Modernists and Mavericks
(Thames & Hudson, 2018)
Simon Matthews reflects on post-war British art, and the politics that made it possible.
Compendium histories are back in vogue. Once associated with AJP Taylor and set texts for ‘O’ or ‘A’ Level, they’ve become very popular – again – in recent years, the most acclaimed authors being Dominic Sandbrook, Andy Beckett and David Kynaston. Nor are we restricted to narratives focused on political and economic changes. Barry Miles, in London Calling, gave us a brilliant overview of the post-1945 London counter-culture. Now, from Martin Gayford, we have an account exploring the art and artists of the same period.
It all begins with London ‘partially in ruins’. Cyril Connolly thought ‘London was the saddest of the great cities … miles of unpainted half-inhabited houses’. Lucien Freud lived in ‘crumbling slum housing’ near Paddington. Frank Auerbach, venturing out from his ‘lodging rooms’, noted: ‘As you went in buses you saw the sites of bombed buildings with pictures still on the walls, the fireplaces and so on; great craters … a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined city.’ As indeed it was; between 1940 and 1945, 110,000 homes in London were completely destroyed and another 2,880,000 badly damaged.
At Borough Polytechnic in ‘an unglamorous corner of south London’, Auerbach was taught by David Bomberg, who, after his expulsion from the Slade School of Art in 1913, had toiled at ‘dozens of menial jobs’. Fellow student Gillian Ayres remembered the area as ‘poor, very poor. People didn’t always have socks and shoes. They drank out of jam jars.’
A few miles away, at Camberwell, William Coldstream and Victor Passmore taught their students to concentrate on their immediate surroundings, including industrial infrastructure. Neither were full-time painters. Pre-war, both had worked in the UK’s tiny public sector – Coldstream had been in the GPO Film Unit and Passmore at the London County Council (LCC). They discussed and refined their ideas during lengthy walks along the Peckham branch of the Surrey Canal. From this emerged the kitchen sink genre.
Not that all their students concentrated on art. Two, Humphrey Lyttelton and Wally Fawkes, diverged rapidly into music, thus launching, inadvertently, the UK trad-jazz boom and all that flowed from that. Peter Blake would later recollect that ‘at the art schools, all the dances were trad bands’.
Within a few years the Festival of Britain was holding a competition for contemporary UK art, 60 Paintings for 51, of which five (including one by Lucien Freud) were awarded prizes of £500 each (£33k today). Cue Daily Mail fury with ‘the Arts Council are leaning too far to the left’. Hugh Gaitskell, Chancellor of the Exchequer, had to answer questions in the House about wasting public money. This early creative burst reached a peak at the 1952 Whitechapel Gallery show Looking Ahead (co-incidentally – was it? – the same slogan as the CPGB’s latest manifesto) the accompanying catalogue for which advised viewers that the exhibits ‘imply an acceptance of the revolutionary theories of the last 40 years’. A reminder that this was a time when ‘everyone borrowed from Picasso’, the outstanding anti-fascist artist of his day.
Not that things stayed that way. US popular culture had always been big in the UK, particularly in cinema, where Britain accounted for 10 per cent of the global audience for Hollywood productions. David Hockney thought it ‘a marvellously different world from trudging through dingy Bradford streets’. Derek Jarman (Slade, 1963) noted ‘they had fridges and cars, TVs and supermarkets’. For those who wished to come in from the drab austerity of everyday UK life, the US Embassy had a well-stocked library of the latest glossy periodicals, freely available to public readers. Richard Hamilton (a classmate of Blake at the Royal College of Art) and Eduardo Paolozzi (Slade, 1944) were regular attendees, drawing inspiration from the brilliantly arranged commercial art and general layout of the magazines. The ICA began staging talks about contemporary US culture, pop art and rock and roll. At one of these they may even have played the first Bill Haley record ever heard in the UK. The wider public became aware of these trends when the Whitechapel Gallery staged This is Tomorrow in 1956.
By now the mood was observing and taking inspiration from popular industrial design, looking ironically at everyday US images and utilizing commercial art. Throughout the 1950s, the US State Department was particularly active in trying to change this mindset and to swing the UK away from social realism. Via the International Educational Exchange Service, eminent lecturers were paid £3,000–4,000 (in 2018 prices) a time to proselytize the manifold benefits of American galleries, to offer UK talents openings in the US and particularly to push abstract expressionism.
