Romantic Moderns

English Writers, Artists & the Imagination From Virginia Woolf to John Piper

romantic moderns alexandra harris

Thames & Hudson, October 2010


Winner of the Guardian First Book Award and a Somerset Maugham Award

Shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize

'A groundbreaking reassessment of English cultural life in the thirties and forties'

In the 1930s and 1940s, while the battles for modern art and modern society were being fought in Paris and Spain, it seemed to some a betrayal that John Betjeman and John Piper were in love with a provincial world of old churches and tea shops...

Romantic Moderns tells a different story: eclectically, passionately, wittily, urgently, English artists were exploring what it meant to be alive at that moment and in England. They showed that “the modern” need not be at war with the past: constructivists and conservatives could work together, and even the Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy was beguiled into taking photos for Betjeman’s nostalgic An Oxford University Chest. A rich network of personal and cultural encounters was the backdrop for a modern English renaissance.

This great imaginative project was shared by writers, painters, gardeners, architects, critics, and composers. Piper abandoned purist abstracts to make collages on the blustery coast; Virginia Woolf wrote in her last novel about a village pageant on a showery summer day. Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, and the Sitwells are also part of the story, along with Bill Brandt and Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Cecil Beaton.

Prologue: In England

1. Ancient and Modern
2. Concrete and Curlicues
3. A Georgian Revival
4. Victoriana
5. From Purity to a Pageant

A Break for Refreshments

6. The Canon Revised
7. The Weather Forecast
8. Village Life
9. Parish News
10. Variations on a View

An Hour in the Garden

11. Dreaming of Manderley
12. House-Building
13. Literary Architecture

Afterword: New Maps


The vernacular was on the rise and this prompted an obvious question: if French regional cooking is this good, did anything comparable ever exist in England? Affirmative answers were emerging. The most dedicated English food historian was Florence White, daughter of a long line of Sussex innkeepers, who founded in 1928 the English Folk Cookery Association. White toured hundreds of remote kitchens, talking to cooks and to those who, as children, had eaten things no longer made. She collected receipts from manor houses, farms and cottages, and made public appeals for regional or family specialities. When she published Good Things in England in 1932 it was the culmination of a major social history project. Here were methods for raising a piecrust in Warwickshire; here was the recipe for Gossip Bowl, a potent mixture of crab apples and white wine that might even harbour a Shakespearean fairy (‘And sometimes lurk I in a gossip bowl’, sang Puck, ‘In very likeness of a roasted crab’). White devoted part of the book to a regional survey, county by county: a kind of kitchen tour around England.

Her work was part of a much larger folk revival movement, but White was always careful to distinguish herself from the more insular folk enthusiasts. She had lived in Paris for many years and was well-practised in the arts of French cookery; she was not suggesting that English cooking should lose contact with Europe, but she did want the English to feel sure they had something worth sharing. White’s insistence on the excellence of all things English can sound rather defensive (‘Stew’ is just as good a word as ‘ragout’ she says, and casserole-cooking ‘is only a fashionable word for our own hot-pots’). But her patriotism was motivated by a basic belief that international exchange would thrive better if local knowledge were strongly developed. ‘There is no reason why the famous French cuisine and our fine traditional English cookery should be bitter rivals’, she wrote, and many agreed. White could feel a growing interest in the possibility of recovering native cookery. Local recipe books for individual counties were being issued by Women’s Institutes (Cornwall 1933; Worcestershire 1936). And another good sign was the increasing availability in the big stores of traditional raw ingredients. The husked wheat necessary for frumenty, for example (and White’s book gave a frumenty variant from almost every county in England) could now be purchased from Army & Navy.

The turn to old England did not have to mean stodginess. Hilda Leyel, a specialist in traditional plant lore and proprietor of the Culpeper stores (named after the seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper), made John Evelyn the hero of her 1925 book Green Salads and Fruit Salads. It was a new idea to write exclusively about vegetables, but Leyel did it with an eye on the past. Salads were generally considered a Continental imposter on the British table, and better suited to warmer climates. Leyel showed this to be quite wrong. Taking her readers back to Evelyn’s burgeoning salad gardens, she listed dozens of herbs that had been staple and delicious ingredients around 1700 but which were now unknown or untrusted. With Florence White, she set the tone for a series of books which would open new possibilities for English cookery by answering on the one hand to the spirit of modern experiment and, on the other, to the rich, marginalised traditions of English food.

Florence White's Good Things in England is available from Persephone Books.

Find out about Hilda Leyel and Culpeper the Herbalist.

