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Humankind: Ruskin Spear

Class, culture and art in 20th-century Britain

Tanya Harrod


A long overdue monograph on the life and work of artist Ruskin Spear

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Ruskin Spear’s reputation has fluctuated since the 1950s, when he was regarded as one of a team of painters who characterized the best of ‘English’ or ‘British’ painting. Spear had a heightened vision when it came to the places he knew best – the pubs, streets and people of working-class Hammersmith, the chief subject of Ruskin Spear’s landscape, genre and narrative paintings – and many of his portraits too. He made much of traffic in the rain, the bright iconography of advertising hoardings and the red boldness of London buses in ways that have been identified as proto-Pop. He also chronicled social life in the dark interiors of Hammersmith’s pubs, befriending and painting the individuals he met there.

Here, award-winning biographer Tanya Harrod mines Spear’s career and background in order to explore what it meant to be a British artist in the 20th century. Using Spear’s life to unlock the coded standards of the 20th-century art world, she reflects on a range of themes, taking in popular press debates linked to the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition; the changing preferences of the institutionalised avant-garde from the Second World War onwards; the battles fought within colleges of art as a generation of post-war students challenged the skills and commitment of their tutors; and the changing status of figurative art in the post-war period.

Humankind’s powerful narrative presents a remarkable, rumbustious character and a diverse series of art and non-art worlds.

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'Engaging and impressively researched … There is much to praise in this book, owing to Harrod’s firm grasp of historical, political and artistic detail, and the intelligence and insight with which she writes'
Literary Review

'A meticulous piece of art historical rescue … an important study of a neglected artist'

Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 24.5 x 18.5 cm

Extent: 320 pp

Publication date: 13 January 2022

ISBN: 9780500971192

Contents List

Prologue: Why Spear?
1. Hammersmith: boy & man
2. At the College and after
3. A Pacifist’s War
4. Hammersmith in Darkness and Light: Making Life more complicated
5. A teacher among friends
6. An Academician entertains his Public: An Annunciation
7. Ruskin as peacenik: The Pleasures of Peace
8. Painting for money
9. Retrospective

About the Author

Tanya Harrod is an independent design historian, living in London, who writes widely on craft, art and design. Her major study, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, was published in 1999. The Last Sane Man, her biography of the potter Michael Cardew, was published in 2012; for this book she was awarded the James Tait Black Prize for biography. She is co-editor of the The Journal of Modern Craft.