A Fruitful Symbiosis: Sculptors and Publishers in Britain between the Wars

By Holman, Valerie | The Space Between, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Fruitful Symbiosis: Sculptors and Publishers in Britain between the Wars


Holman, Valerie, The Space Between


Art books have not so far received a great deal of attention from cultural commentators, yet they exemplify what is arguably a peculiarly twentiethcentury phenomenon. Their rise, and some would argue "fall" (as monographs on painting and sculpture morph into slim volumes on lifestyle, and the economics of the book trade edge out diversity and shelf space in major museums), deserves much closer study. This entails an investigation into who published critical and historical texts on art, and why; what influenced the number of books published on certain types of art practice-such as sculpture-at any given time; in photographically-illustrated art books, how art was photographed, by whom, and why that mattered; how a previously uninformed public was reached, captivated, and converted into a body of consumers; and how individual art-lovers could accrete into a mass market for books, and then for modern art itself. What was a specialist subject for a restricted coterie fifty years ago is now part of the common culture: Tate Modern in London is a good gauge of this enormous change for it now receives more than four million visitors a year, a clear demonstration of the current appeal of modern art to a mass public. In Britain, sculpture has played a particularly prominent role in acquainting the public with characteristics of modern art, while publishers between the wars not only introduced able critics who could write vividly and informatively about these developments, but perhaps more importantly, they made big strides in how books on art were produced, and how they might appeal to a mass market. This article will focus on the relationship between sculpture and publishing, and its impact on the growing dominance of modernism in early histories of twentieth century art.

In 1930 Oxford University Press published a book on twentieth century sculptors by the archeologist and classical scholar, Stanley Casson, whose opening remarks explained the rationale of his latest work. "Sculpture is beginning more and more to interest the ordinary man. As a result more sculpture is being carved and more sculptors trained. And as the interest grows so criticism increases. [...] Criticism of sculpture leads to the discussion of the principles that guide it and so, perhaps to the illumination of all concerned" (Twentieth Century 1). A rough census of publications on sculpture taken from The English Catalogue of Books supports his assumption.1 From 1906 to 1910 there were twelve new titles on sculpture; from 1911 to 1916 twenty, nearly all on the Greeks. From 1916 to 1920 there were only eight, but one was the first book on Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and one was on the stone carver, letter-cutter and typographer, Eric Gill (1882-1940), both of whom were sculptors central to the development of a new aesthetic in which methods and materials became privileged bearers of meaning and value. From 1921 to 1925 the total number of sculpture books was nineteen, including another on Gill, one on appreciation and three on the modern period. There is then a marked change. In each five-year period between 1926 and 1941, about thirty titles on sculpture were published in Britain, of which a third were now devoted to the modern period. Books on modern painting were comparable in number and followed a similar trajectory, but it was sculpture that caught the public imagination. Sculpture had a noble history and was often publicly sited: the introduction of any markedly new style or technique tended to be read as a public statement, and one which invariably courted controversy.

Indeed, the interwar period was enlivened by a noisy battle between tradition and innovation which attracted talented warriors in print supported by champions in the publishing world-each with his own agenda.2 It was a battle fought, above all, through contrasting approaches to the ancient art of sculpture. Requiring patience and precision, the practice of sculpture, whether carving or casting, was time-consuming and physically demanding, took decades to master and, at the turn of the twentieth century, was inscribed within a tradition slow to change. …

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