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Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piperby Alexandra Harris
"Can the masterworks of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf be discussed in the same pages as the perfectly delightful but infinitely less significant work of the photographer Cecil Beaton and the graphic artists Rex Whistler and Edward Bawden? I certainly did not believe this could be done well, until I read Alexandra Harris's new book. There is no question that Romantic Moderns is calculated to please Anglophiles. But Harris, a young English art historian, does not coddle her core audience. She knows how to wipe the cobwebs off subjects that are too often treated in a parochial or even a trite way, such as John Betjeman's poetry, Osbert Sitwell's autobiography, and Vita Sackville-West's gardens. The result is a new map of English culture in the second quarter of the twentieth century. The landscape may be familiar, but nearly all the landmarks, whether large ones or small ones, have been cast in an unexpected light."
Synopses & Reviews
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.
Alexandra Harris 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.
Winner of the 2010 Guardian First Book Award: a groundbreaking reassessment of English cultural life in the thirties and forties.
About the Author
Alexandra Harris is Lecturer in English, University of Liverpool, the author of Romantic Moderns and Virginia Woolf, and the co-editor (with Lara Feigel) of Modernism on Sea.
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