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This is Tomorrow

Twentieth-century Britain and its Artists

Michael Bird


A compelling and lively history that examines the lives of British artists from the late-19th century to today

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In This is Tomorrow Michael Bird takes a fresh look at the ‘long twentieth century’, from the closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the turn of the millennium, through the lens of the artists who lived and worked in this ever-changing Britain. Bird examines how the rhythms of change and adaptation in art became embedded in the collective consciousness of the nation and vividly evokes the personalities who populate and drive this story, looking beyond individual careers and historical moments to weave together interconnecting currents of change that flowed through London, Glasgow, Leeds, Cornwall, the Caribbean, New York, Moscow and Berlin. From the American James McNeill Whistler’s defence of his new kind of modern art against the British art establishment in the latter half of the 19th century to the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s melting icebergs in London, he traverses the lives of the artists that have recorded, questioned and defined our times.

At the heart of this original book are the successive waves of displacement caused by global wars and persecution that conversely brought fresh ideas and new points of view to the British Isles; educational reforms opened new routes for young people from working-class backgrounds; movements of social change enabled the emergence of female artists and artists of colour; and the emergence of the mass media shaped modern modes of communication and culture. These are the ebbs and flows that Michael Bird teases out in this panoramic account of Britain and its artists in across the twentieth century.

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'An exhilarating insight into a whole wealth of artists who shaped Britain in the twentieth century'
Katy Hessel, @thegreatwomenartists and author of 'The Story of Art Without Men'

'This is Tomorrow is the work of an undercover agent – one who has bravely realigned the familiar legacies of British twentieth-century art. Thrilling accounts, forensically investigated, offer behind-the-scenes revelations of artists’ lives, as to how the complexities of the twentieth century impacted on who they were, where they came from, how they thought, worked and lived – it is a fast-moving and compelling read'
Dame Phyllida Barlow

'Bird writes beautifully, researches heftily and thinks creatively around his subject. He makes us look at familiar things anew by his descriptions... It’s a brilliant book, by far the best survey of a period that I’ve read in years'
Andrew Lambirth, The Spectator

'A timely update of the story of British art, packed with contextual material and photographs … Mr Bird gives voice to artists previously sidelined in such historical overviews: Sir Frank Bowling, Lubaina Himid, Mary Kelly, John Latham, Phyllida Barlow…. Mr Bird’s evocative prose keeps us turning the pages, from his immersive introductions that take us back to key moments in history to his pithy descriptions'
Charlotte Mullins, Country Life

'An enjoyable book, one which will entertain and inform even those who consider themselves well versed in this country’s art history. Bird also writes with a witty verve'
Country & Townhouse Magazine

'[Michael Bird’s] pithy analysis touches upon socio-political trends, reflecting how people in Britain experienced an unprecedented pace of change, in culture and society, politics, technology and many other fields'
The Art Newspaper

'Bird has fantastic access to the stories, anecdotes, and personal recollections of those who were actually there. He threads together an incredible network of artists, gallerists, designers, socialites and more, bringing a hundred years of history to life'

'Bird’s sinuous narrative calls up the texture of history, constructing art less as something shaped by events than as something that eddies its way through and around them'
Times Literary Supplement

'By exploring the ways in which their work was influenced by class, injustice and war, [Bird] also offers a creative-tinged history of the wider forces that buffeted the nation – from the end of the Victorian era through to the heyday of the Young British Artists'
BBC History Revealed Magazine

'Beautifully produced and elegantly written'
The Critic

'This is a story that unrolls the narrative of a whole century, and Michael conjures up in words all the pictures you’ll need. It’s a heck of a journey'

'Bird's authoritative survey is thoroughly and engagingly preoccupied with the 'nature of art's potential contribution to the cause of social progress'
Shelf Awareness

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 352 pp

Illustrations: 81

Publication date: 8 September 2022

ISBN: 9780500024430

Contents List

Introduction: a moving train
1. Fireworks
2. Pushed by surroundings
3. Kimonos on the Clyde
4. Shadows in my room
5. Who’s afraid of the avant-garde?
6. Primitive mercenaries
7. A chamber of horrors
8. White walls and sandals
9. Deep Britain
10. Storm and progress
11. Curious liberty
12. A different kind of life
13. Cold War modern
14. Tomorrow today
15. Glorious Technicolor
16. Act now
17. The longest revolution
18. We will be
19. Shark pool
20. Inside stories
21. The silence of mirrors

About the Author

Michael Bird is a writer, broadcaster and curator. His books include Artists’ Letters: Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney, Studio Voices: Art and Life in 20th-century Britain and 100 Ideas that Changed Art. In 2016–17 he was Goodison Fellow at the British Library, researching the Artists’ Lives archive.