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1933 Moderate Modernism

The 1933 Summer Exhibition demonstrated how a “quiet revolution” had taken place within the Royal Academy by accommodating into its membership painters who had embraced moderate forms of modernism and younger sculptors previously rejected for membership.1 However, this support for updated, less extreme types of modernism contrasted sharply with the more radical art exhibited by adventurous commercial galleries in London, who showed artwork by leading British and continental artists and promoted its avant-garde languages and ideals. Of particular note were the Lefevre Gallery and Mayor Gallery, both close by in Cork Street, that offered opportunities for British artists to press their claims about their allegiance to an international modernism alongside major foreign artists. They also allowed younger London audiences to see at first-hand British and European art, with shared aesthetic tastes, displayed together.

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Opening in April 1933, the Mayor Gallery, directed by F.H. Mayor and Douglas Cooper provided the most up-to-date, Bauhaus-inspired space in which to view recent British and continental art in sympathetic, all-white galleries. Its streamlined environment, high-tech lighting, and spare display contrasted with the old-fashioned galleries and conservative curatorial hang employed at Burlington House. The Mayor Gallery’s first show titled An Exhibition of Recent Paintings by English, French and German Artists2 set the progressive tone and it was applauded by The Observer critic, P.G. Konody for “displaying a very representative, cosmopolitan collection of works showing the more recent derivations from and developments of Cubism”.3 The Time’s critic similarly commended the Mayor Gallery for its enterprising commitment to contemporary trends:

We have not seen in London an exhibition that was so frankly and consistently of the moment. One useful effect is to clear the ground and to make it quite evident that the kind of picture which is being produced since the advent of Cubism is an entirely different category from … that which was being produced before.4

Such arguments lent further credence, if needed, to the view that the Academy Summer Exhibition, in spite of recent changes, was still lagging behind artistic innovations already underway in Britain, which looked to post-cubist modelling and abstract formalism as features to emulate—modernist styles that had seemingly by-passed many Academicians.

In modern sculpture, this debate was framed in terms of older Academicians’ use of traditional casting techniques and modernist supporters’ open embrace of direct carving. The longevity of this casting tradition was evidenced by two bronze portrait busts by Frank Dobson, Anthony Crossley Esq. MP and Lady Dorothea Ashley Cooper (Fig.1) shown this year. Although Dobson had represented Britain at the previous year’s Venice Biennale, when nominated for Academy Associateship later in December 1933, his application was unsuccessful. This rejection, in part, was a reaction to the way in which Dobson was seen as working in the French tradition of modern sculpture after Auguste Rodin and how his sculptural language was indebted to the work of Jacob Epstein and Aristide Maillol. For many English critics, notably Stanley Casson in his book XXth Century Sculptors, published in 1930, Dobson’s sculpture was a lamentable abandoning of British sculptural traditions and its vernacular forms.5 

Nevertheless, some of the sculpture displayed in 1933 signalled that the languages of moderate modernism, previously promoted outside the Academy, were now being embraced by the Academy’s Selection and Hanging Committees. In 1933, the critic Kineton Parkes had first detected signs of this tentative acceptance in the 1929 Summer Exhibition when he declared positively:

Given the assumption that the advanced sculptors do not exhibit at the Royal Academy, it is a matter of warm congratulation that this year the exhibition includes a number of works in stone and bronze which testify to a decidedly healthy state of modern sculpture … British sculpture is awakening and the dawn holds promises afforded by excellent performances.6

By 1933, Parkes identified these ambitions explicitly with sculptors’ embrace of direct carving:

The exhibition of carved sculpture at the Royal Academy has at length reached really imposing proportions … now we can take the understanding of direct carving as fait accompli … This is well and it is this very largely that has created the revolution in sculpture at the Royal Academy.7 

These innovators included established artists Glyn Philpot, Gilbert Bayes, and Richard Louis Garbe, alongside more recently appointed Academicians: William Reid Dick (elected ARA in 1928), Gilbert Ledward (who had been Professor of Sculpture in the RA Schools from 1926–1929 and elected ARA in 1932), Frank Dobson (who started showing at the RA in 1933), William McMillan (elected RA in 1933), and Charles Wheeler (who would be elected ARA in 1934 and become President in 1956).

Many ambitious British sculptors had also forged new creative roles for themselves in important state and corporate commissions in the 1930s as part of professional collaborations undertaken between modern sculptors, designers, and architects that demonstrated a commitment to sculpture’s role within architectural decoration. Ledward’s Ceres (1932) (Fig. 2), a component of an architectural group was displayed in the 1933 show and attracted particular praise from Parkes: “this massive piece dominates the gallery, and it is a dominating idea carried out by an artist as a true workman’s job, as was done in the Gothic period, and often not done so well.”8 Eschewing radical forms of abstraction and overtly primitivist sources that signalled an extreme departure from anatomical accuracy, but embracing signs of a moderate modernism, sculptors such as Ledward, now members of the 1933 Academy Selection and Hanging Committees, advocated an appreciation for updated figurative and decorative sculpture indebted to classical, Renaissance, or archaic precedents.9 Their acceptance into the Academy further conferred authority upon the practice of direct carving—a technique applauded by Parkes and which R.H. Wilenski had advocated as central to “the Modern Sculptors’ Creed” in his 1932 book The Meaning of Modern Sculpture.10

  1. This term “quiet revolution” is used by MaryAnne Stevens (ed.), The Edwardians and After: The Royal Academy 1900–1950 (London: Royal Academy of Arts with Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988), 15.↩︎

  2. This show ran from 20 April 1933 and it included works by among others, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Ferdinand Leger, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Hans Arp, Ossip Zadkine, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, and Francis Bacon.↩︎

  3. P.G. Konody, “The Mayor Gallery”, The Observer, 23 April 1934.↩︎

  4. “The Mayor Gallery”, The Times,22 April 1933.↩︎

  5. Stanley Casson, XXth Century Sculptors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930). This point is made by Neville Jason in his The Sculpture of Frank Dobson (Much Hadham: Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 1994), 76–77.↩︎

  6. Kineton Parkes, “Rights and Wrongs of Academy Sculpture”, Apollo (June 1929): 341–345.↩︎

  7. Kineton Parkes, “Sculpture at the Royal Academy”, Apollo 17 (June 1933), 246–247.↩︎

  8. Kineton Parkes, “Sculpture at the Royal Academy”, Apollo 17 (June 1933), 246–247, and quoted by Catherine Moriarty, The Sculpture of Gilbert Ledward (Aldershot: Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 2003), 64.↩︎

  9. See Martina Droth, “Authority Figures”, in Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson (eds), Modern British Sculpture (London: Royal Academy Publications, 2011), 114.↩︎

  10. R.H. Wilenski, “Part V: The Modern Sculptors’ Creed”, The Meaning of Modern Sculpture (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), 161–164.↩︎

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