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The Real and the Romantic

English Art Between Two World Wars

Frances Spalding


A fresh look at a period of English art that has surged in interest and popularity in recent years, authored by one of Britain's leading art historians and critics

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The 21st century has seen a surge of interest in English art of the interwar years. Women artists, such as Winifred Knights, Frances Hodgkins and Evelyn Dunbar, have come to the fore, while familiar names – Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Stanley Spencer – have reached new audiences. High-profile exhibitions have attracted recordbreaking visitor numbers and challenged received opinion. In The Real and the Romantic, Frances Spalding, one of Britain’s leading art historians and critics, takes a fresh and timely look at this rich period in English art.

The devastation of the First World War left the art world decentred and directionless. This book is about its recovery. Spalding explores how exciting new ideas co-existed with a desire for continuity and a renewed interest in the past. We see the challenge to English artists represented by Cézanne and Picasso, and the role played by museums and galleries in this period. Women artists, writers and curators contributed to the emergence of a new avant-garde. The English landscape was revisited in modern terms. The 1930s marked a high point in the history of modernism in Britain, but the mood darkened with the prospect of a return to war. The former advance towards abstraction and internationalism was replaced by a renewed concern with history, place, memory and a sense of belonging. Native traditions were revived in modern terms but in ways that also let in the past. Surrealism further disturbed the ascetic purity of high modernism and fed into the British love of the strange.

Throughout these years, the pursuit of ‘the real’ was set against, and sometimes merged with, an inclination towards the ‘romantic’, as English artists sought to respond to their subjects and their times.


'Superb …. Spalding also uses her persuasive narrative to highlight the role of women artists in the period. As the biographer of a cluster of Bloomsbury figures, she unsurprisingly gives Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell full measure, but also lesser-known figures such as the single-minded New Zealander Frances Hodgkins, Evelyn Dunbar and Winifred Knights'
Michael Prodger, Sunday Times

'Spalding’s prose is as clear as a Ravilious greenhouse, her thoughts as orderly as a Ben Nicholson white relief. No art-world waffle whatsoever. Hurrah. This book deserves to go into many editions'
Laura Freeman, Best Art Books of the Year, The Times

'[Spalding] unravels the complexities of English art between the wars with clarity and confidence, moving back and forth in time, and between artists, writers, critics, curators and collectors … Throughout, she illuminates what she neatly describes as “the recurrent tension in this period between a precarious stasis on the one hand and, on the other, a yearning for rapid change” … The period between the wars was a varied and important stage in the development of British art. Spalding shows us how and why'
Literary Review

'Frances Spalding's beautifully illustrated history reveals the hidden undercurrents that electrified the work of 1920s and 1930s artists … The author combines the august and measured commentary of the distinguished art historian with a gumshoe’s curiosity … This is a weighty and beautifully illustrated addition to the scholarship of its period'
Stephen Smith, Financial Times

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Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 24.6 x 18.6 cm

Extent: 384 pp

Publication date: 26 May 2022

ISBN: 9780500518649

Contents List

1. Pitiless Realism
2. Resistance and Innovation
3. On the Move
4. Landscape and Places of the Mind
5. Beginning Again
6. What ho, Giotto
7. Expanding the Western European Tradition
8. Make It Real
9. Revivalism
10. Modern Art in a Philistine World
11. The Austere, the Violent or the Strange
12. The Spanish Civil War and Mondrian in London

About the Author

Frances Spalding is an art historian, critic and leading authority on 20th-century British art. Her books include acclaimed biographies of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant, Gwen Raverat and John and Myfanwy Piper, as well as a biography of the poet Stevie Smith. She is Emeritus Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal
Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art. In 2005 she was made a CBE for Services to Literature.