By Caroline Maclean

Bloomsbury Publishing. 296 pages. £30. ISBN 978-1-4088-8969-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There are moments when things – people, places, ideas – appear to have come together in a way that, in retrospect, gives them a kind of cohesiveness that might not have been totally evident, if at all, at the time. Hampstead in the 1930s may have been such a location. The activities of a loose group of home-grown modernists, reacting against the art establishment’s conventional notions of creativity, coincided with the arrival of avant-garde painters and others in Britain as Nazis and Fascists drove out those not conforming to their limited tastes in art. For a brief period London, and especially Hampstead, became a centre for the forward-looking in painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Two of the key practitioners in the story of the Hampstead Modernists were Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, a couple who met and became major influences on British art for many years, especially when they moved to Cornwall and were prominent among the painters, sculptors, and others clustered around St Ives. But all that came later.

They were, in the 1930s, leading separate lives, at least initially. Ben Nicholson was the son of a then well-known painter, William Nicholson. William’s style was what might be called “traditional” and he had a reputation for landscapes and portraits that had enabled him to live comfortably. He would have preferred his son not to have had ambitions as an artist, but Ben went to the Slade, where he became acquainted with Paul Nash. He travelled around Europe just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, and picked up on some of the ideas, such as Cubism, that were then circulating in France and elsewhere. Caroline Maclean says that when he sent a few of his paintings back to England, his father thought of them as “the work of an untrained eye, both in colour and form”. Relations between father and son were never easy, and the situation can’t have been helped when Ben brought home his fiancée, Edith Stuart-Wortley, and William charmed her away and married her. Having one’s ex-fiancée as your stepmother might not have been the best of circumstances.

Ben met Winifred Roberts, herself a talented artist, and they were married in 1920. As both came from well-to-do backgrounds, they were able to travel extensively on their honeymoon. When they returned to Britain they bought property in Cumberland and started to develop their careers. They exhibited in London, with Winifred’s work appealing more to a wider audience than Ben’s. Her paintings sold, whereas his – “irregular geometric shapes….here and there decorated with round spots”, according to a hostile review in the Daily Mail - failed to attract buyers.  But Ben was invited by Ivon Hitchens to join the Seven and Five Society, a group of young painters and sculptors intending to challenge the orthodoxies of the art establishment. Ben was to become quite prominent in the group, easing out people he thought of as “duds” and bringing in fresh blood.

The couple left Cumberland and moved to Dulwich in 1927. They met the ill-fated Christopher Wood, who had studied in Paris and knew Picasso, and it was with Wood that Ben, on a trip to St Ives, “discovered” the work of the primitive painter, Alfred Wallis. Maclean refers to “the friendship and patronage between Ben and Alfred Wallis that lasted many years”, though some observers thought that Nicholson had exploited Wallis in various ways by championing his work, raising its prices after paying him very little for it, and benefiting himself.

It would seem that there were some domestic problems, especially since Ben and Winifred now had more than one child to look after, but in 1931 his fortunes started to improve. He was in an exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery “with the potter William Staite Murray and a young sculptor called Barbara Hepworth”. She was married to another sculptor, Jack Skeaping. Their relationship perhaps wasn’t perfect, and Maclean tells the story of how Hepworth arrived at their studio one day to find Skeaping in a compromising situation with “the attractive and sexy-looking” Eileen Friedlander. She was half-undressed and ran out of the back-door and jumped over a fence and into the garden of the monastery next-door. A monk who was reading his breviary calmly ignored her while she got dressed, and then politely showed her the way out. It’s a good story, and if not quite true, ought to be. 

A relationship between Hepworth and Nicholson developed, with Ben moving between her and Winifred on a regular basis. I have to admit that I found it difficult not to see him as something of an opportunist. When Winifred took their children to Cornwall while he was with Barbara, he pleaded to be allowed to come and stay with her. Likewise when Winifred and the children moved to Paris and Ben again decided that it was the right time to stay with her. As McLean puts it: “Like the move to Cornwall, it had a powerful effect on Ben, who wrote immediately to ask when he might visit”. It could be argued that in both cases his desire to see his children had a part in his decision to visit, but somehow I have a feeling that he was kind of person not likely to pass up an opportunity to further his own interests. It would certainly seem to be true that he was always keen to network and cultivate the right people. He wouldn’t be alone in that kind of behaviour, of course.

There was “an explosion of abstraction” in the early-1930s, with Hepworth and Nicholson heavily involved in it. The initial issue of Axis edited by Myfanwy Evans, the wife of John Piper, and “the first art journal dedicated to abstract art”, appeared in 1935 and lasted through seven further issues until 1937. It played a major role in bringing abstract painting and sculpture to a wider audience than had previously paid attention to it. And it established bridges between British and French painters and sculptors. A slightly later, short-lived publication, Circle (a one-shot document-cum-manifesto, and not to be confused with the 1940s Californian magazine of the same name), tried to keep the momentum going, but by 1936 abstraction was facing some opposition from Surrealism.

