callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

Book of the month: Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris


Yup, I’ve already decided that I won’t read a better book this month than Romantic Moderns, which I enjoyed more than any novel I’ve read recently. I’d been wanting to read it since it came out (2010), so I snatched it off the ‘just returned’ shelf at the library when I saw it there. It begins particularly beguilingly for me:
Toller Fratrum is a small village in Dorset … Beside the farmhouse and a clutch of other stone buildings is the tiny church of St. Basil.
Yes! I’ve been there! Toller Fratrum is at the back of beyond, up a steep winding hill and quite hard to find. The point of visiting the church is to see the ancient font, which John Piper photographed in 1936. If you make the pilgrimage today, you will see his name in the visitors’ book, helpfully (not) marked in biro. Church crawling was a passion which Piper shared with John Betjeman.

The book is subtitled ‘English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper.’ It sets out to show how artists and writers moved from bleak, minimalist, international modernism, advocated by the art critic Roger Fry and constructed by le Corbusier and others, towards an English art which was both modern and romantic. It was a battle between ‘concrete and curlicues’, between dogmatists and those they saw as traitors.
Artists who had previously felt compelled to disguise themselves as avant-garde Frenchmen were now to be found on English beaches sheltering their watercolours from the drizzle. Anthologists … collected up the verse of eighteenth century parsons …There were church murals, village plays, campaigns to save historic buildings. There were Paul Nash’s megaliths, the erotic dramas of Graham Sutherland’s landscapes, Vita Sackville West’s old roses at Sissinghurst, Edward Bawden’s copper jelly moulds, Bill Brandt’s photographs of literary Britain, Florence White’s regional recipes.
The war intensified all this, because of a desire to record what then existed in case it should be destroyed.

Was this trend a betrayal of modernism?
Was it a betrayal of the modern movement to be in love with old churches and tea-shops; … Is Auden any less a ‘modern’ thinker because he wept with nostalgia while writing a devoted introduction to a selection of Betjeman’s prose?
These are Harris’s themes, explored in detail and with a wonderful command of sources. The book is also beautifully illustrated.

It’s interesting that today people flock to Sissinghurst and other National Trust properties and that Paul Nash, Edward Bawden and John Piper are so much admired. No doubt many writers and artists currently see this as retrograde; the English typically wallowing in nostalgia instead of creating a Brave New World. No doubt a researcher of the future will write a book about it. I’m not qualified to review this book as I’m no art expert; nor am I a worshipper of Virginia Woolf , and there’s an awful lot of Woolf in Romantic Moderns. Even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

From Continual Dew by John Betjeman, 1937
Tags: alexandra harris, art, literary criticism, music, poetry

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