Thursday, 2 December 2010

'Romantic Moderns' and 'England in Particular'

Hooray for the book judges at The Guardian! 'Romantic Moderns' is a wonderful book, both academic and readable. It's going to come as a bit of a shock to some art lovers when they unwrap it on Christmas Day - a light, post-turkey read it is not - but such is the way of things in the book world that 'Romantic Moderns' is set to be this year's 'John and Myfanwy'...

So the rehabilitation of interwar English art and culture continues, and what a curious business it is. Who could have predicted a decade ago that everyone and their aunt would be banging on about John Piper as we shuffle through the snow towards the end of 2010?

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s the only home-grown artist of that period who seemed relevant was Paul Nash, who at least made the effort to add bizarre extraneous objects to his Dorset scenes.

It's interesting that the success of 'Romantic Moderns' should coincide with a BBC series about German art. Learning rudimentary art history at school, circa 1982, I don't recall a single German artist getting a mention. Art was Italian (Renaissance), then British (Gainsborough, Stubbs, Turner), then French (Impressionists and after), then Spanish (Picasso and Dali), then American (Jack the Dripper, Rauschenberg, Warhol).

My subsequent discovery of a book of Expressionist art was a revelation, partly because of the work included, but also because it showed the bias in my education.


A similar thing happened when I first came across Common Ground, the charity that achieved widespread recognition with the 2006 tome 'England in Particular'. For two decades before that, Sue Clifford and Angela King had been campaigning with passion and ingenuity on behalf of the local and distinctive, launching Apple Day in 1990 to draw attention to the plight of our orchards and apple varieties. In 'England in Particular' they wrote:

The land is our great creation. Underpinned by nature, it is a physical thing and an invisible web. It is held together by stone walls and swallows, Northumbrian smallpipes and Swaledale sheep, Devon lanes and Fenland skies, Diwali and 'obby 'osses, round barrows and cooling towers, high streets and Ham stone, dew ponds and dialects.

Reading this, I saw that I had been living with a prejudice for years, if not for ever - a prejudice that equates the local with the parochial. The word 'English' conjured visions of old ladies sipping tea in National Trust tearooms. Englishness itself was a branch of the heritage industry, and of no intellectual importance - when I studied modern literature in the early 1990s we studied no English author later than DH Lawrence.

'Romantic Moderns' and 'England in Particular' are very different books - the latter is ideal for post-prandial browsing - but they share common ground. Both are inclusive, generous and wide-ranging. Both seek to broaden our view of this country's culture, allowing us to enjoy and appreciate our surroundings and the art of those surroundings.

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