This style – Jackson Pollock, Marc Rothko – reached the Whitechapel Gallery (something, it would seem, of a cultural battlefield) in 1958. Rather than playful, thoughtful satire about 20th century artefacts this was shock and awe: size, power, boldness, the viewer rendered speechless. The works were usually too big for most private collectors. Effectively, it was the beginning of corporate art. Huge pieces for boardrooms, atriums, foyers.
Moving on from the kitchen sink was one thing, persuading the UK to abandon its recently assembled structures for social welfare and education spending, the new social contract that allowed access to the arts for all via generous government funding, was quite another. At this stage few were prepared to countenance such a move.
A happy compromise, though, came when Tony Crosland in The Future of Socialism (1956) proclaimed that he wanted ‘more murals and pictures in public places’. The LCC and ILEA took this very seriously. Gillian Ayres (Camberwell, 1946) found herself doing a mural for South Hampstead High School, Robyn Denny (St Martin’s, 1951) produced one for a south London nursery school. In 1961 David Hockney, then an undergraduate, decorated the Pop Inn, a large room ‘for teenagers’ on the UK’s latest cruise liner the SS Canberra. Victor Passmore even designed part of Peterlee New Town, and did murals for T. Dan Smith-run Newcastle City Council.
It was all part of a close embrace of modernity, a sweeping away of the old by the new, that saw London’s population shrink by 25 per cent over the 40 years 1945-1985, an average of 50,000 fewer people per year, every year, moving away to the new satellite towns beyond. Huge spaces and opportunities arose in what was left behind for those who sought them. Freud made an application to his council and got a flat in a street due for clearance, Clarendon Crescent W2. Over the next few years he moved from ‘crumbling street to crumbling street’, where he was ‘the only inhabitant except for squatters’. Here, surrounded by dereliction he started painting in his trademark style, portraits where the subjects were completely unembellished and explicitly nude; naked human geography in an area that was similarly naked and disintegrating.
In one sense this was the same terrain (literally in some cases) explored by photographer Roger Mayne in many cover shoots and features for Picture Post and later by film makers Tinto Brass (Col Cuore in Gola, 1967) and John Boorman (Leo the Last, 1970). Freud’s colleagues explored the streets around them too. Auerbach from his studio in Camden, a property with an outdoor lavatory and no heating, and Leon Kossoff (taught, like Auerbach, by Bomberg) in Willesden Junction.
The 1959 RCA intake was considered especially brilliant – Hockney, Ridley Scott, Ossie Clark, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty. Ken Russell captured Blake, Boshier and Boty on film in Pop Goes the Easel in 1962. Boty took her commitment to exploring pop culture very seriously, at one point she was a dancer on Ready Steady Go, and one of Alfie’s girlfriends, albeit uncredited (she died, tragically early, a few months after the film’s release in 1966). Her diversification was typical. Neither Ossie Clark nor Ridley Scott became artists, choosing fashion and film respectively.
Hockney didn’t even bother completing his degree. By 1963 he was in New York meeting Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper and observing the new urban scene where artists lived in abandoned industrial space (‘lofts’). His later comments about preferring the US to the UK were captured memorably by Peter Whitehead in Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967).
A contemporary of these various luminaries was Bridget Riley who, after a spell at Goldsmiths, went into advertising, another area of immense creativity at this point. She remained an active artist, though, and had her first big exhibition in 1962, which, with its striking TV screen-style optical images instantly made her the go-to person of the moment. Indeed, her work seemed to immediately chime with what Anthony Caro called the ‘hopeful, optimistic attitude that was around’. Very quickly, there were Riley influenced clothes, book jackets, album sleeves, film sets, title sequences. In 1965 in New York it was suggested to her that she copyright her images, and make millions. Characteristically, she refused.
It is hard to assess when and where all this peaked, but, most likely it did so with Robert ‘Groovy Bob’ Fraser whose gallery (in Grosvenor Square, opposite the US Embassy) showed Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Riley, Boshier, Hamilton and many others.
The rising power of youth, a perceived lack of respect shown for traditional authority, the supposed degradations of drugs and sex and the ‘threat’ that this, supposedly, presented to social standards (whatever these were) meant that this social milieu was seen by some as a menace.
