BEFORE starting to review this book, I reached down my copy of 20th Century Painters and Sculptors, which Professor Spalding edited with Judith Collins, back in 1990, a year before her biography of John Minton appeared.
That invaluable gazette of British art features more than 7000 artists. The introduction is a succinct and clear essay exploring how art, largely insular until the end of the Victorian period, developed a diversity of styles, media, content, and method, which characterised the new century.
Re-reading that, I could see the sketch for much of her present book, which is written with the same clean prose as you would expect of one whose CBE is for services to Literature, not to Art History, as the wealth of her publications might otherwise suggest.
Monographic shows, such as those regularly at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Towner Eastbourne, Osborne Samuel, and Piano Nobile, have ensured a revived interest in many of those who appear in this book. Biographies by James Russell, Ian Collins, Simon Martin, Richard Shone, and Hana Leaper have kept the flame burning for individual artists.
Spalding herself has written discerning lives of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Gwen Raverat, and the Pipers, and this volume offers reappraisals of others, besides noting important collectors and curators in the modernist world in which all struggled to make art Real.
Writing in 2022, it is possible to give voice to more women artists of the period, including the New Zealand-born Frances Hodgkin, Dora Carrington, and Isabel Codrington, whose 1927 The Kitchen (Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth) struck me at the recent Dulwich exhibition “Reframed: The Woman in the Window” as one of the best paintings that I did not previously know.
Inevitably, there are gaps. Poster art is covered, with the likes of Edward McKnight Kauffer and Fred Taylor, but not theatre design or church commissions. And not all the women artists fare well.
Laura Knight (1877-1970), the first woman elected (1936) to the RA in 168 years, merits only three brief mentions, and Sylvia Gosse, Nan Hudson, and Ethel Sands, first members of the Fitzroy Street Group around Walter Sickert, are excised for a second time; when Howard Gilman had reformed the group (as the Camden Town Group, 1911), he barred female membership.
Spalding’s book is a delight to read, and her scholarship is undoubted. One surprise comes with the claim she makes for Sir Frederick Leighton’s advocacy of art, “as Lord Leighton and President of the RA”. He resigned the presidency in June 1895 fully six months before being ennobled, and died the day after the Letters Patent were conferred that made him the shortest-lived peer of the realm ever.
It is difficult to imagine how he could use the prestige of his peerage to foster the arts; Spalding’s writing will continue to have rather more effect.
Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.
The Real and the Romantic: English art between two world warsFrances SpaldingThames & Hudson £35(978-0-500-51864-9)Church Times Bookshop £31.50