Let’s hear it for charm, an underappreciated quality in the visual arts. If austerity is one of the modern artist’s essential tools, charm also has a distinctive power, although one that’s hardly welcomed by the curators, historians, and critics who shape opinion about modern and contemporary art. Artists risk being overlooked when they emphasize elegant wit, gentle seduction, or beguiling intelligence; they are dismissed as sentimentalists, without the sharp elbows needed to operate effectively in our world. That prejudice certainly goes a long way toward explaining the murky reputation, at least beyond the British Isles, of a considerable number of artists, some of whom can be loosely grouped as Neo-Romantics, all of whom, through their prints, paintings, book illustrations, posters, advertisements, and stage sets, helped shape the English public’s sense of history and social values from the 1930s to the 1960s. While these are by no means the greatest artists of the twentieth century, they have their force and their fascination—and charm is often the glue that unites their sophisticated aesthetics and their populist ideals. Because the politics that these English artists embraced tended to be liberal and democratic, they have looked too mild, too “middle-of-the-road” to please art historians who are infatuated with the grand radical hopes of the Russian Constructivists or the Mexican muralists.
I love some of this quirky English stuff, much of which I first got to know as I trawled the used bookstores along London’s Charing Cross Road, where volumes by John Piper, Barbara Jones, Edward Bawden, and a host of others, sometimes with original lithographs, could be had for a few pounds. If you want to learn something about this material, you need to turn to a group of fanatical aficionados, collectors, and esotericists with a taste for the byways of English artistic and social history. They definitely know their subject. And I am glad to see that a number of excellent books published by a British outfit, Antique Collectors’ Club, are now being distributed in the United States. Edward Bawden and His Circle, by Malcolm Yorke, traces the career of an artist who was in his eighties when he died in 1989 and brought to everything he did— illustrations, advertisements, posters, wallpaper, drawings, and watercolors—a fascination with nineteenth-century English life and a gentle-spirited modernist sensibility. Bawden wasn’t afraid of doing cute; he did it incisively, with a crisp graphic attack. He draws a cat that looks so cozily contented, you can almost hear it purring—and he gets away with it, too. He gives his whimsical resurrections of nineteenth-century advertising styles a wacky yet relaxed contemporary twist.
Two books by Ruth Artmonsky—Art for Everyone: Contemporary Lithographs Ltd and The School Prints: A Romantic Project—track mid-century efforts to bring inexpensive, high-quality pictures to a broad audience. These efforts involved a wide range of artists, including Bawden, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Vanessa Bell, John Nash, Barnett Freedman, Henry Moore and even, ultimately, figures from across the Channel, among them Braque, Picasso, and Matisse. The artists formed overlapping groups, and they were by no means all friends. Figures such as Freedman, Bawden, and Eric Ravilious were basically known as illustrators, justifiably so. Piper, although he did a good deal of illustration, had been an abstract painter in the 1930s, and later produced moody canvases, poetic fantasies on the theme of the English countryside that are infinitely more convincing than is now generally acknowledged. Henry Moore’s enduring international reputation as a pioneering modernist was grounded in his feeling for English pastoral traditions. Nearly all of these artists were fascinated by nineteenth-century English landscape art, especially the visionary idylls of Samuel Palmer. There’s an oddball, persnickety originality about some of this work, which has literary analogies in the poetry of John Betjeman and the fiction and memoirs of Denton Welch. Like the potters who gathered around Bernard Leach, these artists and designers were committed to a revival of English crafts and country ways, which were seen as an alternative or at least a counterbalance to the gathering forces of industrialization. And during World War II, as many of the artists bore witness to the Blitz and documented battlefields across Europe, their interpretations of modern warfare involved a spirited reconsideration of eighteenth-century ideas about the picturesque and the sublime.
Malcolm Yorke’s book on Bawden and Ruth Artmonsky’s studies of mid-century print projects are deft, intelligent accounts of a time and a place about which Americans still by and large know too little. While there are analogies to certain WPA projects, the English works tends to have a delicacy, a humor, and a sweet temperedness rare on this side of the Atlantic. An English awareness of older pictorial models—whether Thomas Bewick’s incisive wood engravings or Hogarth’s rollicking social comedy—enriches even relatively casual projects, which were designed to appeal to an expanding middle class audience. There were experiments in the large-scale production of original lithographs as book illustrations in the series “New Excursions into English Poetry,” published in the late 1940s. These anthologies—including Soldiers’ Verse, Poems of Death, and English and Scottish and Welsh Landscape—contain suites of lithographs by Piper, William Scott, John Craxton, and others, and in their exceedingly modest way they bear comparison with some of the French livres d’artiste. One of the volumes in the King Penguin series, also published after the war, is Bawden’s Life in an English Village, with original zinc lithographs, intimate interiors of churches, shops, and homes, lovely and incisive vignettes of country life done in grays and ochres, with touches of bright orange and blue. Among Bawden and his contemporaries, there was an attention to the beguilements and absurdities of Victorian taste that in some ways parallels the work that photographers such as Walker Evans and Clarence John Laughlin were doing in the United States. And Bawden also shares Evans’s eye for the beauties of rural austerity, as in a study of a Methodist chapel included in Life in an English Village.
Sometimes Bawden—and Barbara Jones and Eric Ravilious—achieve a homebody’s version of rococo elegance. At other times their work skirts or even embraces Surrealism. And Bawden’s later linocuts, with their vigorous, playful designs, prefigure the swagger of Swingin’ London. At their best, Bawden and his contemporaries invented their own, unpredictable mix of incisiveness and coziness, of humor and nostalgia. Their subject is the mystery and magic of ordinariness, a great theme around which they weave minor yet memorable variations. Their work has a funny-funky power. And when they look back to an England that is vanishing right before their eyes, the funny-funky power turns funny-sad.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.