Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Garden Statue – The Virgin (1911-12) greets the visitor entering ‘Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion’ at Two Temple Place in London. It makes for a striking beginning: a weathered, monolithic piece exuding a presence far greater than its material form. The sculpture was commissioned from Eric Gill by Roger Fry for his garden at Durbins his home in Guildford. Illuminated against the sumptuous panelling of Two Temple Place’s Lower Gallery, the wear of its stone makes the figure all the more arresting, as it traces its endurance not only of the elements, but also of everyday family life. This is emphasised by a nearby photograph of Fry’s daughter, Pamela, all unselfconscious adolescent joie de vivre, climbing on the statue’s back. This constellation of factors accentuates what is elsewhere subtle: that this exhibition is not so much a showcase of art objects as it is of relics of greater attempts to live according to one’s creative ideals.

On the surface, the exhibition is a celebration of Sussex artistic networks. And as such, a stroll through its halls brings about something of the revitalisation that comes from crisp country air: serendipitous resonances between pieces, places and people emerge from the interdisciplinary mingling. Minor themes – such as the motif of organic growth or of fragmentation – lay atop of one another, surprising the visitor with unlikely reverberations. It is a masterful and momentous undertaking with literary roots, and it is little surprise that the curator, Hope Wolf, is a lecturer in British modernist literature. 

The curation presents a ramble through space as well as time: beginning in the rural surrounds of Brighton with Gill’s craft community at Ditchling, we move fourteen miles south east to the Bloomsbury Group’s intellectual base, Charleston, the farmhouse home of Vanessa and Quentin Bell. From there we travel along the South Downs via Peggy Angus’s cottage at Furlongs and collector Edward James’s extravagant Monkton House to the coastline where the modernist collaboration of the De La Warr Pavilion and László Moholy-Nagy’s film, Lobsters (1936), await. Turning inland again, we reach Farley Farm House, the home of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, and then east to Rye, where Edward Burra mulled over his own tumultuous relationship with rural life. In doing so we also travel from the last stirrings of the Belle Époque to the austerity period of reconstruction after the Second World War. It is unsurprising that the diversity of people who were drawn to area is matched by their diverging ideas of what this region could contribute to their creative expression.

Each location, to use Wolf’s words from the catalogue, operated as ‘a site for meeting, thinking and making’ (p.34), driven by a patron, an artist’s or a group artists’ visions of personal gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art or an all embracing form of art). Idealism and ideas drove the performance of living true to self from Gill’s emphasis on working by hand to Peggy (‘Red’) Angus’s socialism. The objects presented are ends in themselves, but it is impossible to ignore them as relics also of personal dedication.

It is a joy to be surrounded by different forms of creativity let loose. This aspect of the exhibition is perfectly at home within Two Temple Place, a neo-gothic mansion substantively reimagined by one the wealthiest men in England, William Waldorf Astor, the American-born founder of the Waldorf Astoria, who moved his family to England in 1892 and commissioned John Loughborough Pearson to adapt Two Temple Place in 1895 with no expense spared. Any picture hanging in such a building becomes installation art that is either in harmony or in tension with its whimsical, jewel box surroundings – an example of which is the lamp standards on the outer balustrade steps, where the bronze, cherubic youth on the right chats convivially into a telephone in strikingly modern contrast to his sinuous Victorian classicism (sculpted by William Silver Frith). Personal totems recur, especially along the Upper Gallery, where among the ornate wood carving are the four Shakespearean friezes. Where money liberated Astor, physical and creative space liberated the artists whose work is displayed in ‘Sussex Modernism’, and the exhibition celebrates what occurs when artists pour art into life and life into art.

Daily living is emphasised through crafted or decorated household items that mingle with the more usual stuff of curation in and among a sensitively researched range of archival documents and photographs. The wooden doll named Brynhilda that Gill carved for his daughter Petra rests near the linen chest (Leda and the Duck, c. 1917) that Duncan Grant painted for Vanessa Bell. Installed on the wall of the main staircase’s landing is a square of the stair carpet that Edward James commissioned to replicate his wife’s wet footprints (though he only settled in Sussex after their messy divorce – commissioning a new carpet with his hound’s footprints afterwards). Even Henry Moore’s Mother and Child (1936-37) is interpreted through the personal importance of its garden installation for Roland Penrose at Farley Farm House.

Alongside this celebration of Sussex’s rich past, Wolf’s curation ruminates gently on the bittersweet side of living through the centre of an idea. More than any other theme, the metaphor recurs of an artistic being as a garden and creativity as a wellspring or a particular type of fecundity. Beyond the apt poeticism, this metaphor raises and is a means of raising important questions about the benefits and dangers of seclusion. How can creativity be protected without being stifled? How can one be radical while secluded, connect with other people without being compromised, or simply how can artistic egos coexist within what sometimes turns into incestuous privacy? The garden can be too self-contained or too enmeshed in a network. Finding the balance is something knowable only through trial and error and is often quite different from the ideals that inspired the initial action. 