Toller Fratrum is a small village in Dorset, close to where the River Hooke meets the Frome. Beside the farmhouse and a clutch of other stone buildings is the tiny church of St Basil. It was mostly rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but just to the left of the door as you enter, in the corner by the bell-pulls and the unused heater, is a decorated font that reaches further back in time. Wide eyes look out from its sandstone sides. Long-limbed figures with large moon faces, bulbously carved in deep relief, crowd together as if there is not quite room for them all. St Michael, carrying a sturdy staff, leads a procession out of Hell. Another scene is turned at right angles to fit it in, so that a four-legged animal (its significance no longer certain) lies patiently on its side as it has been doing since the twelfth century – and as it was still doing in 1935, when John Piper arrived.

church st basil

He had been driving through England with his partner, Myfanwy Evans, photographing hundreds of churches and monuments. Standing in the draughty gloom of a remote nave, he would dampen the stone with a sponge so that the shapes were thrown into relief by his paraffin lamp. The light revealed some long-forgotten wonders. Crouching to enjoy the Toller Fratrum font, he thought about the primitive, expressive impulse in the art of his contemporaries. The Norman carvings seemed to him to have all the ‘bigness and strangeness’ of a portrait by Picasso. He focussed his camera on a figure who might be Christ – or Moses – and who supports the decorative rim of the font with raised hands. His face and large arms look heroic, but beneath the little pleated skirt of his tunic, he has shaky-looking knees. This image was eight hundred years old, but it still felt close and alive.

toller fratum font

Piper was thirty-one. After a false start as a lawyer to satisfy his father he had been to the Royal College of Art and made an inspiring group of friends. He married one of them – Eileen Holding – but the marriage had broken down and now Piper was in love again. It was an exciting time. All the talk was about Paris and the latest abstract painting, and Piper was working hard on a series of geometric constructions. He was also looking at the art of ‘England’s early sculptors’, and thinking of an odd story from the thirteenth-century chronicles of Peter Langtoft. It described a ‘wander wit of Wiltshire’ who went rambling off to Rome to study the antiquities without ever having visited Stonehenge. Appalled at his ignorance of his own country, the Roman antiquaries ‘kicked him out of doors and bad him goe home and see Stonage’. This comic parable appealed to Piper. All too often, he thought, we rush off to distant places without giving a thought to the astonishing things on our doorsteps. More than anything he wanted to ‘goe home’ and see not only pre-historic Stonehenge, but the boldly striped lighthouse at Dungeness, the gardens at Stourhead, old stone barns in Oxfordshire, the lichen-patterned walls of Cornish chapels, the decorated interiors of pubs, the theatrical architecture of country houses.

These were Piper’s personal enthusiasms, but in wanting to celebrate them he was doing something more than personal. Other people were showing new appreciation of such places, and by the late 1930s it looked to many observers as if a whole concerted project of national self-discovery was underway. Artists who had previously felt compelled to disguise themselves as avant-garde Frenchmen were now to be found on English beaches sheltering their watercolours from the drizzle. Anthologists (John Betjeman, Geoffrey Grigson, Herbert Read) collected up the verse of eighteenth-century parsons or packed vivid fragments of Romanticsm into the tight compass of a paperback. Tourists paused in lay-bys to consult newly-written guidebooks. There were the church murals, the village plays, the campaigns to save historic buildings; Paul Nash’s megaliths, the erotic drama of Graham Sutherland’s landscapes, Vita Sackville-West’s old roses at Sissinghurst, Bill Brandt’s photographs of literary Britain, Florence White's regional recipes – all these things, some large, some small, suggested the many forms that ‘going home’ might take.

When war threatened, and when finally it came, the imaginative claiming of England took on more urgency. This was the period of Virginia Woolf’s cumulative, collaging novel Between the Acts, Evelyn Waugh’s grand memorial Brideshead Revisited, Osbert Sitwell’s ponderous autobiography Left Hand, Right Hand!, and T.S. Eliot’s return to ‘significant soil’ in his poem sequence Four Quartets. Writers and painters were drawn to the crowded, detailed, old-fashioned and whimsical. They were gathering souvenirs from an old country that might not survive the violence. There is a story to be told about this passionate, exuberant return to tradition. The English Eye investigates one of the richest periods in the arts of this country, and it traces the extraordinary network of personal and cultural encounters from which a modern English renaissance grew.

Because the English climate is unstable and unpredictable it is a symbol of Romantic changeability. Roger Fry found this extremely irritating. He complained about the ‘ugly black English weather’ and he sought instead the strong light of southern France for his painting. The artist he most admired, Cézanne, had moved away from the misty uncertainties of the Impressionists and painted Provence as something solid, crystalline, eternal. The artist’s role, as Cézanne and Fry conceive it, is to see through the incidentals of atmosphere, reaching for the unchanging structures beneath. When Fry tried to paint England there was so much weather that it got in the way of any such penetrating vision: ‘all the trees have collected gloomy inky shadows round them and I want clear-cut shapes and colours’, he protested. ‘No one ought to try to be an artist in England.’ But the English eye saw the inky shadows as the dark source from which art might emerge.

