Alexandra Harris: Modernity and tradition in twentieth century English art

In her book Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, Alexandra Harris (2010) explores the ways in which a return to depicting a traditional version of England coexisted with notions of modernity in English art from the late 1930s onwards, as modern artists took it upon themselves to safeguard images of Englishness which were under threat from both war and wider changes in society. She identifies a time of ‘national self-discovery’ as the country was faced with the prospect of the destruction of another world war. Artists took a ‘turn towards home’ which involved retreating towards the “crowded, detailed, old-fashioned, whimsical” and acting as ‘pilgrims’ gathering “souvenirs from an old country that might not survive the fighting”. She attributes this ‘imaginative claiming of England’, and the artistic quest to find an essential Englishness, partly to a reaction against the experimental ethos of high modernism, which set out to forge new beginnings set apart from any precedent, and partly as an expression of responsibility towards people, places and histories who needed to remain visible (unlike abstract art, which represented nothing, was tethered to no kind of meaning and so was free to promote aesthetic and social liberty).

Unlike the revolutionary art of the 1910s and 1920s which sought ‘universal myths’, a common, international language of form and the abolition of roots, Harris argues that from the 1930s artists moved away from this so-called ‘heroic’ modernism to once again embrace eccentricity, difference, the particular and the local. She identifies an acute sense of place in the art of the 1930s and 1940s, and a preoccupation with processes rather than finished products, with art of the period often giving away something about where it is made, perhaps by the artist leaving the studio and working in the open air or in a church (Harris, 2010).

Harris also discusses the thousands of paintings undertaken as part of the Recording Britain project – produced, she notes, in the same quantities as armaments during the war – which recorded small-scale details of England such as roads and barns between 1939-1945, with paintings lent to regional galleries around the country on the grounds of their local interest. These paintings showed not just areas vulnerable to war but areas where agriculture was being overtaken by industry and suburban development (Harris, 2010).