“Buccaneer of the Antarctic”

“”Men go into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.”

Shackleton’s Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton, The Folio Society (£195)

“Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is one of the great figures of British history. The Irish-born British Antarctic explorer was calm under pressure, stirringly brave, financially impecunious and hugely loyal — a true buccaneer born into an Edwardian era, when radios, cars and aircraft were making exploration a technological business. Shackleton was not just the end of the line of Captains Cook, Ross and Franklin; he was the last British buccaneer, taking to the high seas in search of unseen shores. He risked his life but was fiercely devoted to the welfare of the men under his command. His boundless optimism (fettered by shrewd calculation) lifted all. To commemorate the death of Shackleton, the Folio Society has published a handsome new boxset. Shackleton’s Antarctica collects The Heart of the Antarctic (1909) (in two volumes) and South (1919) reprinted in full.

“On Shackleton’s first journey south, he served on the Discovery, which was to explore the undiscovered continent of Antarctica over two seasons, from 1901-3. The commander was Robert Falcon Scott. The pair did not get along; Scott’s strict naval discipline and mood swings left many of the team uneasy and discontented….”

Read the full review at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/buccaneer-of-the-antarctic/

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Wyndham Lewis’s “The Art of Being Ruled” and Elite Theory

In 1926 the British artist-author Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) published The Art of Being Ruled. This treatise of social and political issues was an unusual book in a number of respects. It argued that democracy was not the crowning achievement of Western civilisation but rather a means of suppressing the true wants and needs of the populace. Contrary to liberal intellectuals and supporters of socialism, Lewis argued that mankind in West neither wanted or benefited from democracy. It made no concessions to Lewis’s social milieu, which was predominantly Fabian and Marxist in outlook. A reprint of a selection of Lewis’s prose includes lengthy passages from The Art of Being Ruled, therefore a summary of its arguments is timely.

Lewis, Sorel and reactionary thought

During the early 1900s, Lewis was living in Paris and took an interest in politics as well as the arts. By 1906, Lewis knew of the writing of political theorist and advocate of syndicalism, Georges Sorel – “the key to all contemporary political thought”.[i] Sorel was translated by another Man of 1914, T.E. Hulme, who shared Lewis’s reactionary outlook. Sorel, a late convert to Leninism, may seem a curious hero for Lewis, unless we realise the overlap – or ambiguous adjacency – of Sorel’s traditional and reactionary views. Sorel admired Marxist analyses but conceded, “[Marx] did not understand that the feeling for socialism (as he conceived it) was extremely artificial.”[ii] Socialism is something that is imposed from above, not yearned for from below.

What attracted Lewis was precisely the anti-Modern, illiberal confinement that syndicalism imposed. “[…] the more you specialize people, the more power you can obtain over them, the more helpless and in consequence the more obedient they are. To shut people up in a water-tight, syndicalized, occupational unit is like shutting them up on an island.”[iii] Freedom from specialisation is to bar a working man from community; it robs him of purpose and solidarity. “The chief thing to remember in such a discussion is that no one wants to be ‘free’ in that sense.”[iv]

In his own book, Lewis took as his starting point Sorel, Spengler and Nietzsche. He first discounted the idea that social change is necessarily progress. He then critiqued democracy as a device not of liberation but of containment. “Bound up with the idea of progress in the democratic conception of social unification. It is this idea of unification inseparable from ‘democracy’ that Sorel, the syndicalist, is principally concerned to attack and if possible destroy. Democracy has for its principal object (both according to the revolutionary school to which Sorel belonged, and equally according to Leninism) the disappearance of the class feeling. The idea is to mix all the citizens of a given society into one whole, in which the most intelligent would automatically ‘better themselves’ and rise, by their talents, into the higher ranks. Such social climbing would be of the essence of this democratic society.”[v]

The delusion of democracy

Lewis identifies the functions of democracy as the undermining caste legitimacy and class stability, noting the mechanism of social climbing, analogous to the phenomenon that Pareto had previously described as “circulation of elites”. “For this up and down, this higher and lower, this betterment of ‘progress’ and democratic snobbery, with its necessary unification into a whole, suppressing of differences and substituting for them an arbitrary sale of values, with the salon at the top […]”[vi] Lewis states that syndicalism – considered a branch of Marxist class theory – implicitly accepts an anti-democratic principle of resistance to class mobility in favour of class solidarity for the advancement of that class or tradesman/artisan group.

