The First 50 Years of the London Group, 1913-63
Edited by Rachel Dickson & Sarah MacDougall
Foreword by Wendy Baron and Essays by Denys Wilcox & David Redfern
Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2013
Hardcover. 224 p. 74 colour and 10 b&w illustrations. ISBN 978-1848221444. £40.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gould
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3
The publication – comprising six articles, a selection of key works, biographies and a timeline – coincides with the centenary of the London Group and with an exhibition taking place at Ben Uri, the London Jewish Museum of Art, which celebrates the contribution to the group of Jewish artists. Though the London Group still exists today, the book concentrates on its first, most eventful, fifty years. The uproar of the title is a reference to the furore which accompanied the exhibition, on the occasion of the group’s third show in 1915, of The Creation of Eve by Mark Gertler, the painter son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants. The work, much admired by D.H. Lawrence, featured an indecently naked first woman on earth and showed Gertler at his most radical. Just as it had been central to Gertler’s early career, the London Group is a name which appears in all the important biographies and histories of 20th-century British art. The Group appeared in 1913 and absorbed the Allied Artists’ Association and Sickert’s Camden Town Group in order to offer an alternative to the Royal Academy, but also to the New English Art Club. Its raison d’être was as an outsiders’ club which could appeal to radicals experimenting with Cubism and Futurism, but also to Jewish artists who were suffering from exhibiting restrictions. Among them, the “Whitechapel Boys”, Jewish artists from the same East London district: David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Isaac Rosenberg, Jacob Kramer. While it was clearly a platform for early British modernism, the most interesting feature of the group was probably its inclusiveness: Uproar! demonstrates how all disparate factions of the time coalesced in a new artist-led exhibiting society, its programmes based on a one member one vote system clearly spelt out in its constitution . Because it was open to different movements and influences, it was its structure as an eclectic independent exhibiting body which marked it out as an outstanding enterprise, holding a prominent place in the yearly cycle of London exhibitions.
Focusing on its controversial first few years, Sarah MacDougall explores the sometimes extreme press reactions to the group. She demonstrates how the press both expressed outrage at what they perceived as aesthetic provocations, but also how unwilling they were to pass up on good headlines – all the while frequently missing the political point of some of the works completely. The press therefore played a crucial role in perpetuating the Group’s revolutionary image and often dwelled on controversies, the most famous surrounding David Bomberg’s In the Hold, Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill and Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round. The Great War affected the art produced as well as the make-up of the group, many artists having enrolled, but this was also a time when xenophobia was on the rise, and the press started pinpointing foreign-sounding names. Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round was not initially identified as a pacifist stance, it was its formal modernism that was seen as unpatriotic and, in a context of anti-German feeling, “hunnishly indecent” . Still, this controversy helped revitalise the group three years after its inception.
Rachel Dickson has researched the 1928 retrospective exhibition, in which the list of prominent lenders pointed to the fact that works which, fifteen years earlier, had been deemed scandalous, now featured in major collections and had therefore been accepted by the art establishment. 1928 marked the consecration of the group, but also the moment when its innovative aura started to wane.
Still, the 1930s brought an influx of new members, as well as non-members, embracing experimental influences from Europe. The distrust first shown towards abstraction, and the even greater distrust felt towards Surrealism, were eventually brushed aside. The group was also giving more support to women artists. Yet, this was perhaps not enough for Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, who were elected in 1930. When their work started to become more abstract, they moved towards other groups which they probably deemed to be more progressive at the time: Seven and Five, Unit One, or the Paris-based Abstraction-Création.
In 1936, the London Group was invited to exhibit in Germany, on the condition they would not include any Jewish artists. They refused. While they had always eschewed being politically aligned, in spite of the demands from some of its members for the group to adopt a more clearly left-wing position, this was a brave political moment for the group. Conditions nonetheless remained difficult for Jewish artists during this tormented period.
When the group started setting up its exhibitions at the Royal Academy, it was interpreted as an alignment with the establishment. As the 1940s progressed, uproars were replaced by less explosive aesthetic debates, and a new mood was set with the introduction of a degree of social realism, of which L.S. Lowry became exemplary. Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson identify the fifties as the group’s most successful decade, if not the most scandalous. Under the presidency of Claude Rogers, the fee was halved to allow young and impecunious artists to join and The Times praised the organisation for bridging the “gulf between the art school and the first one-man show” . The closure of the New Burlington Galleries however was a blow to all independent exhibiting societies. In 1964, the group held its jubilee exhibition entitled “Fifty Years of British Art at the Tate Gallery”, providing a chronological account of the Group which ironed out the various schisms which had marked its first half-century. But this is where the notion of inclusiveness really sums up the group’s achievement: it managed to become a staple of the artistic calendar by defending works and artists from a wide modernist spectrum. Uniquely, it survived a very polarised era by deciding not to choose.
In his chapter “Vision and Leadership” [54-62], Denys J. Wilcox explores the recently unearthed archives of Diana Brinton-Lee, the very committed secretary for the Group from 1922 to 1936 who worked as a team with her husband the painter and sculptor Rupert Lee when he was elected president in 1926. Her diaries and archives both highlight her invaluable contribution to the group – she created a useful filing system, a mailing list, and she encouraged women to join at a time when they had been denied access to the Camden Town Group – and give an insight into the progressive creation of an actual infrastructure dedicated to the support and subsistence of artists. Quoted p. 148, Andrew Forge, the Group’s president from 1966 to 1971, considers that the Group’s vitality is “a fluctuating thing, dependent on the needs that its members have had for the Group at any given time”, and that “what has been special about the London Group is the wide range of styles it has embraced – it has been a neutral vehicle for whoever needed it most”.
By bringing together Bloomsbury and Vorticism, abstraction and Surrealism, the London Group managed the feat of weathering the storms of taste and ideology. Indeed, its longevity is remarkable over a period when a harvest of artists’ exhibiting societies came into being, in an effort to compete both with the Royal Academy and with commercial galleries increasingly eager to develop close connections with the new retail world of the commodity store. In a preface he wrote for its catalogue in 1921, John Maynard Keynes stressed the vital role of such a cooperative by making a statement which can illustrate the stance of a public figure who later was to be behind the creation of the Arts Council: “Without patrons art cannot easily flourish”. This was the attitude of someone who believed that supporting artists is essential for the nation – a belief shared by his friend Roger Fry when he set up the Omega Workshops – and can be done in a communal and fraternal way, and without surrendering completely to either the market or the State. An artistic grouping is not necessarily about stylistic conformity. The London Group, a hundred years old and counting, has demonstrated that solidarity is not incompatible with difference, individuality and innovation. This beautiful catalogue takes us on this fascinating common journey while also offering a compilation of individual portraits, each one written by a different specialist, which bears witness to the variety and historical importance of the men and women who decided to join forces in the 20th century, all in the defence of British artistic creation.
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