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1961 Socialist Landscapes and "Yesterday's Bigots"

Reviewing the 1961 Summer Exhibition, David Sylvester announced “half a revolution” had taken place at Burlington House.1 In the Evening Standard, David Carritt declared the Exhibition to be “half-alive”, albeit with the shock of a coroner rather than the optimism of a medic.2 Change was indeed at hand within the Royal Academy: 1961 saw a sharp drop in attendance figures, the “lowest on record”, beginning a tumbling trend throughout the rest of the decade. By 1969, just over 44,000 people would see the Summer Exhibition, merely a third of the audience in 1960.

Explore the 1961 catalogue

This was reflected across not only the Academy’s year-round exhibitions but also in nationwide attitudes to gallery-going. As the press and the public demanded more energetic, internationally minded temporary exhibitions, something of an autumnal turn began to overtake Britain’s art institutions. For organisations like the Tate and the Whitechapel Gallery alongside the Academy, the first frost struck in fiscal reports demanding alternative sources of revenue and soon led to pinched exhibitions and public programmes.3

But what was the nature of the revolution Sylvester described? And what can the walls of the Summer Exhibition in 1961 tell us about concurrent attempts to stamp out apparently parochial and financially failing exhibition practices in favour of American methods reliant on corporate support? Looking exclusively at how landscape painting at the 1961 Exhibition resonated with British political and social debates helps to answer these questions, and separates certain works from the mass of exhibits considered unremarkable in a weak year condemned by many press reviews.

Two opposed approaches to the British landscape were on display in 1961. Henry Lamb’s Wiltshire Village, exhibited per convention following the artist’s recent death, represented one faction (Fig. 1). A wistful pastoralism is resurrected in Lamb’s painting as farm labourers relax on a verge bathed in golden light. The open, inviting road allows the painting to be read lyrically as the viewer is absorbed into an elegiac memory of pre-war British identity. In the same vein, Richard Eurich’s Early Morning, Lytham Sands takes a commanding view over a serene daybreak. Light shattering through diffuse mists over a sweeping prospect offers a soothing meditation on the traditional continuity of British landscape painting. Hanging together in a prominent position in Gallery III, Lamb and Eurich’s work assured the Summer Exhibition attendees that the sun would rise, the seasons would turn, and a conservative vision of our island would consistently mediate artistic and emotional responses to the British landscape.

Conventions appear intact and feathers unruffled. Yet works like L.S. Lowry’s The Onlookers and Carel Weight’s Dark Day heralded challenge and change. In contrast to Lamb’s supine bodies, both works focus the horrified gaze of the provincial working classes into the pageantry of the Exhibition’s private view. More invective was delivered by one of George Chapman’s depictions of the Rhondda Valley. God Save The Queen shows a mural depicting the royal crown (Fig. 2). The “E II R” inscription and accompanying British and Welsh flags to act as wicketkeeper for two children playing cricket. This stamp of state decoration is the only provision of bright colour in an otherwise drab landscape. There is a sense that, as a sardonic atmosphere prompted by the work’s title swells to a bitterness that pre-empts the Sex Pistol’s slogan of the following decade, at the onset of winter, Her Royal Highness has done little to ease the elderly ladies’ arthritic aches or repair the van’s broken headlight.

Work that refused to serve ongoing appetites for a mythic version of English or Welsh ruralism had of course appeared in the Summer Exhibition before. Nonetheless, for veteran journalists like Eric Newton, some artists’ attacks on the Academy’s traditional core were made all the more remarkable when, for the first time, “no attempt was made to separate the traditional sheep from the experimental goats.”4 Esteemed figures in boardroom portraits that seemed to define an atmosphere of “class … brass” and “stagnation” might now hang parenthetically contained and critiqued by Weight, Chapman, or Lowry.5 Aristocrats’ and admirals’ air of privilege became threatened by the severe proximity of psychological and material realism.

Chapman’s art subsequently became uncomfortably allied to both ends of the political spectrum. It was endorsed by John Berger, who had written about the “unlikely virtue” of provincial landscape and called for realists to muster “hopeful reference” to the modern, objective world, and by figures like Terence Mullaly in The Daily Telegraph, who denounced “the noisy propagandists of the abstract.”6 Through its assumed resistance to imported abstract expressionism (and its successors), Chapman’s painting, like Lowry’s too, occupied a popular ground that opposed the imposition of American formalism as much as the globalising curatorial practices that style often entailed. One example of these practices, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade ’54–’64 at the Tate Gallery, was met with a cold reception.7 Edwin Mullins of The Sunday Telegraph accused the curators of “discrete cowardice” in their capitulation to transatlantic influence. Suggesting “yesterday’s bigot’s have become today’s impressarios”, he raises the question of whether insufficient attention to stylistically diverse international artists beyond France, America, and the UK, ran hand in hand with new foreign funding models, either corporate or, in this case, from bodies like the Gulbenkian Foundation.8