There is a critique of the mass man – “crushed by debt and threatened with every form of danger, without and within”[vii] – being bombarded by mass media, closely followed by a discussion of education. The main functions of state education are to keep man placid and to direct his trust towards democratic institutions. “His support for everything that he has been taught to support can be practically guaranteed. Hence, of course, the vote of the free citizen is a farce: education and suggestion, the imposition of the will of the ruler through press and other publicity channels, cancelling it. So ‘democratic’ government is far more effective than subjugation by physical conquest. […] So what we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state.”[viii]

Lewis writes of class privilege substituting race privilege in terms of social status. As he would later write on this matter, Lewis was not a biological essentialist but rather a cultural essentialist and in a time before modern mass migration, he could – with the explicit exception of the USA – equate ethnicity of people with the societies of particular countries. He presents the idea of the English and Scots warring within decades should their public education values diverge and if old enmities were stirred by belligerent elites. He renames What the Public Wants to What the Puppets Want. Class division is as natural as division between species. What is unnatural is the claim by the aristocrats that there is no class division, something that the middle classes and the working man know to be the case.  

Lewis disagreed with Communism but he found the nakedly direct actions of the USSR elites refreshing. In a section entitled “The misuse of intellect”, Lewis describes how Soviet authorities curb the misuses of science and art as entertainment or diversion. By restricting the fields of science and art, the elite reinstate their essential qualities as mystery or craft. “They have taken in this respect the wisest and sanest step where both art and science are concerned, in curtailing the impossible freedom of art, and discouraging the people from gaping incessantly for new and disturbing novelties of science.”[ix] The freedom (real or apparent) afforded people in the Nineteenth Century was anomalous and unnatural. He suggests great books should be reserved for great people. “[A great book] should only be placed in the hands of those who are in a position to understand it. The people who read such books, after all, should be the rulers.”[x] It is worth noting that Lewis was opposed to abstraction in art, despite being the British artist who came close to pure abstraction in the 1910s.  

Ten years after The Art of Being Ruled was published, Lewis wrote, “Ninety per cent of men long at all times for a leader. They are on the look-out, whether they know it or not, for someone who will take all responsibility off their shoulders and tell them what to do.”[xi] For Lewis, the burden of choice for the average man with many concerns, was onerous and one which he would happily pass up, should the cost not be onerous. By extension, the cost demands of having to choose between political platforms of parties and then having the responsibility for being culpable through complicity with the results of endorsing a ruling party’s programme, are also unwelcome. In order to reach these conclusions, Lewis does not have to assume here that democracy actually functions as it is supposed to.

Lewis sees the promulgators of freedom are modern-day aristocrats, who have their own motives. “What is happening in reality in the West is that a small privileged class is playing at revolution, and aping a ‘proletarian’ freedom that the proletariat has not yet reached the conception of. The rich are always the first ‘revolutionaries’. They also mix up together the instincts, opportunities, and desires of the ruler and the ruled. They have the apple and eat it plan in full operation in their behaviour. It is they who have evolved the secondary, heterodox, quite impracticable notion of ‘liberty’ […] This type of freedom, synonymous with irresponsibility, and yet impregnated with privilege as well, is a very strange growth indeed. It will be found on examination to be the most utopian type of all.”[xii]

Later, there is a cutting disparagement of the notion of individuals being encouraged to “express their personality”. “Generally speaking, it can be said that people wish to escape from themselves (this by no means excluding the crudest selfishness). When people are encouraged, as happens in a democratic society, to believe that they wish ‘to express their personality’, the question at once arises as to what their personality is. For the most part, if investigated, it would be rapidly found that they had none. So what would it be that they would eventually ‘express’? and why have they been asked to express it? If they were subsequently watched in the act of ‘expressing’ their personality, it would be found that it was somebody else’s personality they were expressing. If a hundred of them were observed ‘expressing their personality’ all together and at the same time, it would be found that they all ‘expressed’ this inalienable, mysterious ‘personality’ in the same way. In short, it would be patent at once that they had only one personality between them to ‘express’ – some ‘expressing’ it with a little more virtuosity, some a little less. It would be a group personality they were ‘expressing’ – a pattern imposed on them by means of education and the hypnotism of cinema, wireless and press. Each one would, however, be firmly persuaded that it was ‘his own’ personality that he was ‘expressing’: just as when he voted he would be persuaded that it was the vote of a free man that was being cast, replete with the independence and free-will which was the birthright of a member of a truly democratic community.”[xiii]

