It is hard to recall just how blasted postwar London was. It wasn’t simply that more than 100,000 houses in the centre had been obliterated — another 2.8m were seriously damaged and, writes Martin Gayford, art critic of The Spectator, “Virtually every structure between Moorgate and Aldersgate Street in the City had been flattened.” The novelist Elizabeth Bowen thought that London looked “like the moon’s capital — shallow, cratered, extinct”.
And in the second half of the 1940s, London also felt like a cultural backwater. New York had the abstract expressionists, the jazz, the money. Paris had great jazz, too, but it also had Picasso, Braque, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Cyril Connolly, that professionally pessimistic writer, thought that London in 1947 was the “saddest of the great cities”, with unpainted, half-uninhabited houses, beerless pubs and careworn people mooning around “under a sky permanently dull and lowering like a metal dish-cover”.
Yet out of this apparently unappetising city, there grew the greatest generation of visual artists since Turner’s time — painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Victor Pasmore, Gillian Ayres, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin and Bridget Riley. To celebrate this achievement isn’t little-Londoner chauvinism: Picasso admired Bacon, while the great American artist Robert Rauschenberg thought for a while that London would be the new global art centre. And it was here, not in America, that pop art was first devised.
Yet, despite all this, there was no “London School”. Art history adores a school, a drawstring bag in which to bring together the chaos of individual talents and private experimentation. It feeds off the influence of one artist on others, on collective arguments, on joint manifestoes. And, let’s be honest, it’s a useful marketing device: we all know about the surrealists, the cubists, even the School of Paris.
London had groups: the derisively entitled “kitchen sink painters”, the Camden Town group and networks based around individual teachers (David Bomberg, Pasmore), or important exhibitions, or simply networks of friends. But the story of artistic London after the war is really, as Gayford’s careful title reflects, a story of mavericks pursuing their truths without manifestos, and mostly in solitude. Almost everybody quarrelled with almost everybody else. Nobody got fawned on. No style triumphed.
Gayford’s achievement is to give us a more or less coherent narrative, which embraces a vast range of painters and sculptors (his reach and his empathy are remarkable) and that absolutely avoids the hideous gobbledegook of art-speak, while never losing sight of the seriousness of his subject.
All the good stories, and more, are here. There is Hockney, failing his diploma at the Royal College of Art in 1962, until its principal, Robin Darwin, decided that it would be absurd for Hockney not to be awarded the gold medal for painting, which he could not get until he graduated. “So Hockney’s essay was reassessed, the marks added up again, and it was conveniently discovered he’d passed after all. The college needed him, it seemed, more than he needed the college.”
There is a great and telling story of Bacon, uncharacteristically down at St Ives in Cornwall, drinking with the bibulous and aggressive painter Roger Hilton, who told Bacon he was the only non-abstract painter worth consideration, “although of course you are not a painter — you don’t know the first thing about painting”. “Good,” replied Bacon, “‘I think my work is perfectly horrible. Now we can get together; you teach me how to paint and I’ll lend you my genius.’” (This is the same Hilton who told the extraordinary Ayres that she couldn’t be a painter because she didn’t have a penis.)
Then there is Freud, painting against the clock in his studio at Clarendon Crescent in Paddington, a neighbourhood occupied by criminals, drunks and tramps and in the process of being demolished by workmen. To buy a couple more days to finish a painting, he has to bribe the men with some bottles of whisky to delay the demolition of the house. As Gayford explains: “If the wrecking ball had come through the wall of his studio before that picture was finished, months — maybe years — of effort would have been wasted.”
What this story shows, I hope, is that Gayford regards the work of serious painters as being close to heroic. He writes extremely well on Bacon, explaining the importance of his “fertile chaos”, in which dust from the floor of the studio is mixed into the paint to provide the furry texture he is looking for. In other hands, that could have been a mildly diverting anecdote, but Gayford pushes on: “This fusing, so that the brushstroke and the thing it is representing become indissoluble, was a holy grail for Bacon.”
Everybody, in their different ways, was facing the same dilemma (and it hasn’t gone away): how do you convey deep human truth on a flat surface, with the vast weight of tradition loading your shoulders as you work, and trying to twist you into pastiche? Bacon liked to quote the French poet Paul Valéry to the effect that modern artists want the grin without the cat: “I want very, very much to do the thing that Valéry said — to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.”
A very different painter, Leon Kossoff, said something similar: “Nothing really begins to happen in a painting until you reach the point where conscious intention breaks up and ceases to be the thing that’s driving you.” Freud would quote Picasso, who, when people asked how his work was going, would quote a notice in the Paris trams: “Don’t talk to the driver”; and Freud would add: “because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
As soon as there appears to be a new answer to the old problem (as with the impact of American abstract expressionism and colour-field painting), the alert artist has to body swerve elsewhere. Gayford quotes Auerbach on the greatest exponent of unexpected swerves: “We’ve been told what modern art was, but Hockney’s paintings broke every rule about what modern art was supposed to be — and they were terrific.”
I am only able here to touch on a few of the many painters that Gayford discusses. This is a genuinely encyclopaedic work, unlike anything else I have come across on the topic, informed by a deep love and understanding of modern painting. Everybody interested in the subject should read it, if only for the pleasure of Gayford’s occasional gum-stingingly sharp judgments: the portraiture of Graham Sutherland, for instance, has the “air of a luxuriously handcrafted snapshot”.
London, of course, is only one part of the much bigger story of modern British painting, which has suffered from a complex reverse snobbery — really good art is supposed to originate somewhere else, in America or France, mostly.
The best British painters have been an awkward, cussed and hard-to-categorise lot, and this has meant they have been underappreciated, too. Gayford’s Modernists & Mavericks is, let’s hope, the start of a more generous understanding of what has happened in Britain.