Delving into 20th Century Art with Frances Spalding and Jenny Uglow

‘Reality is what you want, and not realism. And to find that, you must watch for some happy blending of the vitality of “Romance”, the coldness of “science”, and the moderation and cohesion of a “classical mind”.’

Wyndham Lewis as quoted by Frances Spalding.

Professor Frances Spalding is one of the UK’s foremost art historians. Her new book The Real and the Romantic, while subtitled ‘English Art Between the Two World Wars’, actually covers the influence of war service on artists such as Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer and includes the untimely death Henri Gaudier-Brzeska during a battle in 1915.


‘Ezra Pound identified Gaudier-Brzeska’s death as the gravest individual loss sustained by the arts during the War’.

His work was subsequently purchased and championed by Jim Ede, then Director of the Tate Gallery, and it now makes up an important standing exhibition at Ede’s former home, now a much-admired house and gallery, Kettles Yard. Benefactors, gallerists and critics are important voices in this story, which closes on the outbreak of another war in September 1939.

As you would expect from the definitive biographer of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Frances credits the Bloomsbury Group as key players within early Twentieth Century art. Frances suggests that she wishes to ‘re-juggle hierarchies and to suggest in places new interpretations’ and by focussing on artists such as Winfred Knights and Evelyn Dunbar she reminds us that these female artists who have only relatively recently enjoyed significant exhibitions and new interpretation were once almost forgotten.

The ubiquity of Eric Ravilious’s paintings on greeting cards and book jackets today belies the fact that ‘Ravilious was for many years ignored by modernist art historians’, largely because his preferred medium was watercolour and his subject the English landscape. As Frances says, ‘Romanticism is often associated with a lyric vein in English art and poetry, but it can also be tough and chilly, as in the melancholy light found in Eric Ravilious’s landscape watercolours.’

Two artists who also make up the period surveyed by Frances are Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews. Jenny Uglow’s biography Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time looks at their unconventional relationship and their swirling, vibrant, complementary work. Like many of their interwar peers, they were inspired by medieval myths and the English countryside while satirising and celebrating modern life, labour and sport. The linocut medium in which they worked was relatively cheap to make and Frances Spalding suggests their art makes a ‘distinctive, democratic contribution… today fiercely collected’. Jenny Uglow is a critically acclaimed and award-winning biographer across subjects including the Lunar Society of Birmingham, Edward Lear, Thomas Bewick and Elizabeth Gaskell.

To mangle Wyndham Lewis, I hope that reality can be found in Buxton this July with some happy blending of the vitality of romance, the briskness of science and the cohesion of ideas.


Vicky Dawson



The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars by Frances Spalding is published by Thames and Hudson Ltd. Frances Spalding’s event is on Tuesday 19th July, and the book is available here.

Sybil and Cyril: Cutting Through Time by Jenny Uglow is published by Faber &Faber. Jenny Uglow’s event is on Friday 15th July and the book is available here.