People wish to be automata”

When we today are encouraged to express our personality, we are given a set range of options to choose from. It is a matter of selecting our favourite musical artist, mass-market (or arthouse) film, holiday destination or tattoo. The acceptable options are not rejection of materialist comforts or allegiance to the causes of holy war, racial purity or nationalistic superiority. Merely thinking such things is essentially criminal and saying the beliefs aloud is actually criminal. Lewis is describing a culture of conformity and expression through consumption which has come to pass. To Orwell, such social transgression was described in 1984 as “thoughtcrime”. “Lewis anticipated Orwell’s concept of “Doublethink” when he stated [in 1936]: “I mean independence in the real sense – not in the Alice in Wonderland sense of contemporary political jargon – where ‘Peace’ means War, ‘Neutrality’ means Intervention, and ‘Independence’ means Economic Servitude.””[xiv] Lewis is describing the modern type of the real-life NPC (non-player character in a video game), who has no interior monologue and repeats information from the mass media. Asking such a person to express his personality is little more than running a programme in order to check the output is as expected. It is a test or inspection, not any expression of individuality.  

“For in the mass[,] people wish to be automata: they wish to be conventional: they hate you teaching them or forcing them into ‘freedom’: they wish to be obedient, hard-working machines, as near dead as possible – as near dead (feelingless and thoughtless) as they can get, without actually dying.”[xv] Lewis detects in people a desire to be numb, to escape oneself, coupled with a strong sense of purpose and place. He dissects the modern state’s drive to dismantle the family, most particularly in the socialist state. He describes the state as becoming the breadwinner. Lewis is critical of feminism and female influence and foresees the rise of welfare state in a feminist era. “Since the great masses of the people are not likely to be in a position to prolong the family arrangement based on an individual ‘home’ (marriage and the family circle to which the European is accustomed), it will be abolished. That is the economic fact at the bottom of ‘feminism’.”[xvi]  

With mankind on the threshold of world government, what powers would authorities need and exercise? “People no doubt could be persuaded that they did not see the sun and moon […]” Consider how that applies to academia, mass media and social media of today and the way that impossibilities are advanced as unarguable truths.

The Art of Being Ruled is a remarkable book – remarkably prescient and remarkably brave. This reprinted edited version will make the ideas known to more. Let us hope that a press decides to issue an unedited republication. For now, alongside extracts of Lewis’s other social and philosophical writings, this version is a fascinating addition to any library of counter-liberal thought.

Wyndham Lewis, E.W.F. Tomlin (ed.), Volume 3: An Anthology of His Prose, Routledge Library Editions, 1969/2021, hardback, 397pp + ix, mono illus., £80, ISBN 978 1 03 211914 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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


[i] Prose, p. 122

[ii] Sorel, quoted Prose, p. 124

[iii] Prose, p. 153

[iv] Prose, p. 153

[v] Prose, p. 98

[vi] Prose, p. 99

[vii] Prose, p. 107

[viii] Prose, p. 108

[ix] Prose, p. 115

[x] Prose, p. 114

[xi] Quoted from Left Wings over Europe (1936), 296p Meyers

[xii] Prose, p. 136

[xiii] Prose, pp. 150-1

[xiv] Prose, p. 296

[xv] Prose, p. 153

[xvi] Prose, p. 185

Arthur Conan Doyle: Playing with Fire

Reception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional output has been unbalanced by the huge success of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Mike Ashley, editor of this selection of Doyle’s stories of the uncanny and incredible, notes that Doyle’s horror and supernatural stories outnumber his Holmes stories. Playing with Fire brings together his best stories, as well as the essay “Stranger Than Fiction” (1915), in which Doyle addresses his experiences in spiritualism and inexplicable (or highly improbable coincidence). He spent a night in a haunted house and was awoken by a fearful hammering coming from inside the house. He found no person or other cause was found; the doors and windows were bolted and locked.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a devoted reader and teller of strange tales. The morbid and uncanny often intrude into the Holmes stories and sometimes form the basis of them. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” both play on the reader’s innate repulsion towards the unnatural. Doyle’s first submission to a professional story magazine (at the age of 18 or 19) was a horror story to Blackwood’s. They declined; the manuscript was discovered and published in 2000. He was published soon after that initial rejection. During his years as a medical student he published stories occasionally, along with some medical papers. In addition to his detective stories and weird tales, Doyle wrote historical novels and science-fiction stories.  

