The term ‘Neo-Romanticism’ was first used in the early 1940s to loosely define the work of a group of artists who had a personal and often poetical identification with nature. Although never an organised movement there was a shared interest in the work of Romantic British visionaries such as William Blake (1757 – 1827) and Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1881) especially amongst the older generation of artists; Paul Nash (1889 – 1946), Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980) and John Piper (1903 – 1992). Along with a number of younger artists including John Craxton (1922 – 2009) and Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977) they also responded to the work of modern European art movements such as Cubism and Surrealism.

During the long, culturally isolated years of the Second World War, these artists drew inspiration from a romantic spirit found within British art. John Piper described it as ‘a vision that can see in these things something significant beyond ordinary significance.’

Prior to the war, there was an open dialogue between British artists and the vibrant European art scene, especially in France. British artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland in particular were inspired by the visionary approach to reality explored by the work of the Surrealists. For them, surrealism’s championing of the imagination could be viewed as a continuation of a literary tradition within English culture, whereby observed scenes or objects are absorbed by the subconscious mind and then later emerge in recreated images.

 

The impending threat of the Second World War caused a withdrawal from this international exchange of ideas. A resurgence of a romantic and wistful sensibility found expression in many aspects of British culture including the theatre, especially ballet, poetry and the visual arts. Nash, Piper, Sutherland and Henry Moore became leading figures in the Neo-Romantic style at this time, especially through the work they produced for the War Artists Advisory Committee (WACC) of landscapes, workers and bomb damaged buildings. Their innovative techniques and clarity of vision provided a point of departure in the early to mid-1940s for a younger generation of painters.of a literary tradition within English culture, whereby observed scenes or objects are absorbed by the subconscious mind and then later emerge in recreated images.

During this period, a number of literary publications which promoted a similar English romantic sensibility began to flourish. These included Horizon, Penguin New Writing, Poetry London and the series Britain in Pictures and New Excursions into English Poetry. Literary magazines such as these offered opportunites for artists such as John Craxton, Graham Sutherland and Robert Colquhoun to be published, often for the first time.

Following the war, many artists and writers were eager to escape the drabness of Britain and headed to the Continent. Among them were John Craxton, who settled in Crete 1947, and Graham Sutherland who spent several months each year in the south of France. The colours and landscapes of their new homes inspired both artists, a change that can be seen within their works.

Meanwhile, younger artists such as Keith Vaughan and Prunella Clough began to develop their own personal styles. Vaughan’s interest in the figure in the landscape became increasingly flattened, achieving a fusion between figurative and abstract elements within a strong composition. Clough, a close friend of Vaughan’s, developed her unique treatment of figures and her interest in workers, but now they were often depicted in an urban industrial landscape.

In the late 1940s British culture became increasingly overshadowed by the Cold War. The post-war ‘age of anxiety’ lead to a very different response from a younger generation of painters and sculptors. The literary publications that had supported the Neo-Romantic artists also began to dwindle, with Horizon ceasing publication in December 1949. The Festival of Britain offered one last expression, with many of the Neo-romantic artists contributing works.

By the mid-1950s the inward-looking nostalgia of Neo-Romanticism no longer reflected the values and concerns of the post-war world. A new cultural climate, influenced by the Cold War and the rise of consumerism, was reflected by the international movements of Pop Art and American Abstract-Expressionism.