The British landscape
A return to order after the horrors of war
Artists such as Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Mark Gertler sought solace in familiar landscapes.
The First World War had a profound impact on the course of Modern British art. Before the war, movements such as Futurism and Vorticism celebrated mechanistic forms of abstract art. After the war, these become tainted by their association with the destructive forces of war. Artists instead sought solace in more traditional methods and genres, in particular landscapes.
Following the Armistice in 1918 many artists embraced a nostalgic view of the English landscape. Amongst these were the painter Mark Gertler, who had been a pacifist when he created his tranquil view of Swanage in 1916.
However, even the countryside in Britain was not immune to the immense changes facing the post-war world. Increasing industrialisation was transforming the British countryside – a process many British artists rejected. Paul Nash created numerous depictions of an ancient Iron Age hill fort at Wittenham Cluimps. These works portrayed his personal vision of a rural idyll that was far removed from the beaten track. He was interested in capturing the ‘genius loci’ (‘spirit of place’) and he returned to them again and again throughout his career.
Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. I felt their importance long before I knew their history. They eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes I knew. This, I am certain, was due almost entirely to their formal features rather than to any associated force. They were the pyramids of my small world.
Paul Nash, 1946
The 1920s can be characterised as a period of conservativism in British art . Painters and sculptors tended to explore their own interests rather than pursuing a shared group identity.
An exception to this rule was the Seven and Five Society, founded in 1919. Its purpose was not ‘to advertise a new “ism”’ but merely to express the individual feelings of its members ‘in terms that shall be intelligible’.
Preferring traditional subjects such as the landscape, their activities took on fresh significance under the new directorship of Ben Nicholson. Nicholson favoured the modernist aesthetic of clean lines, light and open space. He and his wife, the painter Winifred Nicholson, developed a simple, faux-naïve style. in their humble home in the remote Cumbrian countryside.
During the late 1920s the couple’s unsophisticated manner of painting was widely influential amongst the Seven & Five Society’s members. It led Jim Ede, then curator at the Tate Gallery, to comment on one of their group shows: “this exhibition, in shaking us from our lethargy and starting us along a line of activity, has the refreshing quality of wind after a sultry day”.
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