Further to my post on Edward Bawden, here are some more thoughts about why British art took the direction it did in the mid-twentieth century. Bawden’s untitled abstract copper engraving, featured in the last two posts, was published in issue six of the Curwen Press “quadrimestrial of typography and graphic arts”, Signature, in July 1937. The same issue also had a highly-experimental abstract colour lithograph by John Piper, and an almost surreal colour lithograph of fish underwater by Graham Sutherland. The Piper and Sutherland works were used for the front and back covers of Stephen Laird’s catalogue for the exhibition Twentieth Century British Lithographs: From Pastoral to Pop Art at Keynes College, University of Kent in 2009.
John Piper, Invention in Colour
This lithograph by Piper (described as a “drawing” in Signature) is a very complex print. Stephen Laird says it “was printed from a ‘mosaic’ of plates made from different materials, including line, paramat (a rubber sheeting which, when inked-up, was normally used to achieve large, flat areas of colour in advertising posters) and halftone (the plate medium normally used for the reproduction of the tonal parts of black and white photographs in books and newspapers). This is an experimental image which plays about with the technical possibilities of commercial lithography, and demonstrates Piper’s early mastery of the methods involved.” Orde Levinson in his catalogue raisonné, “Quality and Experiment”: The Prints of John Piper, describes it simply as “printed from paramat blocks cut by the artist”. It was Piper’s fourth lithograph.
Graham Sutherland, Under Water
Under Water was one of Graham Sutherland’s first lithographs, “drawn direct on to five grained zinc plates”. It was commissioned by the printers Henderson & Spalding at the Sylvan Press, and was in fact published as an advert for their services, “to show how economically good effects can be made by Colour Craftsmen”. Sutherland’s name is not mentioned, though he has signed the image with a tiny G.S. at the mouth of the shell.
Taken together, these three works by Bawden, Piper, and Sutherland show young British artists of the day exploring the central issues of the international art of their day. But beneath the surface, something different was stirring. Graham Sutherland had in fact already created the work which would divert British Modernism from the track it was on, and send it into the sidings of Neo-Romanticism. That work was an extraordinary, brooding etching with aquatint, created in 1936 and published in Signature 9 in July 1938. It is entitled Clegyr-Boia, and depicts a Welsh landscape. It was this work, with its obvious debt to Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert, and its anxious overtones of threat and destruction, that set the template for the entire Neo-Romantic movement. That an etching published in a little magazine with a very limited circulation should have such a seismic impact is not as unusual as it may seem. Signature sold just shy of 500 copies, but every one of those went to an art school, or an artist, or a specialist printer or typographer. Art students couldn't afford it, but it was eagerly read in art school libraries or in art bookshops such as Zwemmer's.
Graham Sutherland, Clegyr-Boia
Etching with aquatint, 1936
The two wellsprings of Neo-Romanticism were Sutherland and Piper, each in their own way in thrall to the delights of wild landscapes and ruined buildings. The Blitz was to bring that wildness and ruin into the heart of the British city, and soon Neo-Romanticism had its fill of disciples, visionaries who overlaid Samuel Palmer’s harvest moon onto the bombers’ moon of the Luftwaffe.
John Piper, Pistyll Cain, North Wales
John Piper, Tomen-y-Mur and Roman Amphitheatre, North Wales
John Piper, Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire
John Piper, Easegill, Lancashire
John Egerton Christmas Piper (1903-1992) was born in Epsom. He studied at the Royal College of Art, and was an official War Artist in WWII, specialising in the depiction of ruined buildings, which remained a favourite motif throughout his life. The British landscape and its buildings was his primary subject, explored in paintings and in lithographs and screenprints.
