Published  11/02/2017

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Unravelling some of the interwoven and incestuous tales relating to the 20th-century modernist protagonists in their rural Sussex settings, this exhibition is as compelling narratively as it is aesthetically and politically

Two Temple Place, London
28 January – 23 April 2017


As artists continue to be priced out of even the farthest reaches of London’s boroughs, and many move down to places on the south coast, such as Hastings, it seems there is something of a revived rural exodus to mirror that – or, more correctly, those – of the early- to mid-20th century, when numerous artistic communities established themselves in the county of Sussex, with guilds, enclaves and retreats. Exemplifying the many faces of modernism, these various groupings might, at first glance, seem as different from one another as chalk and cheese, but biographical and conceptual links can be made, weaving a deft narrative of the period and its protagonists, and this is precisely what the sixth annual exhibition, in the successful winter exhibition programme at Two Temple Place, has achieved. The result, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, brings together painting, film, sculpture, furniture, music and photography from more than 30 lenders and nine museums and galleries.1 What the curator, Dr Hope Wolf, describes as a “visual cacophony of styles and media” is contextualised against the late-19th-century interiors of the London venue, making visible the very style from which many of the artists included sought to depart.

The exhibition is spread across the two floors of the Bulldog Trust headquarters and the main room on the ground floor is given over to works from Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft and Charleston, representing the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic and the Bloomsbury Group respectively. The former, a religious and largely patriarchal society, which strongly advocated working by hand, was set up in 1920 and prominent members included Eric Gill and David Jones. Around two immense stone garden rollers, carved by Gill, stand various other sculptures, all part of a rich tapestry of artistic interactions.

His now quite worn, sensuously soft, bath stone Garden Statue – The Virgin (1911-12), for example, with her rounded breasts and womanly stomach, was commissioned by the Bloomsbury Group member and critic Roger Fry, for his garden in Guildford. It is accompanied here by documentation, including photographs of Fry’s daughter, Pamela, “mounting” the sculpture, taken by fellow Bloomsburyite Vanessa Bell in 1914. With its provocative blend of religious iconography and eroticism, it is easy to see why Gill’s work was contentious even at the time – before revelations of incestuous abuse of his two eldest daughters, Betty and Petra, sullied readings still further in more recent years. This sculpture was a replacement for a previous commission, Mulier BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) (1911), which Fry had rejected for fear that its overt nipple-pinching eroticism might upset visitors to his home.

Among other works on display by Gill is an exquisite wood engraving of Petra, Girl in Bath II (1923). Wall texts in the gallery suggest that, in the light of the revelations of abuse, it might be “hard to interpret [this] as [an] object of beauty”, and certainly, on a moral level, there might be question marks hanging rather weightily, but, aesthetically, this is an incontrovertible delight. Likewise, one cannot help but be entranced by his tiny watercolour, Young Lovers (1917), in which the pure white skin and flushed cheeks of the naked girl contrast with the fleshier tones of the man; her eyes shut, his open; her pert red nipples pressing up against him in a titillating embrace. There couldn’t be a starker contrast than with Jones’s neighbouring Sketch (1924), in which the clunky square figures are as void of emotion as they are eroticism. Hanging one further along is Jones’s painting, The Garden Enclosed (1924), for which this sketch might have been a preparation, and here the soap opera introduces another plot twist, with the figures being revealed as Jones and Petra – to whom he was, at the time, engaged. In the painting, however, she tries her utmost to push him away as he seeks to plant his possessive kiss. Castaway on the garden path lies a wooden doll, symbolic of Petra’s lost innocence. The actual doll, crafted by her father when she was four years old and now imbued with a certain sense of the macabre and voodoo, is on display in a glass case across the room.

