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Thirties modernism

A period where British artists sought inspiration from their European counterparts.

Sculpture depicting a baby suckling at an abstracted form of its mother

Throughout the 1930s the British art world evolved to become more progressive and outward looking.

The influence of European aesthetics inspired the likes of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and more.

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Highlights from the collection




During this period, British artists were keen to align themselves with European artists. There, the dominant aesthetic was one of uncluttered modernism. The painting and sculptures produced during these years can be described as ‘British Modernism with an international flavour’.

Works such as Paul Nash’s semi-abstract composition Dead Spring (1929) and Henry Moore’s alabaster carving Suckling Child (1930) reveal this European influence. In particular, they were inspired by the principle of pure form promoted by their European counterparts.

Painting of a brwon pot with a tall brown dead plant in front of an open window

Paul Nash, Dead Spring, 1929, Oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Kearley Bequest, through The Art Fund, 1989)

In 1933 Nash was behind the formation of the artistic group Unit One. His goal was to unify the British avant-garde through its search for a ‘truly contemporary spirit’.

Despite Nash’s call for cohesion, Unit One highlighted the deep fractures within the British art world. Its membership consisted of artists with vastly different ideas. Some, like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, took inspiration from the austere abstraction promoted by the European group Abstraction-Création. Meanwhile, others such as Tristram Hillier, Henry Moore and John Piper leaned more towards Surrealism.

Informed by the ideas of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Surrealism was interested in the subconscious and the world beyond reality. Artists used strange and often incompatible imagery intended to shock the viewer into a different way of seeing. This sense for the uncanny had a wide reaching influence on painting and sculpture.

I stand on two legs, one leg is abstract, one leg is Surrealist.

Eileen Agar

In 1936 the first International Surrealist Exhibition was organised in London. It featured works by several Unit One members, including Paul Nash and Henry Moore. Meanwhile in Paris. London-born artist SW Hayter founded Atelier 17. The printmaking studio provided a vital link to many European Surrealists including André Masson, Joan Mir and Yves Tanguy.

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