The famous Surrealist exhibition opened in that year, and drew attention from the press, not only for what was seen as the odd nature of some of the pictures, but also for the odd behaviour of certain of the participants. Salvador Dali paraded in a heavy diving suit and almost died when the helmet wasn’t easy to remove. Dylan Thomas offered visitors boiled string in tea cups, asking if they wanted it strong or weak.  Sheila Legge “wandered around the Galleries with a dummy leg in one hand and apparently a pork chop in the other”. The writer J.B. Priestley wasn’t impressed by the antics or the paintings on display and grumpily referred to “moral perversions”.

With regard to Circle, it’s relevant to note that, although Ben Nicholson, Leslie Martin and Naum Gabo got credit as editors, Barbara Hepworth later recalled that she and Martin’s wife, Sadie Speight, were also very much involved. They assisted with the research and writing, and “did the layout, we did the corrections, proofing, everything”.  It might also be of significance to point to the 1936 Abstract & Concrete Exhibition which toured around Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and London, and reminded gallery-goers that Surrealism wasn’t the only game in town.

With the social and economic situation in Europe continuing to worsen there was an influx of artists, sculptors, and architects into the United Kingdom. The Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, turned up, as did Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy. And Walter Gropius arrived with his wife, Ise. The spirit of Bauhaus was in the air. There was a profound influence on many British artists and architects. The newcomers didn’t always stay too long, some of them seeing Britain as a place of “unsalted vegetables, bony women and an eternally freezing draught”. (Walter Gropius’s words). And the looming war situation persuaded people like Gropius and Marcel Breuer to leave for America, where there would be greater safety and a better chance of earning a living. The British weren’t always receptive to new ideas in either art or architecture. Maclean’s chapter on architectural developments is informative and useful.

Hampstead wasn’t just a playground for painters and sculptors, and with the Experimental Theatre and Everyman Cinema on site there were clearly other involvements in the artistic life of the community. Poets and prose writers were also present. W.H. Auden put in an appearance, as did Geoffrey Grigson, with his magazine New Verse, and Louis MacNeice was around and chasing after the painter William Coldstream’s wife, Nancy.  Coldstream didn’t have much, if anything, in common with artists like Nicholson, and inclined more to a realist approach to painting. Maclean says “Auden believed that painting, like writing, should be a form of reportage in 1937 and he encouraged Bill to paint things as he saw they were. This became the fundamental tenet of the Euston Road School of which Bill was a founding member in 1937”.

A whole catalogue of characters can be encountered in Circles and Squares. Virginia Woolf is there, visiting Herbert Read, and reacting against his “vast comfortless studio” where “none of the charm of Bohemia mitigated the hard chairs, the skimpy wine, & the very nice, sensible conversation”. Henry Moore appears on the scene, and so do Ceri Richards, Ruthven Todd, Alexander Calder, Graham Sutherland, Roland Penrose, and others too numerous to name. I have to admit that the names, falling fast into the boiling pot of personalities and plots, did bother me at times, and I had to turn back the pages to remind myself who was who when it came to the minor figures. And I couldn’t always remember just who had slept with who. I kept thinking of lines from Dorothy Parker’s poem, “Bohemia”: “Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney/Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney./Playwrights and poets and such horses’ necks/Start off from anywhere, end up at sex”.

Maclean usefully provides an epilogue that briefly tells what happened to individual artists as the Second World War broke up the Hampstead community and, in some cases, drove them away from London altogether. Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St Ives, and it was their presence and influence that was probably as much as anything responsible for the post-war transformation of  the small fishing town into a major centre for art that attracted national and international attention. As with any other artistic community it wasn’t always sweetness and light, and Sven Berlin took Ben to task for his alleged manipulation of Alfred Wallis’s work.

Nicholson eventually moved on, but Hepworth stayed in St Ives. I was never a great admirer of her sculptures until a friend, who is keen on them, took me to the Hepworth Museum in St Ives and I saw them spaced around the garden. They made much more sense to me in that context than in the detached surroundings of an art gallery. As for Nicholson, although I enjoy some of his early, Cubist-influenced canvases, I have never been able to gain anything from his “reliefs”, the circles and squares he’s most associated with. But then, I have a limited taste for Mondrian’s paintings and that kind of geometrical abstraction generally. Surrealism and, in a different way, the realism of William Coldstream and the Euston Road School are much more to my liking.

Circles and Squares is a tidily written and useful book. It would be foolish to suggest that Nicholson and Hepworth have been neglected in recent years, but by putting them in context in terms of their activities in relation to the rest of the Hampstead modernists, Caroline Maclean has provided a valuable service. Her story has additional interest when it reminds us of the importance of the émigré painters, sculptors, and architects who widened the scope of British art in the 1930s. The book has some illustrations, notes, and a Selected Bibliography.