The Bloomsbury Group’s interrelations were, of course, every bit as complicated as those in Ditchling. Duncan Grant’s Venus and Adonis (c1919), in which the Venus is described as “gargantuan” and the Adonis as “diminutive” (I had, indeed, to search for him), might hint at some aspect of this, since the dominance of Vanessa Bell in the household comprising her; her husband, Clive Bell; her gay lover, Grant; his lover, Bunny (David Garnett); and the children (Julian and Quentin, the sons of Vanessa and Clive, and Angelica, the daughter of Vanessa and Duncan, although Angelica believed Clive to be her father until she was told the truth at 18), has been described in detail in Angelica’s (auto-)biographical account.2 A steely and sombre self-portrait by Bell, aged 79, is also at odds with the colourful exuberance more typically associated with the lives of the group, and exemplified by such objects as the cheerfully cheeky Charleston lamp, with a shade made by Bell and a painted telegraph pole stand by Grant. Upstairs, Bell’s sketch for her mural of The Annunciation (c1942) – for Berwick Church, as part of a project instigated by Bishop George Bell of Chichester during the second world war, seeking to bring modern art to religious buildings – features Angelica modelling as Mary. The twist here is that “the Virgin” was, by now, soon to marry Bunny – her father’s former lover.

The surrealists feature in the exhibition thanks to the inclusion of works by Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, whose home, Farley Farm House, similarly to Charleston before it, became a rural retreat for artists who opposed mainstream culture and politics of the day. One of five black-and-white photographs on display by Miller shows Picasso standing by a signpost to Chiddingly. This was taken in 1952 while he was in the UK as one of the very few foreign delegates allowed in for the Second World Peace Congress in Sheffield, owing to government fears of “communist infiltration”. A few works by the lesser-known Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, who were expelled from the group in 1940 for refusing to exhibit only in surrealist galleries, are also on display, but the key player in this movement is Edward James, perhaps best known for collaborating with Salvador Dalí to design the – at the time very shocking – Mae West Lips Sofa (1938) for his hunting lodge, Monkton House. Today, the sofa is too well known to elicit much of a response, apart from a smile of recognition and the odd sneaky selfie. James, perhaps unsurprisingly following the trend thus far, was not free of scandal either, being accused of homosexuality during an acrimonious divorce from his wife, the dancer Tilly Losch. A sample of a woollen carpet embroidered with her wet footprints hangs here, but this was, poignantly, replaced in the lodge by a version with the paw prints of his dog. Exquisite Corpse drawings – a surrealist version of the parlour game, Heads-Bodies-Legs – including sketches by Dalí, are on show in glass cases, described also as “a metaphor for James himself: a composite of different parts – surrealist, decadent, poet, collector, commissioner of the ballet, architect, and sexually ambiguous”.

The upstairs rooms see further religious commissions – including a version of Graham Sutherland’s Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli me Tangere) (1961), which tells the story of the penitent mistaking the resurrected Christ for a gardener, made more explicit in the second version, now in Chichester cathedral, in which Christ is wearing a straw hat; and other highlights including a model for Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff’s De La Warr Pavilion, built on international style in 1935, and inspired by streamlined forms of cruise liners; a ceramic cat made by Peggy Angus on a visit to Quentin Bell’s pottery at Charleston; photographs by Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington; and a Dadaist-inspired collage, Beach with Starfish – Seven Sisters Cliff Eastbourne (1933-4), by John Piper.

The final wall text in the exhibition – as well as the final paragraph in Dr Wolf’s accompanying catalogue essay (well worth a read) – stakes a justified claim for the significance of such an exhibition at this point in time: “Amidst current political debates about territory and borders, modernist thinking about internationalism and cosmopolitanism remains as valid and relevant as ever. In today’s uncertain world, the struggle to reimagine what art can be and do, and to think not only about how but also where one should act, continues.” This is, of course, perfectly true, but, for me, the exhibition requires no such political justification. It is worthy, beautiful, fascinating and intriguing simply as an unplucking and reconnecting of threads from this most interwoven set of aesthetic, conceptual and personal narratives – far more compelling and rewarding than any soap opera or reality TV a century later could ever dream of being.   

1. Charleston, De La Warr Pavilion, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Farleys House & Gallery, Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery, Towner Art Gallery, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery at the Royal Pavilion and West Dean College.

2. Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood by Angelica Garnett, published by Pimlico, 1984.

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