The film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers) made dark skies the subject of some comic and patriotic rejoicing, suggesting that bad weather is not only life-giving but life-saving. Their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death begins with a thick black fog rolling in over the South Coast – a fog so thick and black that when a Lancaster Bomber pilot jumps from his burning plane into the clouds the messenger sent from Heaven to escort him to the land of the dead loses sight of him completely. This turns out to be most fortunate for the pilot, Peter Carter, who is, appropriately, also a major contemporary poet. Having fallen several thousand feet to certain death, he wakes up on the beach, alive. The exact weather conditions and timing (2 May 1945, ten past four in the morning) are crucial. Death has been caught out, rained off. ‘I missed you because of your ridiculous English climate’, says the (French) messenger from the other world. By the time Peter has settled into being alive again, the obliging fog has passed, the sun has come out, and England has become a land of glorious Technicolor, as opposed to the dull black-and-white of the efficient, orderly Heaven he has so narrowly escaped. In a film about an individual cunningly flouting the system, fog becomes the benevolent force that confounds rationalism and champions the idiosyncratic. The dead are filed away in Heaven, neatly grouped by era and category; by contrast the fog permits mistakes and obscurities. It is no less than a symbol of imaginative freedom. The weather in Heaven seems always to be the same; far better the surprises of life, and of England.

Daphne du Maurier described in  Rebecca the doomed attempts of an innocent young woman to make herself at home in an old English house. Manderley is like one of Bowen’s  unheimlich homes, full of accusing furniture and macabre secrets. Its new occupant the second Mrs de Winter (who, like so many of Bowen’s young women, has no family of her own) feels she is continually trespassing. Every room, every ornament, every menu for supper is haunted by her predecessor. Bowen might have made the house itself reject her; du Maurier invents the malign  genius loci Mrs Danvers to do the job. At any rate, she is a tenant barely tolerated by a house not hers. This ancient seat of a nobility now diseased and dying is not available to the ingénue who might want to claim it. This is a fable in which the country house would rather burn to death than fall into new hands.

Maxim de Winter has let himself be exploited by Rebecca because she has kept up the country house charade. With her hollow demonic energy she has furnished and run the house better than any other in the county, all as a cover for sexual exploits too dark for du Maurier to name. The glories of Manderley, from the azaleas to the tea tray, are a sham. The novel pretends to teach us a lesson: do not care too much for houses. Maxim delivers the sermon to himself: ‘I put Manderley first, before anything else, and it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, bricks, and walls.’ His young wife is not listening, being consumed instead with the realisation that Maxim never loved Rebecca. All that matters now is that they have each other – or so a good romance should end. But it does not work like that because Manderley haunts their dreams. All the pent, displaced eroticism of the novel is transferred to the building, which becomes itself the temptress. The good middle-class girl carries on wanting the no-good house. The reader carries on feeling its allure, not hers.

Why should du Maurier write such a story? Partly it grew out of her fascination with the large empty house hidden deep in the woods near Fowey, a house entailed to the Rashleigh family for eight hundred years, once a Royalist stronghold, once a family home, but now deserted, ‘grey, still, silent’. She had set out with her sister one day to find it, but darkness fell and the owls were calling before they found what was at the end of the twisting drive. Later she recalled how she set out again, at dawn, and pressed on through the undergrowth to the rhododendrons, the lawn and at last the house itself. ‘There would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys,’ she thought, sad and fascinated, ‘The shutters would not be thrown back.’

'Like the very best cultural historians, Alexandra Harris makes the past visitable and habitable. Her book is all the more of a revelation because she brings back to life a world that is close to home yet oddly unfamiliar. Romantic Moderns is in every sense a revival: it is thrillingly full of life of eccentric, argumentative people, of the landscapes they adored and the art they produced. A unique and irresistible literary achievement.'
Peter Conrad
'It would be impossible to over-emphasise what a clever book Romantic Moderns is. It is a kind one too, showing tactful generosity towards people and places, sights and sounds, that have tended to get written off as embarrassing or just plain wrong. Never has this seemed more important than now, as we work through our own complicated millennial feelings about the romance of the past.' 

Read about the Guardian First Book Award.

Read about the Duff Cooper Prize.

'The originality of Romantic Moderns is the extraordinary breadth of its focus. Harris is in search not just of the preoccupations of an artistic elite but the sensibilities of a generation ... a joy to read.'
Edward King in the Sunday Times
'Harris’s book teems with fascinating detail, and discusses not only art and literature but also architecture, music and film, and even cookery and gardening... Well researched, wide-ranging and generously illustrated, the book contains many delights and surprises.' 
'A hugely enjoyable reassesment of a sadly neglected period' 
Nick Tite in the RA Magazine
'A book that makes you think freshly about that perennially puzzling question of what it means to be British. It’s elegant and wittily written, beautifully designed and splendidly illustrated: altogether, an admirable debut.'
'An ambitious study of the arts in Britain between the wars, it transforms our understanding of the course of modernism in this country.'
Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph 'Books of the Year'
'A beautifully written analysis of the highways and byways of English culture in the Thirties – its attitudes to cooking and the weather, the establishment of the Georgian Group and Victoriana. It could be fey, but isn’t.' 
Charles Saumerez Smith in the Telegraph 'Books of the Year'
'An exceptionally well-written and deeply illuminating account of mid-20th century British writers and painters.' 
Andrew Motion in the Guardian 'Books of the Year'