Culture: Champions of the Modernist Pioneers; Terry Grimley Reviews Two Exhibitions Highlighting Collections of Modern British Art

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Byline: Terry Grimley

For those of us sometimes tempted to believe we are still living in a philistine country, it is perhaps worth reflecting that the Tate Modern's Picasso and Matisse exhibition has just switched to 24-hour opening through public demand.

It's a far cry from 1919, when the brothers Osbert and Sacheveral Sitwell organised the first London showing of these two artists and other modernist pioneers. In the first few decades of the 20th century the avant-garde in England was extremely small and beleaguered. It is easy for its champions to appear cosy and dilettanti-ish with hindsight, but they were champions, nonetheless.

Inspired by a visit to the Russian Ballet in London in 1912, Osbert Sitwell decided to dedicate himself to the arts. He, Sacheveral and their sister Edith became a rallying point for new artistic ideas in the 1920s, famously adopting the youthful William Walton, who set Edith's poems in his first big success, Facade. At Leamington Art Gallery and Museum there is a rare opportunity to see Osbert Sitwell's private art collection. It is now housed at the family home in Derbyshire and has been lent by his nephew - Cecil Beaton's perky drawing of him, confined to bed with whooping cough as a small boy, is included in the exhibition.

Beaton figures with several works, including a design for a play by Osbert and Sacheveral called All at Sea, which apparently it was.

There are two linear drawings by the Futurist Gino Severini which are clearly influenced by Picasso's style of the early 1920s (a frustration of this exhibition is that few of the exhibits are dated), but mostly these works are by the first wave of British modernists - Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth, Percy Wyndham Lewis and the London-based Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska prominent among them.

The emphasis is on works on paper, but there is a small oil by Nevinson, dated 1917 but a Futurist view across the rooftops of a smoky city rather than a war subject. However, the war, in which Osbert served, does figure in small works by Nash and in Roberts's elaborate watercolour study for his major painting of a shell dump, now in the Imperial War Museum.

Wyndham Lewis is represented by two strong drawings - one of them an uncharacteristically sensitive female portrait. There are also interesting works by lesser-known figures like Ethelbert White and an impressive drawing from the 1930s by Michael Rothenstein, best known in later life as a printmaker whose work took in the influence of Pop Art.

Frances Hodgkins and John Piper, both represented in the Sitwell collection, turn up again in the Anthony Twentyman Collection, which is now part of Wolverhampton Art Gallery's permanent collection and is currently the focus of an exhibition there.

Twentyman, who lived at Codsall in Staffordshire, gave up a career in the family business at the end of the 1940s to become a full-time sculptor. …