Doyle’s attachment to rationality, science and logic warred with his fixation – even obsession – with the macabre and supernatural. Fascinated by telepathy and parapsychology, Doyle was in contact with the Society for Psychical Research during the late 1880s and joined the organisation in 1893. He exposed hoaxes, as well as considering some experiences potentially authentic. Doyle treated seriously the quest to communicate with souls and spirits, considering such activity as an extension of science rather than a contradiction of it. This took on a painfully personal aspect when Doyle’s son died during service in the Great War. He was caught out by the 1920 Cottingley Fairies hoax, which damaged his credibility. The editor notes, “Doyle’s ability to convince himself of what others saw as fakery was the same ability with which he could create living and breathing characters in his fiction, and powerful and memorable imagery.”

“The Captain of the ‘Polestar’” (1883) is inspired Doyle’s voyage on board a Scottish whaler in the Arctic. His narrator writes a diary of a whaler steaming ever deeper into the ice floes, commanded by a captain blind with ambition that seems irrational. They risk being frozen in and their ship being crushed to matchwood by the power of the ice. The captain seems gripped by madness, while the crew see visions of a ghostly apparition on the sea ice. The narrator is a man of science, sceptical, attempting to ward off his disquiet with rationalisation. It is powerfully atmospheric tale, that should have been longer. As is common with Doyle, he tended to end his stories before the mystery was wrung out of them.  

“The Winning Shot” (1883) is a tale about a mysterious Swedish sailor whom a couple meet on Dartmoor. The sailor is invited to stay in the family home and he develops an infatuation with the female narrator. When he is rejected he wreaks his revenge. “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) is about a beautiful femme fatale who destroys the men who fall in love with her. Her powers may come from the Orient, though the exact connection is left for readers to infer. Other stories are “De Profundis”, “The Parasite”, “The Story of the Brown Hand”, “Playing with Fire”, “The Leather Funnel”, “The Terror of Blue John Gap”, “How it Happened”, “The Horror of the Heights” and “The Bully of Brocas Court”, which deal with ghosts, visions, mesmerism, spirit communication, monsters and mental imbalance.

Most could be called stories of mystery or the weird, a few (especially “The Leather Funnel” and “The Terror of Blue John Gap”) fall into the category of the horror story. The stories have the characteristic brisk pacing, broad well-judged vocabulary and crime story format of the author’s Sherlock Holmes tales. As was a common trope, many of the stories are framed as diary extracts or dialogues between fictional characters. Although some work better than others – the aerial dogfight with a gelatinous monster is as fun as it is silly – all are diverting and worth becoming reacquainted with. All the stories have been collected in different volumes; seeing them together in one volume themed on the supernatural is very welcome. They work very well as a group, building a feeling of unease. It is an ideal companion for long winter nights.  

The only fault in this book is a notice apologising for any offence taken by readers upset by racial stereotyping or outmoded idioms. “We acknowledge therefore that some elements in the stories selected for reprinting may continue to make uncomfortable reading for some of our audience.” This is unnecessary. The publishing arm of a national library should not be apologising for reproducing the work of classic authors loved and respected by generations of readers.     

Arthur Conan Doyle, Playing with Fire: The Weird Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, The British Library, 2021, hardback, 288pp, £14.99, ISBN  978 0 7123 5425 7

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Decadence: A Literary History

The Decadent Movement was a late manifestation of Symbolism, principally in literature, that flourished in the final two decades of the Nineteenth Century. It is thought to be a largely British and French movement. It is considered to have lasted from around 1880 to 1895 (Wilde’s imprisonment), with 1914 forming the terminus ante quem for the Decadent Movement, as it was for so many fine de siècle movements. (The stature and reach of the Men of 1914 diminished the standing of the preceding generation.) This collection of academic papers seeks to expand our common understanding of Decadence. Topics include fine art, poetry, theatre, cinema, prose, music, politics, antiquity and other areas, with academic authors addressing Decadence in relation to countries other than Great Britain, France and Belgium.  

