Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper

By Southworth, Helen | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper


Southworth, Helen, Woolf Studies Annual


Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Alexandra Harris (London: Thames and Hudson 2010) 320pp.

Virginia Woolf. Alexandra Harris (London: Thames and Hudson 2011) 191pp.

Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns is a study of what she calls "experimental antiquarians" (15). In her densely populated and broad-ranging book, Harris argues convincingly that in 1930s and 1940s England newness and modernity were not incompatible with tradition. Following earlier work like Jed Esty's A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England, which she acknowledges as a book important to her own work, Harris shows writers, artists and musicians turning back to ancient English traditions. We see W. H. Auden collecting light verse, John Betjeman touring churches and teashops, and John Piper, a major figure in the book along with his wife Myfanwy Evans, gaining inspiration and perspective on modern art as he contemplates medieval stained glass.

Unlike Esty's more strictly scholarly book, Harris's volume is clearly meant to reach a broader audience. The fact that the book was awarded the Guardian First Book Award is testament to her success and to the appeal that this period of English history still has for today's readers. Harris's uncluttered prose makes the book read as a jaunt through the English countryside. Reflecting the kind of writing Harris is doing in Romantic Moderns and the breadth she was aiming at, she has listed in an interview as inspiration for her work Peter Conrad's Modern Times, Modern Places, and Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory as well as Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf and Jenny Uglow's of William Hogarth. As in Conrad's and Schama's books, there's a cultural-historical range to Harris's work that allows her to consider architecture and village life alongside food and climate, to name just a few of the topics she includes.

What is particularly appealing about this book is the fact that here we find Woolf in the company of contemporaries such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Adolf Loos, Evelyn Waugh and Flora Thompson--names that are not typically seen alongside Woolf's. A discussion of Orlando sits in a chapter about Georgian revival in which Harris discusses Edith Sitwell's wardrobe and Piper, Evans, Betjeman and Geoffrey Grigson's "church crawls" (66); Between the Acts is read in terms of the turn away from Fry's formalist ideas about art; and Woolf's "Reading at Random" appears in a chapter about the weather beside analysis of work by Stevie Smith, Paul Nash, Fry and Herbert Read. Central to Harris's book is the discussion of magazines such as Myfanwy Evans's Axis; this serves as a good reminder of some of the debates that were going on in the art world as Woolf wrote. Harris also shows how series such as Hilda Matheson's "Britain in Pictures," involvement with which Woolf declined, saw writers and artists generating nationalist propaganda on the eve of and during World War II.

Appropriate to its subject matter, Romantic Moderns is beautifully illustrated with color reproductions and attractively packaged by Thames and Hudson. Piper's work figures prominently alongside paintings and photographs of houses and artwork by Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious among many others.

One finds a similarly paced prose, but less density in Harris's biography of Woolf. Short chapters are interspersed with captioned photographs, book illustrations and paintings, some that will be very familiar to Woolfians, others less so. Harris mixes some of the best-known photographs of Woolf and family and friends with paintings and illustrations by Vanessa Bell, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and Roger Fry and Hogarth Press covers and announcements. …

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