Alexandra Harris

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

Thames & Hudson, October 2010.
Buy a copy here.


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.


From the reviews...

'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.' 
- Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian. Read the whole review.

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.' 
- Peter Parker in the Telegraph. Read the whole review.

'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.'
- Martin Gayford in the Sunday Telegraph. Read the whole review.  

'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'