Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Romantic Moderns. English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, by Alexandra Harris.

This is a very beautiful book, in many senses. It is a gorgeous piece of book production by Thames and Hudson, its lovely velvety dust jacket with an arrestingly stark yet lovely painting by John Piper of Dungeness. The paper is heavy and creamy, the type is elegantly curvy (after my recent foray into fonts, I do wish T&H had taken two seconds of our time to put details of the typesetting on the back of the title page) and the illustrations are beautifully placed throughout the book, in full colour, next to the text that describes them. It has adorable endpapers, in Edward Bawden’s Tree and Cow wallpaper design of 1927. Altogether, it is a pleasure to hold it and turn the pages, and the best argument I’ve seen in favour of the traditional book and against the ebook I’ve seen in a long time. You may have worked out that I’m edging up towards saying that I’m one of the few readers of this book who is rather ambivalent about its contents.

This book won the Guardian First Book Prize, and deservedly so, because it is a truly original approach to the study of an age (the first half of the 20th century) and an aesthetic that has been stereotyped beyond bearing. Alexandra Harris is immersed in her chosen subject, and in total control of its many facets. Her theme is the cultural connections between the artists and writers of the 20s and 30s, their connection to, and divergence from wider European culture. She traces a distinctive approach among her chosen group of artists and writers that draws on the idea of the English past to inform a uniquely English brand of modernism.

What makes this book so original and fascinating to read is the way in which the author casts her net so widely (although she also draws a limiting line around the particular terrain she covers, and that is one of the areas of doubt I have about this book). She looks for connections between past and present in landscape, and how humans have shaped it; in the weather, and how it informs the artistic and literary imagination; in the idea of the Village (now this is where I do start to squirm a little) and beyond that to the Parish; in food and drink; in music, specifically Folk; and above all, in the idea of the House and the Home (the rather opulent House and Home, culminating in Brideshead and a very intriguing link of ‘Charles Ryder’ to John Piper, in his trajectory from abstract artist to chronicler of decaying grandeur).

Into a complex web of argument, Alexandra Harris draws her chosen principals, John Piper and Virginia Woolf, tracing their journey towards a synthesis of a modernistic outlook (in Piper’s case as a purely abstract artist) with all the influences from the English pastoral past. Weaving through this study are tribes and tribes of other significant figures, few of whom get more than a paragraph or two, at most a page. Some disappear and reappear throughout the book. The author handles this enormous cast of characters with assurance and elegance. These are the people who formed the aesthetic outlook that I grew up in, and as such, this is a book I really looked forward to reading. It is rich and dense, and so beautifully decorated and illustrated – rather like a wedding cake.

I am reminded of the structure of another book I reviewed here a little while ago – Harry Ricketts’s Strange Meetings, and wonder if there is a bit of a trend emerging in critical studies. I think that, in attempting to sit down and read Romantic Moderns at a stretch, I have missed out on a better way of playing to its strengths. Like Strange Meetings, each chapter can stand alone as a study of its particular theme, to be consumed and reflected on. Treating this book as a study of (say) John Piper, because he is such an inspirational figure within it, is an unprofitable approach, just as expecting from the book to take away very much about all the inspiring figures who have a walk-on part: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Daphne du Maurier, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious. Taken one by one, the chapters are graceful, thought-provoking essays that pick an aesthetic strand and unravel it from the whole fabric, then weave it back in. I loved the chapters on Food and Weather and Gardens in particular, and enjoyed the rest.