There are perennial problems of defining Decadence. Does Decadent art reflect or celebrate – even encourage – degeneration from seemingly stable, ennobling, aspirational moral and aesthetic standards? Editor Alex Murray somewhat fudges the issue, by claiming that conservative “moral hysteria” regarding Decadence was unwarranted, yet this reaction was one that the Decadents instigated, using the succès de scandale as a promotional tool and social ostracization as a badge of honour. Murray discounts the acuity of conservative opposition to what Arthur Symons characterises as “typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects all the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society; its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature.” Murray notes Paul Bourget’s commentary on Decadence with regard to Baudelaire, which bears lengthy quotation:

In 1883, as part of a series of essays in La Nouvelle Revue on ‘contemporary psychology’, Bourget published a wide-ranging essay on Baudelaire in which he set forth a striking thesis on the nature of Decadence. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Bourget’s articulation in this essay of a ‘theory’ of Decadence. In the most oft-quoted passage Bourget offers a striking triple analogy: in biological terms cells decay, leading to the corruption of an organism; society is an organism, and the individual is a cellular unit; under decadence the energy of the individual refuses to be subordinated to the whole, with the result that broader social energy dissipates and declines. These rules governing the social and cellular order also pertain to ‘the decadence of another organism, language’. Bourget’s analogy then leads to one of the most memorable, if misleading, characterizations of the literature of Baudelaire and others: ‘A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word.’

Murray suggests otherwise – stating that Decadent art does have meaning and is purposeful – but what lingers with us regarding Bourget’s critique is that it is one also consonant with our own era’s deconstructionism, Post-Modernism and political cultivation of a fractured society. The decomposition that Bourget sees in Decadence is something that seems apparent in relativism and multi-culturalism. Post-Modernism is an extension of Decadence, using linguistic and semantic games to undermine established orders with the explicit aim of discrediting and defeating “hegemonic majorities” (demographic or political) of masculinity, logic, the scientific method, Christianity, heterosexuality, whiteness and so forth. Bourget’s statement about the decline of unity and stability is significant not for what it tells about Decadence in 1900 but for what it tells us about the situation of Western civilisation around 2000 and immediately after. No matter how unstable, partial and self-contradictory those core values were, we respond to the emotional truth of Bourget’s observation that Decadence is a movement with social implications that atomise populations and undermine commonly held value systems, regardless of the intentions of individual creators, distributors and consumers of that artistic material. However flawed Bourget’s critique is of Decadence, it functions effectively as a critique of decadence.

Stylistically and politically, Decadence is as broad as any other form of Symbolist. However, Murray’s celebration of the recent expansion of the Decadence canon – or an expansion of what we understand to constitute Decadence – means that the inclusion of more women, non-Europeans and minor creators causes a diminution of our understanding of Decadence. By making the Decadent Movement broader, it also makes it (relatively) thinner, more diffuse. It becomes commensurately more difficult to say something meaningful about a movement that has expanded to encompass adjacent areas. This is the iron law of all academic disciplines: the demands of academia mean academics must find new figures to study and professors of new academic fields need to claim attention of other fields by appropriating established subjects to themselves, claiming unique insights. This leads to field creep and therefore dilution. When connoisseurship of a movement becomes a field of academic study – and a discrete body of committed individuals with shared aims and language becomes a tendency or sympathy diffused among unconnected individuals in many places and eras – useful investigation of that subject is doomed to depletion; notwithstanding how cognisant academics are of this tendency, it seems inevitable.  

