True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

Willam Strang (1859-1921), The Opera Cloak

Willam Strang (1859-1921), The Opera Cloak, 1913.

Fine Art Connoisseur


By Peyton Skipwith

“Realism” is a virtually meaningless term as far as art criticism goes. Primitive man in the caves at Lascaux was striving for realism, as were Holbein and Dürer in the 16th century, and Ingres and the Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th. Each period has its own nuanced approach as to what constitutes reality and how to interpret it.

This year British museum visitors have enjoyed extraordinary encounters with 1920s and 1930s realism. First came America After the Fall, with great works by Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and others, including Grant Wood’s masterpiece, American Gothic. It was presented at London’s Royal Academy of Art, as was Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, while Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933, which included a major showing of works by Otto Dix, appeared at Tate Liverpool. These three exhibitions provided an international context in which to view, and assess, True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s, the exhibition mounted by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for this summer’s Edinburgh Festival. This ambitious show included nearly 100 works by 58 artists, many of whom have largely been ignored by scholars and critics, and whose names are virtually unknown.

The coincidence of these four exhibitions is symptomatic not only of a general reappraisal of 20th-century realist painting, but also of an underlying questioning of the too-long-accepted linear progression of art and design pioneered in London by Roger Fry with his 1910 exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists, then reinforced by the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Chicago, and Boston. In his Pioneers of Modern Design, first published in 1936, Nikolaus Pevsner added weight to this linear concept of history, presenting it in Old Testament terms of “so and so begat so and so, who begat…” This further marginalized artists who stood outside what he regarded as the inexorable march of history, in the process rendering realism irrelevant to the 20th century.

To be fair, by the 1960s Pevsner, as chairman of the Victorian Society, had modified the rigidity of his earlier thesis, if not its historical validity, but for realist painters of the inter-war years, it was too late: the damage had been done and many suffered years of neglect. It has taken decades, and a new generation of art historians, to establish that there are more ways than one of being modern; during the 1920s and ’30s, not all of them were abstract. Today it is widely accepted that American Gothic (1930) is as much an icon of its time as Picasso’s Guernica (1937).


Realist artists have always been faced with the dilemma of whether to depict every detail and risk getting swamped, or to be selective, or even to improve. In one of his Discourses – the lectures he delivered at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790 – Sir Joshua Reynolds advocated the latter when he commented on the fact that “All the objects which are exhibited to our view by Nature, upon close examination will be found to have their blemishes and defects. The most beautiful forms have something about them of weakness, minuteness, or imperfection.” His goal in drawing attention to these imperfections was to put artists on guard so they could correct or eliminate them. A century and a half later, C.R. Ashbee, the British teacher, craftsman, and social idealist, commenting on the portraits of his friend William Strang, noted that “in each of them there is some touch of his sitters’ ugliness revealed in the beauty of his draughtsmanship.” He went on to say that for those, like himself, who had submitted to Strang’s penetrating gaze, his drawings make one “grimly conscious of an unpleasant something in ourselves that we don’t like to mention but that our love of truthfulness would not have us conceal.”

Strang is one of the immediate precursors of the type of hard-edged, unremitting realism that epitomized much British art between the wars. He had trained in the 1870s under Alphonse Legros at the Slade School, part of London University. Its first two professors, Edward Poynter and Legros, were both Paris-trained, so its teaching methods (unlike those at the Royal Academy Schools) were based on French principles. Like Legros, Strang was a superb draughtsman and a prolific etcher, as well as an experimental painter. The Opera Cloak (1913) is a prime example of his austere and rather puritanical approach to portraiture, which had already prompted the Art News to write: “If you like Lavery and Sargent you will hardly care for Mr. Strang. If you are tired of these wonderfully clever artists it is possible Mr. Strang will interest you not a little. He is not slick, he never takes your breath away with one stroke, but his work is always the outcome of a genuine impulse; he is, we feel, more interested in the thing painted than in the actual manner of painting it.”

