A forgotten generation of talented British artists is the subject of this summer’s Festival exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
True to Life is the first exhibition to explore the realist tradition in British painting of the 1920s and 1930s, bringing to light the work of dozens of once-celebrated artists whose paintings are now largely hidden away in private collections or in the storerooms of Britain’s museums and galleries.
These paintings create a vivid reflection of Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, and have a distinctive look that is unmistakably of the time.
Not since the 1930s have so many of these realist masterpieces – more than 90 works by nearly 60 artists – been brought together in one exhibition, giving audiences a unique chance to make some remarkable rediscoveries.
Working in a realist vein, the artists featured in True to Life kept faith with a traditional, representational approach at a time when it came under attack by modernists such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. When abstraction, Pop Art and Conceptual Art became major forces in the post-war era, these figurative artists – many of whom were still alive – fell spectacularly out of fashion.
Stanley Spencer (five of whose paintings feature in the exhibition) has always remained a celebrated figure, but many of his contemporaries – such as Gladys Hynes, Pamela Bianco, Cosmo Clark, Leonard Campbell Taylor and David Jagger – who were celebrated at the time, are now virtually unknown, even to specialists.
True to Life focuses in particular on the tight, obsessively detailed kind of realism, which is typical of artists such as Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, Meredith Frampton and James Cowie. These artists worked with fine brushes in a controlled, polished style, often using old-fashioned glazing techniques, where one thin, semi-translucent film of paint is layered over another, and the brushwork is barely visible.
Frampton beautifully captures the skin tones of his sitters and true-to-life texture of their clothing and furnishings. Some of the works of Herbert James Gunn, such as Pauline Waiting, painted in 1939, could be a template for Jack Vettriano.
Brockhurst was a hugely successful portrait painter, whose sitters included the actresses Marlene Dietrich and Merle Oberon, as well as Wallis Simpson (aka the Duchess of Windsor, wife of the former King Edward VIII) and the Duchess of Argyll. The artists’ devotion to craftsmanship meant that they worked slowly; Brockhurst spent two years painting the portrait of his companion Dorette.
Most of the artists in the exhibition were born in or around 1880, a period of extraordinary social and cultural upheaval, and many looked for inspiration and comfort to the art of the distant pre-Industrial past, particularly Early Italian Renaissance painting and the work of Dutch masters such as Vermeer. Across Europe, the aftermath of the First World War prompted artists to return to ideals of purity, order and unity.
The realist artists are fascinating not only in terms of their technical prowess and modernising styles, but also in their subject matter. They favoured subjects that embraced modern experience and referenced topical issues such as the changing role of women, new technologies, the rise in commercial culture and popular entertainment, and the growing interest in recreation.
True to Life also features examples of paintings commissioned to advertise the LMS Railway Company, including Restaurant Car (c.1935) by Leonard Campbell Taylor, one of the most successful, expensive and sought-after painters of the period. One of the great revelations of the exhibition is a huge folding screen, nearly six metres long, by Albert Rutherston, showing country pursuits. Made for the Exposition International in Paris in 1937 and bought by the V&A Museum the following year, it has been specially conserved for this exhibition, having been stored away for at least 50 years.
Other artists looked beyond realism to Surrealism, producing work of painstaking accuracy, but combining unusual objects in strange settings. This section will feature The Birth of Venus (1934) by Edward Baird and Le Havre de Grâce (1939) by Tristram Hillier, as well as works by Edward Wadsworth and Alan Beeton.
In the last decade a small number of True to Life’s artists have begun to re- emerge from the shadows, however the exhibition is set to become to the most important ever survey of this fascinating and overlooked subject.
Simon Groom, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, said: “Realist art of the interwar period constitutes one of the highpoints of British art of any era. It’s unashamedly beautiful and technically superb.
“This is the biggest exhibition of its kind since the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of the 1930s and shows the enormous range, depth and quality of the art of the period. I think visitors will find the work visually stunning and they’ll also make a lot of new discoveries.”
True to Life | British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 30s, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s Modern Two gallery until 29 October.