Women and British Modernism

James Scott’s new book The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain looks at key figures in the Modernist movement in Great Britain over the Twentieth Century. These include Helen Sutherland (collector), Winifred Nicholson (artist), Lucy Wertheim (collector, dealer), Nicolete Gray (curator, scholar, collector), Myfanwy Piper (critic, editor), Margaret Gardiner (collector), Barbara Hepworth (artist), Peggy Guggenheim (collector, dealer), Erica Brausen (dealer) and Helen Lessore (dealer). The lives and works of these individuals sometimes intertwined, as Scott recounts. The author does not neglect the men whose art and activities bound them together. Scott wisely decides not to separate the characters, instead combining them into a single continuous narrative, with some chapters focusing on individuals or movements. This review will not discuss each figure individually, as some of them are already well known.

Helen Sutherland (1881-1965) was an heiress who followed the family tradition of collecting art. Her father’s preference was for Pre-Raphaelite drawings, hers was Modernism. She bought Seurat, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Winifred Nicholson, starting in the early 1920s, many purchases coming via the Beaux Arts and Mayor galleries. The Nicholsons’ combination of daintiness, flatness and unobtrusive subject matter made their Modernism more austere and refined than the paintings of the Bloomsbury Group. Sutherland knew writer James (Jim) Ede and poet-artist David Jones.  

Lucy Wertheim (1882-1971) was a collector and dealer based in Manchester. She had married a Belgian shipping magnate, which meant she travelled to Belgium and France frequently, which was how she met Walter Sickert. As well as buying his paintings, she worked closely with Frances Hodgkin. By 1929, she was also collecting sculptures by Henry Moore and Hepworth. She was also a collector and dealer of Wood’s before his suicide.

Nicolete Gray (née Binyon) (1911-1997) was the daughter of poet and art critic Laurence Binyon. She read history at Oxford University, which was where she met David Jones and became romantically involved with him. Jones, an unworldly loner, was an unsuitable match and Nicolete married another man in 1933. She was friends with another Oxford undergraduate Myfanwy Piper (née Evans; 1911-1997), who would marry John Piper, a leading Neo-Romantic painter. Myfanwy would be the editor of the leading inter-war journal promoting abstract art. Axis: a quarterly review of contemporary abstract painting and sculpture, which ran eight issues from 1935 to 1937, was a showcase for new British abstract art. It would also be a key link between avant-garde artists in Britain and the Continent. Abstraction had trouble gaining credibility, prominence and patronage in Britain, in contrast to the situation in Europe. Gray organised the 1936 Abstract and Concrete exhibition which brought together abstract art by Alexander Calder, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Naum Gabo, Miró, Mondrian and Jean Hélion next to pieces by Piper, Moore, Ben Nicholson and Hepworth for the first time in Britain, at a venue in Oxford.

Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005) became a collector and friend of Hepworth, Nicholson and John Skeaping. Gardiner and Sutherland became entangled in the messy affair between Nicholson and Hepworth, which was made all the more difficult because of their respect Winifred. Gardiner paid for life-saving medical treatment for Hepworth’s daughter. The formation of the Unit One group and the subsequent exhibition cemented the seriousness of British abstract artists and indicated an alternative to Neo-Romanticism, Surrealism and social realism as non-academic schools of painting for British artists. These artists and their patrons would be a support network for Mondrian, Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy, Gabo and other avant-garde artists and architects (many associated with the Bauhaus, which was closed by the Nazi government in August 1933) who fled to London from the rising shadow of the Nazis. Other refugees included Kokoschka, Schwitters and Heartfield.

Erica Brausen (1908-1992) is best known today as the first dedicated dealer of Francis Bacon. Scott notes that Brausen had a similar origin to Lea Bondi Jaray, Annely Juda and Ala Story, in that they were all female European emigrées who went into the art trade in the 1930s and 1940s. Jaray, Juda and Story were Jewish, while Brausen was not, although she did assist Jews seeking to escape Europe. Many in the fine arts were involved in the war effort. Some served in the military or worked for the government. Others raised money through auctions, exhibitions and publications.

Scott’s narrative sets out an alternative to Bloomsbury – the Hampstead/St Ives set – as a complicated network of intellectual, artistic, personal and romantic connections between members of the avant-garde in inter-war Britain. Scott makes a lively guide, well-informed and always seeking to draw meaning from intersections of group members. Scott has particular thesis regarding the unique qualities and conditions of women, which comes as something of a relief. He uses the stories and documentation of women’s actions within this network as a way to take a fresh perspective on the development of inter-war British Modernism, centred on London. This works well, as the author is not forced to fit observations into a polemical framework and he allows the subjects to be as various as they were, without drawing forced comparisons between them. Readers will find the index invaluable for finding references to specific individuals in such a complicated narrative.

There are many excellent illustrations of art that was made and bought by the women discussed here. Disappointingly, there are no locations given for the art works, making it impossible (using this book alone) to trace the subsequent provenance of art that passed through the hands of the collectors discussed in this entertaining book.

James Scott, Frances Spalding (foreword), The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain, Unicorn, 2021, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 191 349 1871

To read my ideas on the relationship between women and the arts, check out my book “Women & Art: A Post-Feminist View”, details here: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2022/07/28/new-publication-women-art-a-post-feminist-view/

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art