This concentration on detail over swagger is a distinguishing feature of several of the best portraitists of the ’20s and ’30s: Gerald Brockhurst, James Gunn, Gluck, and (at his best) Gerald Kelly. Yet apart from Meredith Frampton, none was as puritanical in approach as Strang. Frampton’s portraits, particularly those of men, are not only time-warps, they are detailed studies of his subjects, treating them as if embalmed at a precise moment, along with the essential attributes of their lives and careers. Of the others, only Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) begins to approach him: her firmly structured self-portrait has been adorning London this summer as the poster for Tate Britain’s exhibition Queer British Art 1861 – 1967, and her work will be seen again in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s exhibition Gluck: Art & Identity (November 18 – March 11, 2018).

Edward Halliday (1902-1984), Hypnos, 1928
Edward Halliday (1902-1984), Hypnos, 1928

Brockhurst and Gunn tended to veer toward the lush end of portraiture, at least when depicting women. Brockhurst particularly combined an austerity of technique with a Hollywood glamour that is often disconcerting. His famous drypoint, Adolescence, depicts a naked 15-year-old girl absorbed in self-contemplation before her dressing-table mirror, while By the Hills, a portrait of a famous beauty, is so devoid of any hint of brushstrokes that it could have been breathed onto the canvas.


What Ashbee described as Strang’s “lexicographical” approach, his concentration on subject rather than the method of interpretation, was a stylistic harbinger of a principal feature of inter-war realism. Europe had just emerged from four years of bloodshed; guns, machinery, and warfare had been lauded by such Futurist painters as Wyndham Lewis and praised in the Vorticist manifesto BLAST. Theirs was a visual language of chaos and shattering. In the wake of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), however, there was an almost universal desire for peace, calm, and stability, not just in daily life but in the arts as well; artists turned away from visual aggression toward a renewed quest for order and discipline. In this new world, a return to the broad-brush impressionism that had delighted prewar audiences with images of sun-drenched idylls seemed inappropriate. So where, in this aftermath of death and destruction, should they seek a new order?

As Sacha Llewellyn points out in the Scottish National Gallery’s catalogue, artists as diverse as Picasso and Léger re-engaged with tradition while “parallel movements emerged across Europe including De Stijl in Holland, the ‘Valori Plastici’ and Novecento Italiano in Italy, and Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany.” In Britain, though there was no “movement” as such, there was a general yearning for stability, a reassertion of traditional values. There was no wish to turn the clock back, no nostalgia, but a clear-sighted recognition that the war had changed everything. It was now the artist’s job to assess this new world with fresh eyes, recognizing there had been both gains and losses. Despite the devastating fact that virtually every family had suffered bereavement, World War I had swept away the last vestiges of feudalism, and women had been liberated from domesticity to work in offices and factories and were gradually getting the vote, making Britain a more democratic society.

Artists did not shirk from depicting all aspects of this post-war world – from portraits of glamorous women and interiors to scenes of industrial unrest and rural squalor. (Gilbert Spencer and Stanley Lewis, respectively, painted near life-size portraits of rat- and mole-catchers.) Still lifes and landscapes continued to attract, but with a heightened intensity of detail and feeling, while new subjects, particularly those related to leisure and sport, found not only their recorders, but also a ready audience, particularly among curators of provincial museums.

The challenge to this new “realism” came when artists turned to allegorical and Biblical subjects. Could such works be more than just the pictorial equivalent of “Shakespeare in Modern Dress,” or was there something more fundamental to be read into them? The greatest British artist to overcome this challenge was Stanley Spencer; for him there was no dichotomy, as he regarded Cookham, the Thames-side village where he was born and raised, as Heaven. Thus it was perfectly natural that Christ should walk down the high street and preach at Cookham Regatta, and that the Resurrection should take place in Cookham churchyard, where locals, angels, and New Testament figures could mingle freely. Few other artists rose quite so successfully to this challenge apart from Winifred Knights, whose The Deluge, depicting a group of panic-stricken men and women fleeing the rising tide, was her 1920 prize-winning entry for the scholarship to the British School at Rome.


