Pulsating with life Slade and the dawn of British Modernism

Pulsating with life: Slade and the dawn of British Modernism

Writer and historian David Boyd Haycock looks at the early years of the 20th century, a period in which Slade School of Fine Art produced a truly remarkable crop of British artists

In the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the First World War the British art scene exploded in an extraordinary outburst of vitality. This was the arrival of Modernism, the moment when that now familiar phrase, the avant-garde, first entered the English lexicon. It saw the emergence of a remarkable crop of talents, many of whom are represented in Edgar Astaire’s outstanding collection.

Coincidentally, the majority of the artists he collected — Walter Sickert, William Rothenstein, Augustus John, Mark Gertler, C.R.W. Nevinson, David Bomberg, William Roberts and Isaac Rosenberg — were all linked by their attendance at one particular art school: the Slade. Founded in 1871 as part of University College London, by the last decade of the 19th century the Slade had become one of the most advanced places in Britain to study art, fostering under its drawing master, Henry Tonks, a keen attention to life study and meticulous draughtsmanship.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Self-Portrait, 1909. Pencil. 10 x 8 in (25.4 x 20.3 cm). This work and those below were offered in our Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 25 June 2015 at Christie’s in London. Sold for £25,000

Augustus John and Mark Gertler (as well as Gertler’s contemporary at the Slade, Stanley Spencer) were among Tonks’s most talented pupils. Indeed, John Singer Sargent would remark of John’s student drawings that nothing like them had been seen since the Renaissance, and he would tell the young David Bomberg that the Slade ‘was the finest School for draughtsmanship in the world’. This was Tonks’s ambition: to point his students back to the long tradition of Western art history, to reveal to them the Old Masters, and to encourage them to produce their finest work within this tradition.

The great names Tonks encouraged his students to study and emulate included Michelangelo, Holbein, Rubens, Rembrandt, Ingres and Watteau — artists whose work they diligently studied first hand at the National Gallery, the British Museum and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Left: Augustus John, O.M., R.A. (1878-1961), Portrait of Dorelia, circa 1903. Black chalk. 6⅝ x 6⅞ in (16.8 x 17.6 cm). Sold for £146,500. Right: Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Head of Dora Carrington, 1913. Pencil. 9½ x 8¼ in (24.1 x 20.9 cm). Sold for £542,500

Thus we witness John’s exquisite portrait of his mistress and second wife, Dorothy McNeill (known as Dorelia), as well as Gertler’s startlingly accomplished drawing of his friend, muse and fellow Slade student, Dora Carrington, together with his early Renaissance-inspired paintings of Carrington and the mysterious The Violinist. Isaac Rosenberg’s extraordinary self-portrait reveals these young artists’ remarkable ability to capture the personality in a face — their own, or another’s. This is drawing hard won only by looking, from endless hours of labour in the life class.

Left: Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Study for The Violinist, 1912. Pencil. 9⅞ x 8½ in (25.1 x 21.6 cm). Sold for £62,500. Right: Mark Gertler (1891-1939), The Violinist, 1912. Oil on panel. 16 x 11⅞ in (40.8 x 29.6 cm). Sold for £542,500

This period was not just about its personalities, however. It was also about the eruption of a range of movements and manifestoes — the dramatic arrival in Britain of a series of exciting challenges to Tonks’s long academic tradition. Roger Fry — the Bloomsbury critic and painter who would so dominate aesthetic taste and debate in the opening decades of twentieth-century England — called the continental artists who mounted this challenge to traditionally perceived representations the Post-Impressionists. They included some of the greatest names of modern European art: Manet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne and Picasso.

‘I cannot teach what I don’t believe in,’ Tonks declared. ‘I shall resign if this talk about Cubism does not cease; it is killing me’

In two exhibitions held in London in 1910 and 1912, Fry brought their new vision to a startled and largely unsuspecting British audience. Many of the critics were appalled. As The Times observed, such work ‘throws away all that the long-developed skills of past artists had acquired and bequeathed. It begins all over again — and stops where a child would stop.’

‘I cannot teach what I don’t believe in,’ Tonks declared when it was suggested that he might open up the Slade’s curriculum to these new influences. ‘I shall resign if this talk about Cubism does not cease; it is killing me.’

