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This is Tomorrow: Twentieth-century Britain and its Artists

Posted on 08 Sep 2022

'This is Tomorrow' explores a rich cast of visionary artmakers from the late 19th century to the present day, examining how their lives and work recorded, questioned and defined the 20th century. Here, author Michael Bird reflects on the book.

This is Tomorrow tells the story of twentieth-century Britain, viewed through the lens of artists’ lives. It was a time when life in Britain underwent profound and rapid change, shaped by world wars and global migration, by social movements, scientific discoveries and technological innovation. No group of people reflected and responded to these changes more vividly than artists.

I begin in 1878, the year in which the American artist James McNeill Whistler took the great Victorian critic John Ruskin to court for accusing him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ with an impressionistic scene of a firework display. This trial sits on the fault line between the Victorian era and what people were starting to call the modern ‘machine age’.

Electric lighting, aeroplanes, cars, televisions, atomic bombs – it’s astonishing how quickly, in just a couple of generations, people adjusted to new daily realities. In the social sphere, there were huge changes (along with a continuing need for change) in expectations and opportunities for women, in education and in the emergence of a society that is far more culturally diverse and globally connected than either Ruskin or Whistler could ever have imagined.

When we try to understand how those changes affected the texture and tempo of twentieth-century life – and how they influenced the world we live in now – I’d say that the artists of the period have provided us with some of the most memorable and revealing clues. To take just two examples, I’m struck by the way Walter Sickert’s paintings of working-class music hall audiences coincide with the birth of the British labour movement, and – at the other end of the century – how the exploded garden shed from which Cornelia Parker assembled Cold Dark Matter belongs to the era of both the financial ‘Big Bang’ in the City of London and an intense IRA bombing campaign in mainland Britain.

I was clear from the start that I wanted to write a book in which the beat of time could be felt running through, like a musical rhythm. This is probably why, early on, I settled on the working title This is Tomorrow. I borrowed it from an extraordinary exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, when Britain was poised between grinding, grey post-war austerity and the colour-saturated boom years of the 1960s.

For this exhibition, small teams of artists, architects and designers created a series of installations, merging images from science fiction and Hollywood with adverts, abstract art, photographs, sculptures and constructions in all kinds of surprising combinations. ’This,’ they wanted to say, ‘is our new visual universe. This is tomorrow.’

While art and artists are at the heart of the story, this book is also about my own relationship to the twentieth century – the century into which I was born and whose history has been the background, the undercurrent to my life. I obviously never fought in a world war, but as a child I knew older adults who had. These connections play an important part in the way we navigate our own times and conceive them as part of a bigger story.

My sense of what history is, and how it can be written, has definitely also been influenced by the year I spent in 2016 researching the Artists’ Lives archive, which is part of the National Life Stories collection at the British Library. In these spoken history interviews, artists talk about everything and anything – work, relationships, travels, reading, illnesses, politics, hopes and fears – as a kind of seamless whole. A life, in other words. After listening to hundreds of hours of recordings, I ended up feeling that you couldn’t really put a fence around any one part of an artist’s life and call it ‘art history’.

In February 2022, I was correcting the manuscript of this book, re-reading the chapter in which Henry Moore draws people sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz, when the television news was suddenly full of Ukrainians doing the same in the Kyiv metro. Mixed up with the shock and disbelief was the sense that art had, once again, both captured something essential in its own time and somehow tuned into the future. I can’t explain how this happens. But in broader terms – and another reason for my choice of title – I’d hope that readers will come away with a sense of how history, like the making of art, is a constant gathering up of the past into the present, but at the same time always focused on what’s taking shape, what’s coming next.