Hampstead has always attracted arty folk, lured by the cleaner air, the stunning views over London, the rolling Heath, the villagey layout of its narrow lanes and diversity of houses, a mere three miles from the City. Shelley, Byron, Keats, Reynolds, Constable, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Middleton Murry and Henry Lamb all lived in or around Hampstead at some point in their lives, but it is the Modernists that Caroline Maclean focuses on. She has divided the dramatis personae into ten chapters, but, because of the nature of their overlapping lives, many of the characters appear in other people’s sections. Henry Moore seems to be everywhere, as does Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Herbert Read. The book starts when Ben met Babs in Norfolk; that’s Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and they took a shine to each other immediately, he leaving his wife Winifred in Yorkshire with three children, and she leaving her husband, Jack Skeaping. They were soon sharing a studio in Belsize Park at Mall Studios, and started to work together. Many of the characters sleep with each other throughout the book in a merry-go-round of affairs.
Enter Henry Moore, who was to become the major influence on British art in the 1920s and 1930s. He is also a major influence on the people with whom he comes into contact, both geographically and intellectually. The chapter on modernist architecture, and how it got a foothold in England, is fascinating, with such architects, designers and engineers as Jack and Molly Pritchard and Wells Coates, who first introduced Great Britain to these modernist ideas, that had already swept through Germany with Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus philosophy. They built the iconic Isokon building in Lawn Road. As Hitler’s rise to power became more inevitable and threatening, a continual stream of foreign artists, architects, writers and musicians, passed through London, their way having been cleared by the ‘English Modernists,’ who felt that they had been given a new lease of life.
Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Sigmund Freud (just before he died), the American sculptor Alexander Calder and Marcel Breuer, all came to London in those years. Erno Goldfinger, a Jewish, Marxist Hungarian designer with his wife Ursula had been living in Highpoint I, one of two modernist blocks of flats in Highgate, before moving into a block of three Modernist terraced houses in Willow Road, next to the Heath, which they commissioned. The bulldozing of three Georgian cottages caused objections from various preservation quarters, but with the support of Roland Penrose, Lee Miller and Julian Huxley, the zoologist brother of Aldous, the plans were approved. What is not mentioned in the book is the spat between Ian Fleming and Goldfinger, who knew of each other through John Blackwell, Ursula’s cousin, a golfing friend. Fleming decided to name the arch-villain of his latest James Bond novel ‘Auric Goldfinger’; a short, Jewish Soviet agent who, like Erno, was naturalised British, but the tall elegant and humourless Erno hearing of ‘his’ name being used, put pressure on the publishers and threatened legal action. Fleming was not to be bullied, and threatened to change the name of his villain to Goldprick, a name suggested by Cyril Connolly.
Maclean writes in a matter-of-fact, staccato style, with a blizzard of inverted commas and quotation marks peppering the text, which means that the narrative never gets a chance to flow. The facts are all there, with a bewildering lexicon of names and dates, and sometimes we are told the same thing twice in different chapters. Henry Moore comes across as being both ‘modest and discreet’, according to the Surrealist Eilleen Agar, but as a trustee of the Tate, with Kenneth Clark, ‘did not appear to see the best side of everything, when they rejected one of Hepworth’s wooden sculptures in 1945’, saying that if it was ‘nothing more than that’ then it would be a ‘poor affair.’ Moore did not object to the seven other sculptures bought that year by the Tate: they were all his. A dazzling group of artists and poets populate the pages, including Ivon Hitchens, Paul Nash, John and Myfanwy Piper, Louis MacNeice, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Augustus John, and the documentary film-maker John Grierson, for whom Auden wrote the commentaries of Coal Face and Night Mail. To Myfanwy Piper, the editor of an arts magazine Circle, “Paul Nash was the embodiment of all that was abstract, Surreal and English. ‘Nash has absorbed the English climate,’ she wrote, and, ‘By some piece of remarkable magic he has almost become’ the climate, ‘the pearly mornings and the fine pale afternoons and the irresistible charm of winter twilight’. ‘Abstraction, in his hands’, she wrote, ‘is a weather-gauge’ and Surrealism the ‘hailstones like pigeon’s eggs that startle the midlands’ summer sleep’. Nash’s method, she explained, was not to peek behind the blindfold to see where to put the eye of the pig, but to spread his hands and declare ‘This pig is all eye.’ Nash could paint 3,000 years ‘without turning a hair, and still belong to things as they are today.’ If Private Eye had been around then, one could have made a quick fiver sending that to Pseud’s Corner.
This is an absorbing book, that both informs and amuses, about a niche and overlooked segment of art history. It is a shame that the photographs used in the text are so drab and blurred, and the map that should have been a simple, at-a-glance legend of where people lived and loved, is a woefully inadequate conceit of pretentious design triumphing over information.