But (there is a But, isn’t there?) … I was not convinced by the thesis of this book. Seeing so many famous and talented figures brought to the fore made me start to think about who wasn’t there, and wonder why not. Where is Eric Gill? George Orwell? Why do Nicholson and Hepworth have the merest walk-on part? Doesn’t their discovery of Alfred Wallis get a look-in here? To name but a few. Having looked at this period and these figures, why not move on to take in the crowning glory of English modern art of the first half of the 20th century, Coventry Cathedral? (Not too modern, surely?) Mass Observation is mentioned just once, and its founder’s name spelt wrong (the only mistake that I noticed). Is the theme of this book to recruit the usual suspects to the ranks of Modernism? Betjeman, Beaton, Waugh? Lord Berners? It didn’t work for me. And the other area of doubt for me was the fence the author places around the terrain. This is all pastoral, patrician. Sussex figures hugely. Hardly any of the inspiration is metropolitan (or for that matter, plebeian). Harking back to the Georgian country house as a template for the Modern (on the basis that English sense of the past is bound up in the medieval and tudor – a half-timbered nostalgia for the past – so Georgian taste was a modern revolution) is for me unconvincing. It makes me wonder how in England we are ever going to find a distinctive voice or visual style for our own age. After a dose of Betjeman and James Lees-Milne and the latter day John Piper, I want to cheer on Le Courbusier for saying that a house should be a ‘machine for living in’ – not a stage set for an aesthetic that has hardly ever dared to throw anything away since the 18th century or before. That way lie Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry and ‘Poundbury’.

I must step down from my hobby-horse and say that this is a purely personal view. I place figures like Betjeman and Waugh and Piper, whose work I enjoy and value hugely, in a certain context, and recruiting them to the modern movement is not it. However, this book tells me much about figures in art and writing and other cultural forms whose work, contemplated as part of their era, gives me great pleasure. So many clues to other lines of enquiry are thrown down in front of the reader, and so many brief glimpses of an exciting collective and individual imagination – perhaps too many, a bewildering amount. I just wish that there had not been so great an effort to convince me that there is such a phenomenon of Romantic Moderns, and that these are they. Call them Modern Romantics, and I’d be a lot happier. But what a great book this is, to stir up my dormant contrarian spirit – it is all too rare to find a book I can even be bothered to throw at the skirting board these days, and I certainly didn’t want to do that – I wanted to stick around and argue!

Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns. English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Thames and Hudson, 2010. 320pp.
ISBN13: 970500251713

5 comments on “Romantic Moderns. English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, by Alexandra Harris.

  1. sakura
    March 30, 2011

    I am dying to read this book. I guess with any historical study of an era from a particular point of view or thesis there will be certain additions and omissions that may not fit in with all readers. And I think it’s great that you mention it in your post as I would definitely be more critical about a piece of work in the subject I’m familiar with. Would you say this is a good introduction to the period?

  2. Jackie
    March 30, 2011

    Like sakura, I’d like to learn more about this period. This sounds like a decent book, if one overlooks it’s limitations. You actually make it sound like a pleasant experience, especially about the physical aspects of the book itself, that I’m hoping to find it at the library at some point.
    Thanks for the enthusiastic review of a book that came up short, but still looks to have a lot to offer.

  3. Hilary
    March 30, 2011

    Thanks for your comment, sakura. I’d say that this is a critical study with a thesis, and it chooses its examples to back that up – as such, it’s not really a comprehensive overview, and so I don’t think I’d recommend it as an introduction to the period. I’m sure you’d enjoy reading it, so don’t let that put you off! One great aspect of this work is that it provides ample suggestions for further investigation.

    I hope that other commenters may come here with a recommendation for you – I can’t really think of one off-hand, but I’ll do some hunting.

    Jackie, I hope you find a copy – it really is a very attractive book in so many ways. And, to be fair, my disagreeing with it doesn’t mean it fell short of any mark – in fact I’m guiltily waiting for someone, or several people, to come and tell me by just how much I’ve missed the point!

  4. Pingback: Romantic Moderns. English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, by Alexandra Harris. (via Vulpes Libris) | The Calculable

  5. Nikki
    April 2, 2011

    You won me over in the first paragraph, Hilary. I’m a sucker for beautifully produced books. And then it’s about an era that I’m particularly interested in at the moment. Perfect combination!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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