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A Different Light: British Neo-Romanticism
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Author Gerard Hastings reflects on the lyrical, mystical and often poetic paintings inspired by the visions of Samuel Palmer and William Blake.
Neo-romanticism infiltrated key areas of British creative life from the 1930s to the end of the 1950s.
Its distinctive themes and moods are easy to recognize: nocturnal landscapes and cityscapes illuminated by silvery, crescent moons, ruined cottages covered in tangles of undergrowth and anxious figures sheltering in shadowy woodlands and bombed-out streets.
There is an all-pervading sense of nostalgia, foreboding and claustrophobia in such images and this can partly be explained by the anxiety generated by the Second World War and the nightly black-outs which plunged the country into years of darkness.
Once cut-off from European artistic developments, Graham Sutherland and John Piper led the way in developing highly poetic paintings inspired by the visions of Samuel Palmer and William Blake. The next generation of artists quickly followed their example.
John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Prunella Clough, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde among others, turned to nature and perceived something emblematically rich in a particle of landscape or in a single aspect of a terrain while choosing to focus on a particular tree, a certain atmospheric condition, a torn branch or a standing stone.
This use of poetic-paraphrase, of course, had underpinned Palmer’s approach to picture-making. While reducing the complexity of a scene it also has the curious effect of intensifying its emotional impact and this was seized on by the neo-romantics.
Neo-romanticism is certainly a problematic term. Commentators continue to debate who the hard-core exponents were, who contributed from the sidelines and whether or not various artists dabbled with the style. It can be argued that there never was a ‘Neo’ and that a romantic pulse has always throbbed in the veins of certain British artists.
As a style it is difficult to define and, consequently, it is frequently relegated as a footnote or a marginal leaning in British art.
Neo-romanticism is certainly not an identifiable group or movement like the Norwich School, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Vorticists or the Bloomsbury set. Nor did it comprise like-minded painters with specific goals and intentions, eager to work together according to a clearly defined manifesto. Moreover, there were no common stylistic qualities, spokesmen or written theoretical charters.
Perhaps it’s best to regard neo-romanticism as a key art tendency or a long-term inclination towards which a diverse set of painters was irresistibly drawn.
And its effects were certainly wide ranging. Qualities of neo-romanticism not only invaded painting but also film, theatre design, advertisements, photography, book design, prose, poetry, guide-books, posters, printmaking and the wider graphic arts.
After the blackout curtains were flung open, the neo-romantic palette brightened and lightened as painters sought out new subjects abroad. Graham Sutherland headed to the South of France and Craxton and Ayrton were lured by the sunlight, sea and mythology of Greece. John Minton produced some extraordinary book illustrations depicting the cliff faces, deserted streets and prickly pear cacti of Corsica, while Keith Vaughan turned his attention away from sepia-coloured landscapes to sun-drenched bathers.
By the end of the 1950s the lifeblood of neo-romanticism was draining away. Urban dereliction, pastoral idylls, Arcadian visions and nocturnal gloom appeared increasingly out-of-date in the face of abstract expressionism, pop rt and the ‘new generation’ painters. Kitchen Sink realism was emerging to reflect the post-war values of a tougher, more cynical world.
Though the nostalgia of neo-romanticism had passed its sell-by date, nevertheless it had served its purpose in defining aspects of our national identity during a period of grave crisis. It had consoled and reassured in a tangible way and revealed poetry, when it was most needed, in the overlooked details of nature.
Today several artists reflect a comparable imaginative instinct while exploring landscape as a vehicle to transmit poetic emotion. Neo-romantic echoes, perhaps, can be located in the dreamlike paintings of the ruralists, in the witty homages of Kit Boyd, within the shadows of Norman Ackroyd’s aquatints, among the tangles of Angie Lewin’s giant hogweeds and in Mark Hearld’s prints of moonlit owls and foxes.
Gerard Hastings is the author of Awkward Artefacts: The ‘Erotic Fantasies’ of Keith Vaughan (Pagham Press, 2017).
A Different Light: British Neo-Romanticism was on display 10 June – 24 September 2017.