There are essays on Decadence and the hermaphrodite, gender politics, Christianity and Swinburne’s poetry. Various writers pay attention to Decadence in the literature of the USA, Spain, Russia and Czechia. Hilary Fraser examines how the Renaissance influenced painters the Gabriel Dante Rosetti. Matthew Creasy explains how British Decadents responded to Verlaine. The periodicals of the movement (The Yellow Book, The Savoy) are summarised by Nick Freeman. The role of technology and science in relation to M.P. Shiel and Arthur Machen’s novels by Will Abberley is welcome. He suggests that the authors saw advances in science and technology as a front of rationalism that would founder on the impossibly unarguable redoubts of the occult and spiritual. Rationalism and materialism were foils for Decadent themes of the irrational, private and mystical and the Symbolist dedication to the archaic and anti-productive, for rationalism and materialism were associated with capitalism and bourgeois morality – enemies of the twin Decadent poles of the elevated and the debased. Kristin Mahoney expounds the relation between Decadence and what she calls “camp modernism” – “the persistence of fin-de-siècle styles into the modernists moment, and it similarly calls into question categories of periodization by allowing us to see how late Victorian aesthetics remained vital and present long after the century turned.” She identifies Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Sitwells as exponents of camp modernism.

This is necessarily a specialist volume but one which eschews jargon. Recommended for students and scholars of the Aesthetic and Decadent Movements and late Victorian culture.

Alex Murray (ed.), Decadence: A Literary History, Cambridge University Press, 2020, hardback, 530pp, 14 mono illus., $110/£84.99, ISBN 978 1 108 42629 9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


William Simmonds, English sculptor

William Simmonds (1876-1968) was an English sculptor and puppet-maker whose work has long been appreciated and who is now the subject of a thorough and sympathetic biography. Author Jessica Douglas-Home recalls visiting the artist while she was a child. She has consulted primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the artist and his wife, as well as archives of museums. The author situates Simmonds as a late practitioner of direct woodcarving in a line stretching back through the Arts and Crafts Movement to the artisanal creators working in traditional materials and idioms from the medieval period onward. Douglas-Home takes care to describe accurately places, people and events of Simmonds life, weaving a rich tapestry of Edwardian and early Twentieth Century life in England. Her touch is light and the book is a pleasure to read.

William Simmonds was the son of John Simmonds, a successful carpenter. An apprenticeship at his father’s firm proved unstimulating and he successfully petitioned his father to release him from the apprenticeship so he could pursue an artistic vocation. Simmonds studied art at the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art) (1893-8) and the Royal Academy Schools (1899-1904). Simmonds came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement, through his tutor Walter Crane at the NATS, which left an indelible mark on him and would guide his artistic career.

Simmonds found work as an illustrator of classic literature. Simmonds received commissions for illustrations in the golden age for book illustration – after the invention of low-cost colour metal-plate lithography, in a time when line-block graphics were common in books and newspapers before waves of austerity and photography made illustration into supplementary (and ultimately dispensable) ornamentation. Examples show Simmonds to be skilled but unremarkable as a pictorial artist.

Simmonds was hired as an assistant on a mural project under Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), his former RA tutor. Abbey was an American illustrator who had entered the RA as a painter and was enjoying considerable success as both a painter and illustrator – too much success. His huge workload was onerous and sapped his health. Abbey’s refusal to compromise on historical accuracy meant that his work was slower than it would otherwise have been. Simmonds worked on portable murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, though he is not always credited for his contribution.

In 1912 Simmonds and Eve Peart were married in London. Peart was a former student of Sickert at Westminster School of Art. Her knowledge, judgment and skills would make her an ideal companion and collaborator with her husband. She was noted for her embroidery and sewing skills. She would become the more financially astute of the pair. That same year Simmonds began carving wooden puppets for private family performances. Eve would design and sew the clothing. Eve was an accomplished keyboard player and would perform popular, folk and classical songs as accompaniment to the puppet performances. Performances ranged from vignettes and comic sketches to whole plays. Douglas-Home has not entirely solved the difficulty of how to convey the content of these ephemeral performances or the impression they had upon audiences, though she does quote contemporary accounts. Puppet performances were popular and highly regarded at the time and the author effectively explains the prestige that the art form had.

Simmonds found that carving his puppets and independent sculptures (principally of animals) in wood and stone appealed to him more than painting. Thereafter, sculpture became his primary medium. He took up modelling in clay in his last years as his dexterity and strength ebbed.

