Serendipitous Overload

This is my review of Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris.

I was troubled by the dilettantish nature of this book which seems to lack a clear aim. For the most part, the text flits about like a butterfly, drawn randomly from one alluring flower to the next.

The best aspect is the full colour photographs of 1930s paintings, in particular John Piper’s striking collages of British landscapes. I enjoyed Chapter 1 on artists like John Piper’s flirtation with abstract art, until his fascination with landscape won out . As his French contemporary Hélion observed, abstract art was proving to be a system “cracking at the seams….life budding mysteriously though it”. This would have made an informative chapter in, say, an analysis of abstract art in British painting, but the next chapter changes tack to the early use of concrete in apartment blocks. It soon sets the book’s pattern of being too superficial and lacking in context, for instance, there is no reference to important influences like Le Corbusier, nor to the future wave of brutalist concrete architecture of the 1960s-80s. Instead, Chapter 2 degenerates into scrappy sections on completely different topics, like Victorian pubs, so they are hard to read since they lack a coherent theme.

Thereafter, each chapter stands alone, covering some aspect of English life , mainly from the viewpoint of artists and writers in the 1930s. The wide-ranging topics include views on Victoriana, food, the state of English art in the broadest sense, the weather, village life, landscapes, or the influence of houses on artists, but all covered in a very rambling and disjointed fashion. If you are largely unfamiliar with the references, you are likely to feel overloaded and rather bored. If you have some prior knowledge you may well feel you would like to concentrate more on fewer topics. There is little regard to the social and economic context of this period of dramatic change. The focus is very much on the middle and upper classes living in the countryside or prosperous urban areas.

The chapters cannot even be called essays because they are often broken into shorter sections, further obviating the need for the author to develop a theme properly . For instance, Chapter 10 could have been an intriguing study of the landscape of 1930s Britain as captured by artists for the Shell-Mex advertisements intended to encourage new car-owners to use more petrol. In fact, this aspect is lost in a mass of verbiage with some kind of oblique connection to writing about, sculpting with regard to or drawing landscapes.

I found this book was only readable if I dipped into the odd section of interest. I was left enjoying the illustrations, but very irritated by the unfocused text. I agree with other reviewers who have regretted the lack of an objective and clear-sighted editor.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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