Fraser was arrested, with The Rolling Stones and sundry others in February 1967 and – unlike them – jailed for six months, with hard labour. His offence? Possession of heroin. His real offence? Letting the side down: after Eton and the King’s African Rifles, he had aligned himself with those who had no respect for the values that had built the Empire, people who had risen to prominence from the lower strata of society precisely because of the access to opportunity, education and wealth that had existed for them since 1945 and, equally, had been denied to them only a couple of decades earlier. And, to boot, he was gay, with a preference for young black men. Accordingly, he was shown no mercy.
It is tempting to plot his treatment as the start of a backlash by UK conservatives. A year later Enoch Powell made his obnoxious ‘rivers of blood’ speech and the serious right were on the move after being penned up in a political backwater for over twenty years. By 1970 a new generation of philistine politicians was emerging from the suburbs: Cecil Parkinson, Noman Tebbit and most prominently, Margaret Thatcher.
Gayford’s book ends at this point, noting that by the mid-1970s drawing – the great feature, above all else, of UK art teaching, with a lineage back to Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds – had fallen out of fashion and was no longer central. Instead performance art, installations, sculpture, use of film became as, if not more, important. Ultimately this produced contrarians like Gilbert and George and a trail that leads slowly but steadily to the Young British Artists of the 1990’s. Corporate art was now triumphant.
But how ‘good’ is any of it? Is the point merely to be famous and make huge amounts of money? Would Damian Hirst have refused – had he been around in 1965 – to copyright his style in the way that Bridget Riley did? Today, only the ‘stuckists’ – a grouping deemed by critics to be ‘stuck’ in painting and which most notably includes Billy Childish, former beau of Tracey Emin – remain as exemplars of the type of art that predominated during the period covered by Gayford.
Some of the above points may occur to the reader when they reach the end of this book. None are addressed, but this remains an impressive and fluent work with 200 illustrations and many footnotes. If a criticism is to be made it would be that the author is a bit light on context and practicalities.
While a book on art, artists and related matters is quite right to concentrate on its central subjects, none of them – and none of the worlds that they lived in and moved through – existed in a vacuum. The influence of government policy, and preferences, was profound at every level.
In 1939 70,000 persons in the UK were in Further Education, with spending on education (as a whole) standing then at 2 per cent of GDP. By 1979 there were 600,000 people in FE, which accounted for 5.5 per cent of GDP, with universities receiving 75 per cent of their income from central government. Today? Education spending amounts to 4.4 per cent of GDP and universities get 47 per cent of their income from the government. Broadly, we have seen a massive increase in FE funding, followed by a deliberate retreat from this policy. At a local level this meant that Camberwell School of Art had an intake of 850 students in 1938, rising to 3,000 in 1946 as government grants of all types became freely available.
Before 1939 art had been for the few. Now all had access to it. Renowned abstract artist Terry Frost (who left school at fourteen to work in a factory in Coventry) was one such beneficiary noting that ‘it was so different from before the war’. Others would include Peter Blake (who went to art school after failing the 11-Plus), Derek Boshier (who chose art school over being an apprentice butcher), and Patrick Caulfield who arrived at the Royal College of Art 1960 from Acton (‘nowhere … it just doesn’t exist’) having left school at fifteen. There were many thousands of others. This was due to political and economic changes forced through by the Clement Attlee government and kept – more or less – in place until Thatcher’s second term.
That same period (Attlee through to James Callaghan) saw government spending reach unprecedented levels in other areas of the economy, most notably public housing. The Abercrombie Plan for London (1944) was adopted, with mass clearance, mass housing, mass employment, new parks and a high-quality public realm all flowing from it. Penguin duly published an explanatory special, co-authored by architect Erno Goldfinger, whose other work included a new HQ for the CPGB and several LCC schools. More than just the inspiration for a Bond villain (or was he Fleming’s inspiration for a Bond villain precisely because of his work and connections?) Goldfinger was of a piece with the artists coming to the fore post-1945: in 1956 he even exhibited a joint collaborative work with Victor Passmore and Helen Phillips at the This is Tomorrow show.
Following Abercrombie quite diligently, Attlee built a million local authority homes between 1946 and 1951. A total of 5.7m were eventually produced down to 1979, many of them in the twenty-three new towns set up between 1946 and 1970 (fourteen by Attlee alone) of which eight were in a ring 20-30 miles outside London. It was this policy that caused the de-population phenomenon that hit London in the forty years that followed 1945. (And had some odd and ironic consequences. The Surrey Canal, so essential as a walking area for Passmore, Coldstrean and colleague Bill Townsend disappeared, being infilled and incorporated into Burgess Park.)