Opposition to this form of foreign finance in the early 1960s ought be expected in light of contemporaneous debates around Britain’s proposed membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The nation’s financial integrity, like that of its art institutions, appeared to be under threat when, during the Summer Exhibition, on 10 August 1961, Harold Macmillan’s government officially applied for Common Market Membership.9 Importantly, the rhetoric deployed by Macmillan and his team to ease the nation’s anxieties regarding globalisation centred on evocations of the British landscape. In a 1962 speech, the prime minister told Britain that EEC membership would secure the interests of manufacturers and farmers alike, benefitting “all the people, the people in the great centres of industry like Tees-side, the people in the farming belts like those nearby”, while still enriching Commonwealth economic ties.10 The political advocacy of globalisation, in short, made pains to stress how the whole land, from cornfield to coalfield, would be blanketed in prosperity through international embrace.

Cultural advocacy for globalisation embodied by London-based exhibitions of international art that developed in the late 1950s, on the other hand, offered only “a negative white-collared attitude” neglectful of figures such as Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling—both from the recently decolonised Guyana.11 Comparing the exclusion of these artists with the role of George Chapman’s display of caustic regionalism within Burlington House establishes a matrix of racial and socio-economic issues that share opposition to American cultural supremacy manifest in abstract expressionism. This new internationalism became not only bleached and barred to talented, young, black artists but also exclusively conversant with an élite London-based conception of contemporary art. Chapman’s God Save the Queen, as a class-conscious interpretation of the decentred British landscape, undermines the Academy as a staging ground for the royal image and the exclusionist London art scene in a single gesture. Yet even when such subversive work was admitted, its heated and far-reaching interrogation of normative social values embodied by the Academy did little to counteract the continued accusations of insipidity levelled at the Summer Exhibition.

  1. David Sylvester, “Half a Revolution”, The Observer, 30 April 1961.↩︎

  2. David Carritt, “Insipid, Trivial and Trite”, Evening Standard, 28 April 1961.↩︎

  3. “It was known in January that the financial results, as revealed in these accounts, were the worst in the Academy’s history”, Royal Academy Annual Report, Finance Committee’s Report, 1961, 5. For an overview of attempts made to modernise Britain’s exhibition culture and corporate sponsorship around the beginning of the 1960s, see Andrew Stephenson, “Painting and Sculpture of a Decade ’54–’64 Revisited”, in Lisa Tickner and David Peters Corbett (eds), British Art in the Cultural Field, 1939–69 (Chichester: Association of Art Historians and Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 225–229.↩︎

  4. Eric Newton, Time and Tide, 4 May 1961.↩︎

  5. London American, 4 May 1961, Royal Academy press clippings.↩︎

  6. Berger’s advocacy for realism, that “has so unnerved the Formalists”, during the Cold War was targeted at supporters of abstract expressionism as well as reactionary elements of the British political establishment. See John Berger, “Unlikely Virtue”, New Statesman, 3 October 1959, 422, and “Staying Socialist”, New Statesman, 31 October 1959, 577; Terence Mullaly, “Royal Academy Rebuff to Gloomy Prophets”, The Daily Telegraph, 28 April 1961.↩︎

  7. In terms of actual work exhibited, it ought to be made clear that this exhibition already looked beyond the dominance of abstract expressionism to a new realism of the everyday embodied in the work of Marisol, Claes Oldenburg, and Jasper Johns.↩︎

  8. Edwin Mullins, “All Look and No Think?”, The Sunday Telegraph, 26 April 1964.↩︎

  9. See Patrick Cosgrave, The Strange Death of Socialist Britain (London: Constable, 1992), 80. James Gunn’s idealised portrait of Macmillan still hung in the Summer Exhibition’s Gallery III. The show closed on 13 August.↩︎

  10. Quoting lines prepared for Macmillan’s by-election speech at Stockton upon Tees in 1961, George Hutchinson, The Last Edwardian at No. 10: An Impression of Harold Macmillan (London: Quartet Books, 1980), 83–84.↩︎

  11. Mullins, “All Look and No Think?”. Guy Brett’s critique of the 1993 Barbican exhibition The Sixties Art Scene in London demonstrates how this problem endured into the 1990s. See Guy Brett “The Sixties Art Scene in London”, Third Text 23 (Summer 1993): 121–124.↩︎

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Explore the 1961 catalogue