sacred commissions, like Charles Mahoney’s charming Angel Playing Tubular Bells, a 1940s study for his Lady Chapel murals at Oxford’s Campion Hall, and Frank Brangwyn’s lithographic Stations of the Cross (1934-35), a version of which is installed in the hall’s main chapel. Some were commissioned but never executed, like Glyn Jones’ darkly glowing Study for St Martin’s Altarpiece (c. 1927), mysteriously rejected by Canterbury Cathedral. But many were personal works that drew on religious symbolism in troubled times, such as The Good Samaritan (c. 1920) set in Flanders by an unknown artist who borrowed the simple style of Gauguin’s Breton period; it’s only when you lift your eyes above the horizon you notice the pair of feet at the base of a crucifix.
Though not anonymous, several of the artists featured are virtually unknown. One discovery for me was Robert Baker, who as a young graduate from the Royal College of Art painted Breakfast at Harlech College (c. 1935). Scratch the surface of this mural set in the canteen of a Welsh working man’s college and you’ll find a Last Supper: Baker goes off script in including Christ’s mother and Mary Magdalene at the breakfast table tucking into eggs and bacon.
The religious content of Evelyn Dunbar’s Seven Days (1939) is more elusive. Like her lover Charles Mahoney, Dunbar was a passionate gardener and, in this apparently cheerful design for a mural, Tuesday to Saturday are represented by figures carrying gardening tools, flowers and fruit, while Monday humps laundry and Sunday has her nose in a Bible. In an earlier sketch, Monday carried a baby and Sunday was eating cherries; the mood and symbolism changed after Dunbar miscarried Mahoney’s child. Nothing in this show is quite as powerful as the pre-Reformation Dead Christ, but for serious artists of any era every work is an act of faith.
To view the exhibition at the Mercers’ Hall, call 020 7520 9225 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Helen Blair (1907-1997), Scene from the Book of Job, c. 1935.
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Art, Faith & Modernity
Liss Llewellyn, Mercers’ Hall, London, then Liverpool Cathedral, until 26 July (London), 6-30 August (Liverpool)
In their mission to raise awareness of lesser-known figures in Modern British art, Paul Liss and Sacha Llewellyn are working with institutions to mount a series of exhibitions. Their next, which takes its title from the art historian Alan Powers’ essay, includes 172 works (some for sale) by 73 artists including John Tunnard, Winifred Knights and Stanley Spencer, “loosely grouped under the umbrella of religious art”. Religious art is perhaps a misleading term – what unites the works here is spirituality in its broader sense.