British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s

Publication: The Times.  
July 2017

In the introductory catalogue essay to this scrupulously presented and researched show, the curator, Patrick Elliot poses a question: “What were the criteria for inclusion in the exhibition?”  His answer, accurate in one sense, ends up creating more questions – “At its heart are the the artists who probed the world with intense scrutiny and a compulsive desire to record things in accurate microscopic detail.” That could be said of many artists and not just the fifty-eight here, who are represented by ninety-three works.

As Elliot concedes, the term ‘realist’ is a tricky one. It’s entirely possible, and right, that he has chosen to be deliberately provocative by employing it.  It means many things to many people and there has never been a satisfactory definition, a point made by the pre-eminent art critic, Herbert Read, who held the chair of Fine Art at Edinburgh University from 1931-33, who said ‘Realism is one of the vaguest terms in the vocabulary of criticism’.

It’s no surprise, then, to learn that the works range from the meticulously mimetic landscapes and townscapes of James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998) to heavily stylised studies, epitomised by Winifred Knight (1899-1947) in The Deluge, for which she won a scholarship in Decorative Painting at the British School in Rome.

Some here will be familiar names, especially the Scots Edward Baird, James Cowie, James Gunn, Keith Henderson and Alberto Morocco. Equally there are those from south of the Border whose names are equally well known, such as Thomas Nash, Stanley Spencer, James Cosmo Clarke and Edward Burra.

Most, however, have fallen into a kind of quiet obscurity, including the nine women artists such as Mary Adshead, Margaret Barker and Dod Procter. Some artists remain partially on the radar because of more famous family members – Gilbert Spencer was Stanley Spencer’s brother while Colin Gill was cousin to Eric Gill.

This show, which leads the viewer gently by the hand through a series of themed galleries (Portraiture, The Lure of Italy, Rural and Urban, Leisure) reveals that the vagaries and fashions in the art world can leave victims as well as successes. During the decades in question, great ruptures appeared in the history of art, some of which were the direct result of the First World War.  Abstraction, cubism and vorticism, for example led many artists in quite different directions, accounting in part for the relative obscurity of many here, including James Bateman who explored the gentle rurality of inter-war England with great sensitivity.

This show goes some way towards redressing the historical imbalance which has resulted in some very fine artists being hidden from view for many decades.  It is about education and re-habilitation in a ‘genre’ which many will find accessible and immensely pleasurable.