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1942 The Pattern of Criticism

With the Second World War well into its third summer, Singapore lost, and things going badly awry in North Africa, it is hardly surprising that the Summer Exhibition of 1942, the 174th, was a fairly low-key affair. Neither the Annual Banquet nor the usual Presidential Soirée took place. Four of the five back galleries of Burlington House were unusable due to bomb damage and though the number of works sent in was, at 5,763, up by nearly 200 on the previous year, only 845, fewer by 234, were actually shown. Of these, nearly half were by the Academicians themselves, exercising as ever their right to show six works each. “At a moment of stress for all like the present”, such conspicuous self-interest on the part of “one of the most reactionary of hanging committees”, in so drastically reducing the outside contribution, struck at least one reviewer, Jan Gordon, writing in The Studio, as a shade insensitive.1

Explore the 1942 catalogue

To rub it all in, the surprisingly extensive and wide-ranging exhibition of recent acquisitions by the Tate, that had opened a week or two earlier in the lower rooms of the National Gallery, was enjoying an enthusiastic reception. Brought together quite “unassisted by public funds”, as Gordon was at pains to point out, it was, he said, “a show of quite unanticipated richness”.2 It was indeed a wonderfully eclectic mix: ten Blakes; a fine group of pre-Raphaelites, Cezanne, Modigliani, Ernst; Lautrec, Tissot, Whistler; Sisley; Steer; Gilman; and much else besides. John Piper, writing in The Spectator, had especially admired the work of Rossetti, “his splendour at its best lasting and necessary”. He also thought the three Sargents “important, as Sargents go”, liked the Augustus Johns and found in Edward Burra and David Jones “two rich and strange imaginations at work”.3

It was quite an act for the Academy to follow, and it did its usual best. Its reward was faint and grudging praise. Yet just a flick through the catalogue reveals a healthy number of names still of serious interest to us today. Of the Royal Academicians and ARAs themselves, Tom Monnington, Frank Brangwyn, Gerald Brockhurst, John Nash, and Meredith Frampton were among those that chose not to show, but among those that did were George Clausen, Stanhope Forbes, Augustus John, Henry Lamb, Alfred Munnings, Lamorna Birch, Harold and Laura Knight, Frank Dobson, Ethel Walker, Dod Procter, Thomas Dugdale, Algernon Newton, Christopher Nevinson, Charles Ginner (Fig. 1), Richard Eurich, and Vivian Pitchforth.

Among the outsiders we find Lucien Pissarro, William Redgrave, James Fitton, Paul Drury, Siegfried Charoux, William Rothenstein, William Gaunt, Edward le Bas (Fig. 2), Ruskin Spear, Loris Rey, and Georg Ehrlich. All in all, here, one might think, was more than enough modern British material of which an imaginative curator might make good use.

Nowadays maybe: not then. Citing Degas’ dictum that “to be a genius at 25 is easy, at 55 very difficult”, Jan Gordon felt that a tour through an academy such as this,

composed largely of admittedly competent academicians, but with everything of a competitive nature ruled out, is largely a tour of souvenirs. One looks at the work of some well-known artist … and one reflects: “Ah yes; but I remember him.” … One feels uncertain whether Miss Ethel Walker’s two sea pictures are as good as something one has seen before, or are things one has seen before.4

He could admire a few things—two portraits of children by Henry Lamb; Middleton Todd’s “charming” Jean Penhaligon,hovering between the studied and the unstudied”; “a delightful child bust by Frank Dobson in silvered bronze”. Other honourable mentions included Siegfried Charoux, Georg Ehrlich, Ruskin Spear, Loris Rey, and James Fitton. He had good words too for Hugh Crawford, “unknown to London”, and the late Louise Pickard, “at last recognised by the Chantry Bequest”, which had bought her large Vegetable Still Life.5

If finding John Piper as The Spectator’s occasional art critic was unexpected, then to read words by him of even sparing encouragement was still more surprising. The Munnings debacle was still a year or two away, but the defacement in 1937 of the Epstein sculptures on the British Medical Association’s building in the Strand, from which scandal the Academy conspicuously stood aside, was a painful memory, and to younger artists and the more avant-garde, the Academy’s complacent irrelevance went without saying. Piper deftly got round the problem, if a problem it was. He declared,

The Academy should, for once, be visited. There are too many pictures as usual, and too few good ones, but the grand total is much smaller and the number of inoffensive and respectable works larger. There are perhaps a couple of dozen pictures worth looking at casually, and perhaps a single dozen worth looking at for longer—but that is rather more than any other artistic-adjudicated group exhibition this year. There is the same dead-weight of nonentity, and many pictures give actual pain instead of pleasure; but …6

—and it turns out to be quite big “but”—“those superior people who stay away from the Academy on principle, hoping that it will have died in their absence, will miss many things that should not be missed.”7 That “many” suggests rather more, perhaps, than that earlier “single dozen”. Perhaps the Hanging Committee was not quite so inept after all.

And so, yet again, the pattern of criticism repeats itself: the critic first parades his integrity in conventional abuse and condescension before going on to find in the Academy quite a lot to admire and enjoy, and rather more to tolerate. Among these, for Piper, were:

a very good Charles Ginner (The Old Paper Mill), a more than charming Edward le Bas (All-night Café) … Dod Procter has invented (for it is invention rather than vision) a nice colour-harmony in a small still life of Grapes and Peaches, and there are works worthy of their authors by Ethel Walker, Reginald Brundrit, James Bateman, and R.O. Dunlop—who has excelled himself in a large Dorset Landscape.8

He had good things to say, too, of James Fitton, Ruskin Spear, and Vivian Pitchforth, and even felt that: “British portrait painting, all but dead, gives some faint and fitful kicks in portraits by Lamb, Thomson, Phillips, Jackson and Thomas (the last showing Coldstream influence).” The sculpture, however, “looks en masse so repellent that no individual attention is possible.” Architecture too gets short shrift. “Never has academic architectural drawing been more affected and cheaply stylistic than at present. Most of the exhibits here are mannered enough to obscure the architects’ intentions, which may be a good thing.”9

Oh dear. This last swipe touches a personal nerve: for at no. 673 in the catalogue is a Proposed Home at Tadworth, Surrey by Thomas J.R. Winn, not merely an architect but my late father-in-law.

  1. Jan Gordon, “London Commentary”, The Studio (July 1942): 27.↩︎

  2. Jan Gordon, “London Commentary”, The Studio (July 1942): 27.↩︎

  3. John Piper, The Spectator, 10 April 1942.↩︎

  4. Jan Gordon, “London Commentary”, The Studio (July 1942): 27.↩︎

  5. Jan Gordon, “London Commentary”, The Studio (July 1942): 27.↩︎

  6. John Piper, The Spectator, 8 May 1942.↩︎

  7. John Piper, The Spectator, 8 May 1942.↩︎

  8. John Piper, The Spectator, 8 May 1942.↩︎

  9. John Piper, The Spectator, 8 May 1942.↩︎

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Explore the 1942 catalogue