Can the masterworks of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf be discussed in the same pages as the perfectly delightful but infinitely less significant work of the photographer Cecil Beaton and the graphic artists Rex Whistler and Edward Bawden? I certainly did not believe this could be done well, until I read Alexandra Harris’s new book. There is no question that Romantic Moderns is calculated to please Anglophiles. But Harris, a young English art historian, does not coddle her core audience. She knows how to wipe the cobwebs off subjects that are too often treated in a parochial or even a trite way, such as John Betjeman’s poetry, Osbert Sitwell’s autobiography, and Vita Sackville-West’s gardens. The result is a new map of English culture in the second quarter of the twentieth century. The landscape may be familiar, but nearly all the landmarks, whether large ones or small ones, have been cast in an unexpected light.
Harris has absorbed an enormous amount of information about cultural experience in Great Britain in the decades leading up to World War II, and she carries her knowledge lightly. She explores the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Daphne du Maurier, Henry Green, and Evelyn Waugh, discusses the growing interest in Georgian and Victorian styles among poets, illustrators, architects, and landscape designers, and deals with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the literary criticism of F. R. Leavis. All the while, we can sense the darkening social and political situation, a world where the nineteenth-century dreams of never-ending social, political, and technological progress were becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Harris moves through this daunting range of material—from high modern to popular entertainment and from the immortal to the merely charming—with remarkable confidence and ease. Her fine-spun analysis is just right for English society, which was at least for a time somewhat insulated from turmoil on the continent, where the ideological temperature tended to be higher and competing artistic viewpoints were far more likely to be seen as adjuncts of social and political ideas. But the skill with which Harris navigates the English scene may also have broader implications, offering unexpected perspectives on the relationship between tradition and modernity in the twentieth century.
Radicalism in the arts, with its search for root causes, can be more closely aligned with conservatism than many people imagine. Harris opens Romantic Moderns with a crisis within England’s visual arts avant-garde, when the painter John Piper rejected a nonobjective vision in favor of a growing enthusiasm for earlier strains in English art, ranging from Romanesque sculpture to the picturesque landscape. What is remarkable about Harris’s book is her refusal to simplify artistic debates, so that she has no trouble seeing that for John Piper “abstraction … always fed his other interests” and “landscape was not the antithesis but the ally of abstraction.” While Piper’s vision of “a machine-age but with tassels belonging to old-fashioned doorbells” evinced what Harris calls an “unusually elastic idea of modernity,” this was by no means exclusively an English idea. Let us not forget that Picasso and Braque had already, in their Analytic Cubist paintings, mingled hard-edged, angular structures and decorative flourishes—even tassels. Everywhere in Europe, even as artists embraced what Harris calls “an international language of form,” there was a yearning for “the lure of eccentricity, locality, difference.” Was not Brâncuşi, that giant of Parisian modernism, immersed in Romanian folk imagery? Harris’s approach will be of interest to anybody who cares about the classicizing and historicizing impulses that were integral to the arts of France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, and often reflected not a rejection of modernity but a fresh view of its possibilities.
Harris is comfortable with a bewildering range of ambitions and achievements. She shows how in England the sharply defined forms of International Style architecture helped to precipitate or at least to clarify a revaluation of the purity of Georgian architecture. She writes admiringly of the unabashed romanticism of Rex Whistler’s murals for the dining room in the old Tate Gallery, with their “colonnaded palaces and terraces, urns and statues, serpentine lakes, and mountains ethereal in the distance … enveloped in a blue-green haze.” She underscores the strong sense of the English countryside that pervades Eliot’s Four Quartets. And she remarks that Woolf’s Between the Acts “has often been read as a novel of disintegration in which art fails and language fails and a rich pasts gives way to a meaner present.” While Harris appreciates this strenuously modernist reading, she insists on seeing Between the Acts in the context of a resurgent romanticism that ascribed new importance to the English countryside and traditional village life and was reflected as well in the drawings and watercolors of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. “In Between the Acts,” Harris writes, “a few square miles of England are claimed with a vividness that comes from Woolf’s long, deep acquaintance with the Sussex landscape. She delights in the naming of fields and villages, and in the rehearsal of local knowledge.”
Harris’s discussion of Between the Acts is accompanied by a survey of shifting attitudes toward landscape painting among critics and artists. We see that Roger Fry—the great apostle of formal values who was a friend of Woolf’s and whose biography she wrote—was never really able to appreciate the Romantic landscape tradition. And then we see how Fry’s friend and disciple, Kenneth Clark, became increasingly attuned to the work of Turner and Constable, and was moved to observe of Fry that “purity is a dangerous word to apply to such a complex and vital matter as art.”
Every era has a kaleidoscopic richness, and Harris is a connoisseur of the multiplying, sometimes seemingly contradictory ways in which creative spirits reacted to the times in which they lived. She suggests that the mood of England in the late 1930s—when life was, as Woolf observed, “rather like sitting in a sick room, quite helpless”—could provoke responses as various as the austere geometric abstractions of Ben Nicholson and “the massed statistics” in George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (1937). There is something almost novelistic in the way Harris manages to bring these strands together. She sees more connections than most people do. In a chapter entitled “A Break for Refreshments,” which describes a growing English interest in good, simple food, she touches on Marinetti’s Futurist cookbook, the culinary tastes of the French painter Jean Hélion, Joseph Conrad’s introduction to his wife’s A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House, and she comments of Virginia Woolf that “even her most abstract novel, The Waves, is set largely in restaurants, amid crumbs and greasy knives and the very physical paraphernalia of eating.” Rarely have I read a book in which social and cultural experiences are described with such a light, sure, lucid touch. Alexandra Harris recaptures the humanity of modernity.
Jed Perl is art critic of The New Republic.