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Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion
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Dr Hope Wolf considers why Sussex became such a magnet for artists and collectors in the first half of the 20th century.
A surprising number of modernist artists – painters, photographers, novelists, poets, composers and architects – worked in Sussex in the first half of the 20th century.
The Bloomsbury artists at Charleston are perhaps the most famous, but there was also the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling, of which sculptor Eric Gill and painter David Jones were members.
Sussex was home, too, to several Surrealist groups: Roland Penrose and Lee Miller at Farley Farm, Edward James at West Dean, and Edward Burra and his network at Rye. The Sussex coastline is pitted with examples of cruise liner inspired modernist architecture, the De La Warr Pavilion being one of the finest examples. Religious buildings in the region are decorated with modernist murals and works of art, such as John Piper’s alter tapestry at Chichester Cathedral.
Sussex is probably best known for its seaside resorts and rural retreats, picturesque towns and villages, woods, downs and coastal resorts, while modernism is usually thought of as a set of metropolitan and international movements. So why were modernists attracted to Sussex, and what were they doing there?
The Guild at Ditchling largely idealized Sussex, seeking an escape or ‘exodus’ from the city and the factory. Duncan Grant was driven to Sussex by war. A conscientious objector, he had to work on the land rather than enlist, and in 1916 moved to Charleston Farmhouse, near Firle, with Vanessa Bell. While war was everywhere mutilating the body, Grant’s paintings tend to celebrate it.
In his painting Bathers by the Pond (1920-1) the bodies of beautiful young men are open to the world and gleaming in the sun. It is also a homoerotic painting, and there is something to be said for rural Sussex facilitating the making of enclaves in which the law and convention could be flouted. It also offered a refuge from scandal.
Edward James, patron of the Surrealists, had a London base, but he retreated to his large family home in West Dean in 1934 following his scandalous divorce from the dancer Tilly Losch, in the process of which he was accused of homosexuality. James attracted artistic visitors, who helped him to fashion an alternative fantasy world at his flamboyantly decorated Monkton House, originally designed as a hunting lodge on the West Dean Estate
His most famous collaborator was Salvador Dalí, with whom he designed the famous Mae West Lips Sofa. As if resisting their rural English surroundings, cosmopolitan artists and collectors decorated their homes with colours and images inspired by art from Europe and further afield.
Sussex was a threshold to Europe and in the 1930s in particular the coast became a place to think about connections to the continent. Many modernists were émigrés, refugees fleeing from war. They were not always warmly welcomed by local residents, however; nor was their work loudly applauded by all English reviewers.
The building of the De La Warr Pavilion by Russian-born Serge Chermayeff and German-Jewish émigré Erich Mendelsohn was accompanied by xenophobic criticism.
The work of émigré artists has also suffered neglect. Hans Feibusch, for instance, who came to England in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution, was a prolific contributor to the decoration of Sussex churches. Where Bell and Grant’s murals in Berwick church have been filmed, written about, and celebrated by many, Saint Elisabeth’s, Eastbourne, which houses Feibusch’s stunning 1944 Pilgrim’s Progress panorama, faces demolition.
Modernists brought to Sussex friends and influences from nearby London and from Europe, and they frequently saw themselves as outsiders.
The American photographer and model Lee Miller humorously captured this sense of being ‘out of place’ in her 1952 photograph of the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg who came to stay with her and Roland Penrose at Farley Farm, Muddles Green. She photographs him pretending to draw the Long Man of Wilmington. Steinberg, in his city suit, is dressed inappropriately for a walk in the countryside. He treats the landscape irreverently: he does not gaze in wonder at the site, but is instead involved in mock rural graffiti.
The work and lifestyles of modernists in Sussex were shaped by often very different ideas, but there were also many connections, artistic and personal, between the groups and individuals. Sussex landscapes and people influenced the artists differently, but what seems apparent in much of their work is that the region afforded no rural idyll cut off from the world. This is perhaps most apparent in the work of Edward Burra, who troubles his paintings of Rye and its surroundings with images of lorries, smoke, commerce, soldiers and disturbing spectral presences. Burra’s work, like many of his contemporaries, created works that expressed the realities of living in unsettled and uncertain times.
This article was first published in Pallant House Gallery Magazine, No. 41, spring 2017.
Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion was created by the Bulldog Trust in partnership with nine Sussex museums and galleries: Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Charleston Farmhouse, De La Warr Pavilion, Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, Farley Farm House, Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery, Towner Art Gallery and West Dean. The exhibition ran at Two Temple Place, London from 28 January – 23 April 2017.