Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, by Alexandra Harris, Thames & Hudson RRP£19.95 295 pages
Perhaps high modernism never had a chance in a country as suspicious of grand theory as Britain. The closest it came was between 1912 and 1922 when TS Eliot was composing “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land”, and the influential Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry was writing manifestos that called for the excising of “the practical responses to sensations of ordinary life, thereby setting free a pure and, as it were, disembodied functioning of the spirit”. By 1932, the artist Paul Nash was questioning “whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’”.
Modernism was mainly European and, by the late 1930s, Britain was facing a continent where some of the wackier aesthetic ideas of modernism, in particular Italian futurism, had metastasised into violent political movements. No wonder that so many British artists, writers and musicians repudiated extreme, pure forms of modernism and embraced an inclusive and sometimes nostalgic alternative, which could incorporate passions for country churches, Sussex downland and stripy lighthouses.
For decades this turn, seen especially in John Piper, John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh, has been viewed not so much as romantic modernism but as romantic reaction. Alexandra Harris’s brilliant, delightfully readable book is a revaluing and rescuing of much of the British art, writing and music of the 1930s – seeing its essence not in a rejection of modernism but in a peculiarly English marriage of modernist techniques and love of particular place.
The two key figures here, not often mentioned in the same breath, are John Piper and Virginia Woolf. Harris offers an appreciative reading of Woolf’s neglected last novel, Between the Acts, set on the eve of war in 1939 and featuring a day-long pageant of English history. That might sound nostalgic but the point is that “a continuous English way of life threatens to break apart”.
The war gave an even stronger impetus to English romantic modernism: as Piper went around drawing houses and churches, and writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green memorialised ancestral homes, they were aware of saving in images what might be destroyed by bombs.
Part of the cleverness of Romantic Moderns is Harris’s ability to connect apparently divergent strands of the culture of the 1930s and 1940s, from the garden design of Geoffrey Jellicoe to the cookery books of Florence White. Music is treated cursorily, though with characteristic intelligence; Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, written on return from American exile and celebrating his reconnection with his native landscape, could be seen as the masterwork of English romantic modernism.
Sometimes you may feel Harris stretches her category too far, so that it can include almost any art made in England in the 1930s and 1940s, and plays down its reactionary side. But on the whole her revaluation is thoroughly invigorating.