But, on balance, all of this was positive, and paid for by taxation. In 1945 the standard rate of income tax in the UK was 50 per cent, and, although this was high (a wartime necessity) and reduced somewhat in following years, taxation remained at a level comparable to the average for functioning social democracies in Europe until 1979. Today it stands at 20 per cent, well below that level.
For the Attlee government, and those that followed down to 1979, the whole ethos of modernism, in housing and the arts was good. And, the more of it the better; anything rather than recede back to the dingy, reactionary, pre-1939 world that most people had existed in, and wished to forget. (And not just those ‘on the left’: in 1958 Anthony Eden was asked, as an ex-PM, whom he wished to select to do his official portrait. He requested Oscar Kokoschka. It turned out this was too pricey and William Coldstream did it instead).
The effects of successive governments following the Abercrombie policy were dramatic, and beneficial to all areas of the arts. The shift out of London left behind a local economy of shops, cellars, spare rooms, houses and useable space that was astonishingly cheap and open to all comers. Even areas that today are amongst the most exclusive were deeply affected. Carnaby Street, and its parades of up-market boutiques, started in 1957 when John Stephen (a twenty-three-year-old former welder’s apprentice from Glasgow) took out a lease on a single shop. Not something imaginable in 2018. Soho was a particular favourite, and as in previous eras when artists, writers, actors and musicians blew off steam in corners where they could socialize freely, it came into its own during the long years of central London decline.
A long-term habitué was Francis Bacon whose career stretched from 1920s Weimar Berlin, through a spell as an interior designer in Paris, and exhibiting with Victor Passmore in 1937, to harrowing experiences as an ARP rescue-worker during the war. Bacon was an iconoclast and his artistic output was erratic. But his influence stretched over decades and in some ways set the tone for what followed. Many of his twisted portraits were as much drawn from everyday existence (bombing; Nazi atrocities as reported in post-1945 newsreels) as Freud’s stark studies of naked bodies and Auerbach’s functional urban landscapes. His career, in fact, is a thread that links the small pre-war avant-garde with the much larger post-war scene, and is quite correctly concentrated on by Gayford.
Bacon, his muse Henrietta Moraes (an Anglo-Indian model) and Freud were often to be found at the Colony Room, a drinking club in Dean Street, run from 1948 by Muriel Belcher and her Jamaican girlfriend Carmel Stuart. Its membership was elastic and ranged across the arts, politics (Tom Driberg MP), crime (the Krays and their runner David Litvinoff, later dialogue coach on Performance), espionage (Burgess and Maclean went there on their last night in the UK), and the London gay scene. Originally laid out like a Caribbean bar, with mock bamboo surroundings, it was also, in one way, an early feature of what we now call ‘the Windrush generation’: the UK coming to terms with being a mixed-race society.
It served a deeper purpose too. Great artists had always been drawn to pain and danger, or as Oscar Wilde put it ‘feasting with panthers’. This was a forum where they could do so. It was also a place where it didn’t matter where you came from. Likewise, many of those passing through Gayford’s book were immigrants of one type or another, either Jews (Freud, Auerbach, Bomberg, Kossoff and photographer Harry Diamond) or Irish (Bacon, Prunella Clough) or Italian (Paolozzi – interned as an alien in WW2), or West Indian (Frank Bowling). Citizens of nowhere as the current prime minister might, despicably, say.
Today the funding that underpinned the huge expansion of art schools and colleges after 1945 has been curtailed. The massive house clearance and housebuilding programmes – that produced as a happy spin-off a London with easy to acquire and easy to settle housing, cheap studio space and informal, bohemian, drinking clubs – is long gone. Don Letts recently commentated that London ‘has become an economically walled city … when I was growing up, there were cracks you could operate in – squatting for instance’. All killed off by accelerating gentrification, latterly at breakneck speed, with the Colony Room now a restaurant, and Wheelers (another Freud, Bacon, Auerbach haunt) now replaced by the Soho Kitchen and its ‘all-day menu of American-inspired classics’.
Some say that great art comes out of poverty. For a tiny number, maybe. But it is hard to see how in 2018 a teenager from Dartford could fail abjectly at school and still manage to study for six years in further education before emerging, as Peter Blake did 50–60 years earlier, as one of the UK’s greatest living artists. It might be better to say that if you want great art, you need great politics. And you have to pay for it.