True to Life

In this blog curator Patrick Elliott discusses what prompted him to curate the show, True to Life | British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s.

Meredith Frampton, A Game of Patience, 1937, oil on canvas, 106.7 x 78.7 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, © The Estate of Meredith Frampton.

I started thinking seriously about this show six or seven years ago after visiting the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, and seeing their paintings by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (the portrait By the Hills) and Meredith Frampton (A Game of Patience): both mesmerising works in terms of their technique and sense of mystery. There had never been a show about this sort of hard-edged realist painting of the interwar years, which fell completely out of fashion in the 1950s and 1960s when abstraction and Pop Art became big. The fact that they’re not well known and that they’re part of a broader, international movement of hard-edged realist painting is interesting too. So it scores on a visual, historical and intellectual standpoint, which is what you want in a show.

Twenty years ago it would have been difficult to find all the pictures – they were bought by art galleries across Britain (Rochdale, Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Newport, Southampton, Penlee, Manchester... There are nearly forty lenders), but were not well catalogued. The ARTUK website was hugely helpful. It lists all the oil paintings in UK collections, so you can, for example, type in ‘Brockhurst’ and find where they all are, and then move laterally and discover all sorts of fascinating artists you’d never heard of.

James Cowie, Schoolgirl (Study for 'A Portrait Group'), about 1940, pencil on paper, paper 40.50 x 34.10 cm, © Ruth Christie, the artist's daughter.

Realism is a slippery term. Most British artists working between the wars would have sought realism in some sense or other, but there is a specific tendency which is very characteristic of the period: precise, hard-edged and graphic, and with minimal narrative detail, as opposed to loose and painterly. The Germans call it Neue Sachlichkeit, and the Americans call it Magic Realism. British art of this sort doesn’t have a name, which is maybe one reason why it doesn’t win much attention.  Art history tends to award points, as it were, to artists who introduce change. So the first artists to go abstract, or use film, or go minimalist, are viewed as important, and indeed they are. But the corollary of that is that artists who stayed within a realist tradition, but sort of tweaked it, act as a foil: bit players, losers.

James Cowie, A Portrait Group, about 1940, oil on canvas, 101.60 x 127.30 cm, © Ruth Christie, the artist's daughter.

So realist art, if treated at all, forms the low-level background buzz from which Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth et. al. emerge in all their exciting forms. This show isn’t a critique of modernism – in a way it makes you respect the abstract artists even more. But there’s more to art than the binary ‘tradition versus modern’ thing; there’s more than one way of being modern.

Charles Spencelayh, Why War?, 1938, oil on canvas, 94 x 115 cm, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, © the artist's estate/Bridgeman Images.

Some of the artists in the show were born before the invention of the car, or telephone, yet lived into the space age and the Cold War era. Charles Spencelayh (1865-1958) was born in the year that Alice in Wonderland was published, when Dickens was still writing, but outlived James Dean and died just weeks before Jackson Pollock. He was too old to fight in the First World War (‘the War to end all Wars’, they said), but the painting we have in the show (Why War? – a magnificent and moving picture which has been lent by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston) is about the Second World War.

The changes he – and many of the artists in the show - lived through are barely comprehensible. How does an artist deal with that sort of change?  Some of them did this with new subjects – holidays, sunbathing, sport and entertainment and picnics became popular themes. You can find all sorts of information on the social change in this era which connects in a slightly off-beam way with the pictures we have of bathers, hikers and picnic parties. In the mid-1930s sun-tan lotion becomes available in shops for the first time; powdered coffee granules are invented and go on sale; the Ramblers’ Association was founded; Hilda Leyel writes her classic book on picnics. Yet at the same time, unemployment was at its worst and you have the Hunger Marches and the Jarrow March and Hitler and Mussolini are firmly on the horizon. Some of the pictures are – obliquely - about all this. There’s James McIntosh Patrick’s fabulously detailed A City Garden, Dundee of 1940. His wife and daughter are in the garden, hanging out washing, there are a few apples still on the leafless trees, and over in a corner, barely noticeable, there’s an air-raid shelter being built. McIntosh Patrick bought the house a few months earlier for a song because nobody wanted to live next to the Tay Bridge, which was a prime target for German bombing.

James McIntosh Patrick, A City Garden, 1940, oil on canvas, © The estate of James McIntosh Patrick. All rights reserved 2017/Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Gallery and Museums).
Victor Hume Moody, The Day War Broke Out, Mom, 1939, oil on canvas, 34.5 x 37 cm, Liss Llewellyn Fine Art.

You get that tense, nervous feel in a lot of the pictures. There’s a massive flower painting by Gluck which looks lovely, and indeed it is, but the flower is the highly poisonous Angel Trumpet.  The show starts with David Jagger’s extraordinary self-portrait, Conscientious Objector of 1917. And it ends with some paintings about the Second World War – one, a portrait of the artist Victor Moody’s wife, is titled ‘The Day War Broke Out, 1939’; another is a self-portrait of the artist Harry Riley, whose face is completely obscured by a gas mask. When you look at them with hindsight, you know that this was a tipping point in history. The world is on the edge of a precipice; things would never be the same again.

True to Life |  British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s was on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from Saturday 1 Jul 2017 to Sunday 29 Oct 2017.

What Is Realism?

Download transcript
By Patrick Elliott, Senior Curator, 14 August 2017