John Piper, Hafod
John Piper, Adam and Eve’s Garden
John Piper, On the Making of Gardens II
John Piper, Prometheus II
John Piper, Elizabethan Love Songs II
John Piper, Elizabethan Love Songs IV
John Piper, The Salute
Apart from Piper, I don’t have a great deal of work by the Neo-Romantics, and none at all by John Minton (my personal favourite of this group), Keith Vaughan, or Robert MacBryde. However, several of the Neo-Romantics were commissioned by the first ever book packager, Adprint, to provide lithographs for the series of illustrated anthologies New Excursions into English Poetry, published by Frederick Muller. Adprint was founded by a Viennese emigré, Wolfgang Foges, and among those working there were two refugees from Nazi Germany, Walter Neurath and Eva Feuchtwang, who were to marry and co-found the art publisher Thames and Hudson. There were in all seven volumes of the highly-collectible New Excursions, under the general editorship of W. J. Turner and Sheila Shannon:
Sea Poems, edited by Myfanwy Piper, illustrated by Mona Moore (1944)
English, Scottish and Welsh Landscape, edited by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor, illustrated by John Piper (1944)
Visionary Poems and Passages or The Poet’s Eye, edited by Geoffrey Grigson, illustrated by John Craxton (1944)
Poems of Death, edited by Phoebe Pool, illustrated by Michael Ayrton (1945)
Soldiers’ Verse, edited by Patric Dickinson, illustrated by William Scott (1945)
Travellers’ Verse, edited by M. G. Lloyd Thomas, illustrated by Edward Bawden (1946)
Poems of Sleep and Dream, edited by Carol Stewart, illustrated by Robert Colquhoun.
Of these artists, four—Piper, Craxton, Ayrton, and Colquhoun—represent Neo-Romanticism at its height. Edward Bawden went his own way, outside the Neo-Romantic movement and rather scornful of its images of “a chance encounter in the slums by moonlight”. The landscape artist Mona Moore (1917-2000) is scarcely remembered today; her rather tentative lithographs for Sea Poems have charm, but no graphic strength. William Scott became one of the most important British artists of the postwar years, oscillating between figuration and abstraction. I don’t think of him as one of the Neo-Romantics, though there is a connection certainly with Piper, as Scott taught at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, with which Piper was also involved. As I haven’t seen Soldiers’ Verse, I can’t say what style Scott adopted for this commission, though the jacket (which I have seen reproduced) doesn’t look out of place with the true Neo-Romantic volumes.
John Craxton, The Poet’s Eye III
John Craxton, The Poet’s Eye VI
John Craxton, The Poet’s Eye XII
The painter and printmaker John Craxton (1922-2009) was born in London. Before WWII he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris; in London he attended Westminster School of Art, the Central School of Art, and Goldsmith's College (where he was later to teach). His art was influenced by that of Graham Sutherland, with whom he toured Wales in 1943. In John Craxton's lithographs for The Poet's Eye, the influences of Sutherland, Samuel Palmer, and Surrealism seamlessly merge. From 1970 Craxton divided his time between Crete and London. John Craxton was elected to the Royal Academy in 1993, and died in 2009.
Michael Ayrton, Death IV
Michael Ayrton, Death X
Michael Ayrton, Death XII
The painter, sculptor, and novelist Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) was born in London. Ayrton was his middle name (also his mother's surname); he was born Michael A. Gould, and signed his early work Michael Ayrton G. Ayrton was closely associated with John Minton and other Neo-Romantics, although Ayrton's art was darker and more expressionistic than that of most of the group. Ayrton was obsessed with the myth of the Minotaur.
Robert Colquhoun, Sleep and Dream, VI
Robert Colquhoun, Sleep and Dream X
Robert Colquhoun, Sleep and Dream XIV
Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962) was born in Kilmarnock. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, where he first met his lifelong companion Robert MacBryde. One of the British artists who absorbed via Picasso the lessons of Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism in the 1940s, Robert Colquhoun was closely associated with the Neo-Romantics, particularly John Minton, John Craxton, and Robert MacBryde. Colquhoun and MacBryde ("the two Roberts") shared a home and studio from 1941. The pair collaborated on set designs for the theatre.
Graham Sutherland, Balancing Form (First State)
As for Graham Sutherland, who was born in London in 1903 and died in 1980, he long outlived the brief flare of Neo-Romanticism. Much of the visionary fervour he had devoted to landscape in his early work was converted to religious subjects in his later life, though he continued to draw his inspiration from organic forms.