The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground

By Harrington, Ralph | The Journal of Transport History, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground


Harrington, Ralph, The Journal of Transport History


Michael T. Saler, The Avant-garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground, Oxford University Press, New York (1999), 256 pp.,US$14.95.

The precepts that English twentieth-century modernism was visual rather than literary, popular rather than elite, moralistic rather than aesthetic, run counter to many widely held conceptions about modern English artistic culture. This valuable study demands attention from scholars in a range of fields precisely because it urges these ideas so cogently. The battle for English modernism, argues Saler, was won not in the salons of Bloomsbury but in - and beneath - the streets of London.

Not least among the merits of this study is that it provides as convincing an answer as we are ever likely to get to one of the enduring mysteries of twentieth-century English transport history: why did the inter-war London Underground become the focus and expression of such modernistic endeavour? The answers previously provided have tended to be of two kinds: (1) because it just did, or (2) Frank Pick. Neither really constitutes an answer at all. Saler tells a much more revealing and convincing story.

For Saler, Pick is a central figure, but not one that can be considered a self-contained phenomenon, a messianic solitary genius of public service and good design. Pick is seen here as the expression of a deep-rooted (but, by modern scholars, largely disregarded) tendency in English aesthetic-social thought and practice that Saler dubs 'medieval modernism'. With roots in the nineteenth-century ideas of Ruskin and Morris, 'medieval modernism' sought to apply a moralistic social agenda to the visual arts, integrating art with craftsmanship and art with society, creating an integrated environment that would make the world more beautiful, more honest and more just. The London Underground under Pick's leadership, maintains Saler, became the largest and most effective single expression of these ideas.

This interpretation has the virtue of reconciling the modernism of the interwar Underground with the conservatism of inter-war English culture, by placing the ideals of truth to function and materials underlying the modernistic visual culture of the Underground in the context of a neo-medievalist social creed that stressed harmony and social unity and sought to place art at the service of the people through the civilising presence of the Underground.

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