The lower level of the exhibition, which is given over to Gill’s community at Ditchling, the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston and James’s patronage at Monkton House, strongly revolves around the pleasures and dangers of retreat. Among these rooms, one small painting succinctly encapsulates some of these questions – The Garden Enclosed (1924) by David Jones. Surrounded by exquisitely crafted objects and literature from Jones’s compatriots in and around Ditchling, his painting presents a kind of key for the larger exhibition.

The painting is autobiographical. It is a self-portrait with Petra, who, then at nearly eighteen years old, was engaged to marry the artist. Here they are, a girl and boy wrestling a stolen kiss as the boy looks up with one eye at the viewer. Wild snaking trees and an upwards tilting picture plane hint at the lingering memories of trench warfare and trauma for Jones (Christopher Reid, ‘Transmogrified by the trenches’, Tate 2014), yet the drama at the core of the picture is more elemental: man, woman, freedom, domesticity, time, aging, doubt, and possession. And yet there is also a more personal note.

Petra and Jones stand just beyond Eric Gill’s doorstep. For both men Petra embodied that which can grow wild, natural and strong in a closed garden – as an enclave of protected integrity – but her resisting hand suggests turbulence even within Eden (reinforced by her memories: see obituary, Lottie Hoare, The Independent, 1999). Added tension emerges with the knowledge that the view is painted from Gill’s back door. A Las Meninas (1656) effect occurs: for just as Velasquez places the viewer in the position of the king, Jones places the viewer in the position of Gill, the master and patriarch of their community, who emerges from his back door to catch his daughter in the embrace of his acolyte – a daughter whom Gill adored as his own muse and took as his own lover. The young male challenges the dominant patriarch. In this light, the whipping trees and rattled geese suggest a deeper trouble in a paradise crafted for creative expression – the competition that makes garden walls claustrophobic. This is all the more apt given that Jones’s title quotes the ‘Song of Solomon’: ‘A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse’ (Ch.4, v.12). An alternate translation of which is: ‘A garden shut up is my sister, my bride; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.’ Notions of wellsprings mingle with the dual meaning of the closed as both protected and stifled, as the Song attests a few lines later: ‘Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out’ (Ch.4, v.14).

Artists are performers. What blooms in the garden and has no wind to blow it out over the walls, withers unseen and thus unknown. The myth of the artist is conditioned by historical consciousness: we the cultural consumers see posthumous vindication as part and parcel of artistic integrity, but the human experience is much more troubled and pragmatic. A performer without an audience or a performer with an unheard audience, after all, can be as stultifying as can a hostile one.

Contrary but complementary to retreat is connectivity. The selection of objects in the exhibition pays homage just as much to relationships and exchanges as it does the dream of seclusion. Networks feature strongly, be they neighbours who discovered Sussex in parallel, or a broader international web of like minds: patronage, collaborations and socialising are revelled in through the impressive range of archival material included – from Angus’s letter to John Piper (1987), to the coffer Henri Gaudier-Brzeska carved for Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1914) and the article on De La Warr Pavilion by Moholy-Nagy for The Architectural Review (LXXX, July 1936) which acted as a report from those inside to those outside.

It is with the émigré section that the topicality of the undercurrent politics comes to the fore. The exhibition is timely: it presents with little editorial the sublimity as well as dangers of isolationism. Wolf moves beyond the simple dichotomy between the city and the countryside in favour of a subtler interest in the creative human experience: the motivations, pains and joys that accompany an act of ideological retreat. Most powerful of all is the exposure of the rural as a hotbed of energy, relationships and creativity, revelling in the impossibility (and undesirability) of cutting off one’s ties from a wider national and international network. It is a valuable perspective on mid-twentieth century Sussex, which serves as a case study in approaches to the diverse cultural history of regional networks.

There is much meaning behind each piece – and especially each cluster of pieces – which is apt to send the mind spinning about the sources of creativity and personal fulfilment, about isolation and connectivity, freedom and networks. And yet ultimately the exhibition’s strongest aspect is the air, insight, devotion and contentment that emerges from immersing oneself in the joy of seeing well-tuned creative minds frolicking in possibility.

Main image: Installation view (with Eric Gill, Garden Rollers, in foreground), ‘Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion’ 2017, Two Temple Place, London (photo: courtesy of Two Temple Place and Rohan van Twest)

‘Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion’, Two Temple Place, London, WC2R 3BD,
28 January – 23 April 2017.

Aurora Corio