Alongside the appearance of Post-Impressionist art in England, there was also the arrival of the Futurists — a group of Italian artists led by the larger-than-life poet and controversialist, Filippo Marinetti. The Futurists, as one English critic observed at the time, ‘are young men in revolt at the worship of the past. They are determined to destroy it, and erect upon its ashes the Temple of the future. War seems to be the tenet in the gospel of Futurism: war upon the classical in art, literature and music.’ It sounded exciting, and though C.R.W. Nevinson became the Futurists’ only English convert, they inspired other younger generation artists.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), Siloam and the Mount of Olives, 1923. Oil on canvas. 20 x 26 in (50.9 x 66 cm). Sold for £314,500

These converts included David Bomberg, who embraced the idea of a new, increasingly abstract art that explored the drama of the urban world around him; by 1914 Bomberg was producing some of the most dynamic, exciting and unsellable work in London.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), Pool of Hezekiah, Jerusalem, 1925. Oil on canvas. 9 ½ x 13 in (24.2 x 33 cm). Sold for £362,500

It was this fusion of ideas and outpouring of innovative work that helped lead Percy Wyndham Lewis (himself a Slade graduate) to found the Vorticist movement shortly before the outbreak of the Great War, with the American sculptor Jacob Epstein among his young associates. Between them, the work of this group of young artists marks a pinnacle of British artistic production that was not really to be repeated until the emergence of the Pop Artists in the 1950s and 60s — artists such as Peter Blake and David Hockney, a second wave that is also represented (albeit on a much smaller scale) in Astaire’s collection.

It was, of course, the Great War that undermined this dynamism. Nevinson, Bomberg, Roberts and Rosenberg would all eventually volunteer for military service, with the latter being killed in action in April 1918. Only Gertler refused to participate in what he called the ‘wretched, sordid butchery’; he registered as a conscientious objector, and in 1916 painted his anti-war masterpiece, The Merry-Go-Round (Tate). That same year, Walter Sickert would write of Nevinson’s 1915 painting, La Mitrailleuse (Tate) that it ‘will probably remain the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting.’ Sickert’s judgement has proved accurate, and La Mitrailleuse remains one of the definitive images of the conflict.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939), The Artist in His Studio, 1920. Oil on canvas. 23 x 27 in (58.4 x 68.6 cm). Sold for £194,500

A lifeline for both art and artists would eventually be offered by the Government’s official war artists scheme, launched in 1916, and followed later on by a similar programme of record, propaganda and memorial run by the Canadian government. Nevinson, Bomberg, Roberts, Rothenstein and Augustus John all saw service with one or even both of these schemes.

As well as keeping many talented young artists alive, the War Artists scheme also gave them hope at a time when the future seemed to offer none. ‘There is a good time coming for Art yet in England,’ Mark Gertler predicted after receiving a commission to paint an official picture in 1918. ‘I have a feeling that we are going to have good painting, after the War, there are good times coming if only we can hold out. This War is not the end.’

William Roberts, R.A. (1895-1980), A Demonstration, circa 1919-20. Pencil, ink and watercolour, squared for transfer. 5⅝ x 8 in (14.3 x 20.3 cm). Sold for £62,500

For a moment, Gertler’s prediction seemed to hold true. Shortly after the Armistice the prominent New York collector Albert Eugene Gallatin visited Europe, and was fascinated by what he saw in London. ‘Pulsating with life and possessing a distinctly fresh vision,’ he told an interviewer from The Observer in 1921, ‘a movement is now well under way which, in my opinion, will develop into one of the great epochs of English painting. Paris and New York cannot in this respect vie with London.’

This new vitality had its origins immediately before the war. It had then been interrupted by the war, before being reinvigorated by it. Sadly, its promise was not fully realised. C.R.W. Nevinson had his moment in New York, when that city seemed to promise him a way forward, to maintain the momentum from the war, but it was not to be. David Bomberg was forced abroad, travelling to Palestine, and later to Spain, to pursue his remarkable vision. Neither John’s nor Gertler’s star ever shone so bright again, and it would be many decades before London really did vie with Paris and New York to hold the crown of contemporary art.

For a moment, however, it had seemed that it was here, in England, out of the horrors of war, that Western art’s future might really lie.

David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War (Old Street Publishing) is out now


For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily