During the 1920s young British artists began to re-discover the work of their Romantic predecessors. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain's national existence was seriously threatened, opportunities for foreign travel were severely curtailed, and the government sought to encourage a patriotic sense of identification and engagement with the landscape and its monuments.
In 1940 a scheme was launched 'to make drawings, paintings and prints at the war fronts…and on the land, and of the changed life of the towns and villages, thus making a permanent record of life during the war which would be a memorial to the national effort'. 1 What became known as the Recording Britain project employed many of the country's finest artists to produce over 1500 watercolours, which were exhibited widely before joining the national collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
John Piper's Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell, Berkshire is a characteristic product of this elegiac and backward-looking figurative genre, dubbed 'Neo-Romanticism' in 1942 by the painter and curator Robin Ironside. He observed:
'Among the artists to be considered here under the vague heading of "neo-romanticism", John Piper is, by temperament, most in tune with the national heritage... a romantic vision which, though still profiting from the lessons of abstraction, was distinctly descended from the English water-colourists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries'
'It is a vision that has revived the possibilities of the "picturesque" in the painting of landscape and architecture, possibilities which embrace the most dramatic of nature's effects and which Piper has developed with an unruffled skill and a vivid theatrical sentiment' 2
This insular movement faltered in the face of Abstract Expressionism and the pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and was revisited as Kitsch by the pop artist Peter Blake and his short lived Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1976. The subsequent resurgence of figurative painting, and a general reassessment of man's relationship with his natural environment, encouraged a revival of interest in Romanticism.
Despite their impeccably post-modernist credentials, the haunting sculptures of Rachel Whiteread evoke a romantic sense of yearning for a lost or unrealised past. Her sculpture House (1993) was a concrete cast of the interior of a Victorian terraced house - the most characteristic type of British residential property, and a receptacle of memory for their millions of inhabitants - which were demolished in untold thousands during post-war urban renewal. The interaction between a tremulous present and an inexorable past is similarly characteristic of the novels of Peter Ackroyd, whose dark mystery tale Hawksmoor (1985) includes the following:
'From the south wall of the church he could see an area which, although perhaps designed as a cemetery by the architect, was now merely a patch of ground with some trees, faded grass and, beside them, the pyramid. From the east wall there was nothing to be seen except a gravel path which led to the entrance of an old tunnel…although the grey stones of its entry suggested that it had been built at an early date…it had been used as an air-raid "shelter" during the last war and since that time had like the church itself decayed. Stories had accumulated around this "house underground", as the local children called it: it was said that the tunnel led to a maze of passages which burrowed miles into the earth, and the children told each other stories about the ghosts and corpses which were still to be found somewhere within it. But Thomas, although he believed such things, always felt himself to be safe when he was crouched against the stone of the church itself' 3
At the start of the new millennium, the history of 20th century art in Britain looks less like the triumphal progress of international modernism than the periodic reassertion of an insular, painterly figuration, distrustful of theoretical systems, and deeply attached to the art of the past. Although it has assumed many guises since the 18th century, the romantic spirit continues to haunt British art.
Footnotes1 T.E. Fennemore in 1939; quoted in D. Mellor, G. Saunders and P. Wright, Recording Britain, London 1990, p.7.
2 Quoted in P. Cannon-Brookes, The British Neo-Romantics, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1983, pp.17-18.
3 P. Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, 1985, p.29.Abridged from the catalogue of the V&A touring exhibition The Romantic Tradition in British Painting 1800-1950 (2002-2003). All the works illustrated are from the collections of the V&A, and many are on display in its Paintings galleries.