The British School had been expanded, in the wake of the 1911 Rome World’s Fair, to embrace painting, sculpture, and architecture, in addition to its traditional archeological and classical studies. An additional scholarship for engraving was added after the war. The painting scholarship was awarded in a category defined as “Decorative Painting,” with the specific intention of training artists to paint murals, especially in public buildings. The Palace of Westminster and the Bank of England, among other places, were to benefit from this scheme. This training, combined with three years’ study in Rome, played an important role in promotion of the hard-edged realism so distinctive of the 1920s and ’30s. Many of the Rome Scholars were former Slade School students who, like Strang, had already been trained thoroughly in drawing before even touching a paintbrush. By this time Legros was dead and had been superseded by the disciplinarian Henry Tonks, who was both a surgeon and a painter, but for whom drawing was equally paramount. During the war he had combined these two professions, making devastatingly truthful analytical drawings of seriously disfigured servicemen in order to help the pioneering surgeon Harold Gillies and his colleagues at Queen Mary’s Hospital with their task of reconstruction. The Slade’s rival in producing Rome Scholars was the newly renascent Royal College of Art, presided over by William Rothenstein, himself a product of Legros’s Slade.

The possibility of applying for the Rome Scholarship tended to encourage young artists to explore not only figure drawing, but also allegory and mythology. One such was the Royal College student Edward Halliday, who, in his haunting painting Hypnos, tackled the daunting, and not always comfortable, task of marrying allegory with realism, depicting the god of sleep casting his spell over workmen and beasts in the Roman Campagna. In the exhibition True to Life, this scene made an interesting contrast with a not dissimilar composition by the Yorkshire artist Harry Epworth Allen, The Timber Dump, with its strong, carefully orchestrated patterning of felled trees, buildings, and rutted pathways interspersed with loggers and horses. Allen, though largely unknown, is stylistically England’s nearest equivalent to Grant Wood. The Timber Dump and Hypnos can be regarded as representing the “natural” and “supernatural” extremes of inter-war realism, combining both landscape and figure painting. Like many of the finest pictures of the period, both were composed in the studio. One of the ironies of this new realism is that it was best achieved, not by painting en plein air before the subject, but rather by careful distillation from sketches, preliminary drawings, and even photographs. It is not coincidental that the inter-war years were the heyday of the etching revival, and also of wood engraving and direct stone carving – the latter stimulated by the urgent demand for war memorials. Both carving and engraving are disciplines that demand precision, with the result that clear definition, rather than bravura brushstrokes, became a key characteristic of the period.

In tandem with their concentration on modern life subjects, many young painters looked to earlier precedents, particularly such artists as Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Bruegel, Dürer, and Holbein. These references are especially pertinent to the figure/portrait painters (Brockhurst. Gunn, Frampton, and Cowie); landscapists like McIntosh Patrick and Algernon Newton (though Canaletto was the primary influence on the latter’s cityscapes); and also those who painted figures in landscape. Winifred Knights set her Marriage at Cana in Rome’s Borghese Gardens while Gladys Hynes’s Noah’s Ark, with fashionably clad Mrs. Noah welcoming a kangaroo, is set before the South Downs and Sussex coastline. The latter, a delightful but slightly archaic work, was shown this summer in Edinburgh, where it made an intriguing contrast to several more overtly contemporary al fresco scenes depicting hikers map-reading and families picnicking, the modern-day equivalent of Gainsborough’s elegant renderings of squires’ families on their country estates. In his strikingly à la mode, and brilliantly clever, Spray, Harold Williamson clearly owed more (in terms of artistic heritage) to Leni Riefenstahl than to Raphael.

Re-examination of the artists featured in this year’s exhibitions – British, American, Russian, and German – will undoubtedly intensify in the next few years, opening our eyes further to the many unjustly overlooked talents who flourished between the world wars.