Every so often a book turn up that starts me wondering whether the author isn’t having a laugh. Some are on subjects so narrow you wonder whether there’s really more than a single page to be got out of them, others that makes links so tenuous that you’re sure an answer is being made to fit a question that may have developed from trying to find the tiniest gap in a crowded market. As often as not, those books come from Sansom and, as often as not, I end up eating my words (well it’s less fattening than cake) and loving them, not least for opening my eyes to something that really was rather well hidden and deserves its renewed moment in the sun.
This is one such (you may have guessed). The blurb doesn’t help its cause, telling me that it “reveals for the first time the importance of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex landscape at a pivotal moment in British art”. However, adding that the county’s rolling hills and ancient coastline were described as “lovely beyond words” by no less a figure than Augustus John does tend to pique the interest. And then there are the artists themselves: John, William Orpen, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry et al are much more of a who’s who than a who’s that! Then you add the fact that this was effectively the Slade and the NEAC decamped to the countryside and you can accept the assertion that they were establishing what amounted to a colony, and one that rivalled those of St Ives and Newlyn. Though maybe describing the traditionalism of Fry and Bell, when set against the modernism of the Slade painters, was “the modernist battle … waged on the beaches of Dorset” is egging the pudding just a trifle.
However, you can forgive an author’s (or a publisher’s) enthusiasm. They do, after all, have to get you to choose their, rather than anyone else’s book and there’s nothing like a controversial claim to get you picking the thing up! So, let’s accept that this is a very worthy and thorough look at the provincial paintings of a very interesting group, ignore the hyperbole and the frankly spurious link with Thomas Hardy. It is, after all, compulsory to prefix his name to any mention of Wessex – did you not get the memo?
This is a comprehensive account of the artists, the region and the works, all set thoroughly in context. It’s generously illustrated and the selection and quality are spot-on, giving a good variety of subject matter and styles – you won’t often see the interior scenes of William Orpen alongside William Tonks’ almost narrative exteriors, still less Roger Fry’s exuberantly modernist landscapes, and certainly not in a context that makes anything like as much sense as this.
The early Twentieth Century was a melting pot in the history of art and perhaps the only way to make sense of it is to break it down as serendipitously as has been done here. We can delight in a triumph that’s also a triumph of delight.
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