In 1915 Simmonds was invited to work on the development of a prototype of a landship, which became the first tank. Simmonds’s experience with joints and traction in marionettes came in useful in this project and he was apparently pleased to be contributing to the war effort in a way few could. The tank proved to be effective and broke the stalemate on the Western Front. Simmonds never received any patent compensation for his innovations. Simmonds then transferred to the drafting department of the de Havilland aircraft company. It was an occupation he would keep until the conclusion of the war. Eve worked at Kensington War Hospital. Some of the best sections of the book are those blending the personal experiences of the Simmondses and their friends into a narrative of the First World War. Douglas-Home’s account of the Zeppelin and Gotha air raids on London reminds us of the suffering and stress Londoners endured.

In 1919, released from war work, the couple moved to the Cotswold village of Far Oakridge. The house (with thatched barn, to be used as a workshop) was close to other artists and creative figures, thus was not as isolated as it might been. They were to remain there for the remainder of their lives. The connection to nature, immersion in English pastoral tradition and intimate contact to the living culture of rural working people provided comfort and inspiration to the couple. Simmonds frequently walked the lanes and was a patient observer of the fauna he encountered. His sharp memory and sensitivity is reflected in his carvings, which elicit warm responses from observers. The carvings were unpainted and with eyes of ebony inset. His artistic approach combines strong understanding of animal anatomy and a drive towards realism tempered by adroit use of simplification and stylisation. 

One constant visitor and active supporter was William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was a well-known painter, public figure and head of the RCA. He made valuable professional contacts for Simmonds and was a link to the heart of the London art world. Rothenstein made sympathetic chalk portrait of Simmonds, illustrated in the book. Simmonds and Rothenstein became lifelong friends and Douglas-Home touchingly describes their companionship and the sense of loss Simmonds suffered when his friend died in 1945.

The Simmondses were part of the set of Fabian Socialists and Arts and Crafts progressives, though it seems the couple did not have strong political beliefs, more temperamental sympathies. Other members of their social circle included the Bloomsbury Group and prominent figures in the arts and politics. Famous names crop up frequently in asides. Despite this stellar group of friends and collectors it is easy to see how – though still respected by current connoisseurs, dealers and collectors – Simmonds’s art is not as well-known as that of Gaudier-Brzeska, Gertler, Dora Carrington, Bomberg and other British artists of the era. The natural modesty of Simmonds’s subjects and the relatively small scale he worked at, have meant it is easy to overlook his work. General public taste has swung to Modernism and the appetite for the biographical content of Bloomsbury-related art finds nothing in Simmonds’s carvings.

Regular submissions of carved animals to the RA Summer Exhibition maintained Simmonds’ reputation as a sculptor. The 1922 “International Theatre Exhibition” at the V&A led to prominent newspaper reviews and his name became widely known in Britain. Performances of the Simmondses’ marionette shows in their region and at London venues were very successful, drawing large audiences and enthusiastic newspaper notices. Later performances included celebrity attendees, including Churchill and H.G. Wells. The author notes the financial support that Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery in London provided during the years of the Great Depression. Her famous clientele (including royalty) added prestige to the material benefits artists reaped. Sadly, we do not get much indication of exact figures paid for pieces or an overview of how much the Simmondses’ income was and whence it came.

When war broke out in 1939, Simmonds volunteered for ARP work. There were many RAF airfields in Gloucestershire and there were bombing raids and dogfights over the area. When Sir Stafford Cripps moved to Far Oakridge, he and his family became good friends with the Simmondses. Simmonds’s natural charm and modesty won over many, it seems. As their social circle narrowed in the post-war years, their lives became less eventful, it seems. Simmonds died in 1968 and Eva in 1980.

Illustrations include photographs of the Simmondses, their friends and the marionettes and sculptures. Although the range is necessarily limited, the images give a fair impression of Simmonds’ skill. Examples include carvings of rabbits, dormice, owls, swans, horses, hares, ducks and dogs. Vintage photographs of puppets and miniature theatres give us a sense of what the public saw of Simmonds’s marionettes at the time they were in use. A few of the artist’s book illustrations are included. Researchers may be disappointed by the paucity of endnotes; the author has opted for a general list of published sources and archives instead. General readers will not miss detailed references; there is an index.

Overall, this biography is a wide-ranging, intelligent and fair assessment of the life and work of a much-respected English sculptor. Let us hope that this raises Simmonds’s profile with the general public.

Jessica Douglas-Home, William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Unicorn, hardback, 28 col. illus./mono illus., 284pp, £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 75 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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