Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns

Reviving native traditions, in modern ways

Frances Spalding


Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper
by Alexandra Harris
Thames & Hudson, $49.95 hb, 320 pp, 9780500251713


Romantic Moderns,like this year’s wisteria in England, is catching the attention of many. Both are very English phenomena; and while Oxbridge colleges and London’s residential streets drip purple blossom, this new title has won the Guardian newspaper’s first book award and been shortlisted for two other eminent prizes. Public interest has been further stimulated by word of mouth, while excellent packaging, in terms of product design and well-chosen illustrations, has turned this book into a popular gift. It is also the subject of much debate. Few would deny that by the late 1930s in England a concerted project of national self-discovery was under way. But surely this was a shameful retreat? Didn’t it mean a return to the past, to safe traditions and to a ‘Little England’ mentality, after the wider and more progressive embrace of international modernism? Or is Alexandra Harris right to talk of a modern English renaissance which, as it unfolded fully in the 1940s, proved bold, timely, necessary, and of undeniable cultural significance?

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Published in June 2011 no. 332
Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding is the Professor of Art History at Newcastle University. She has published fifteen books, including biographies of Roger Fry (1980), Vanessa Bell (1983), Stevie Smith (1988), and Duncan Grant (1997). Her most recent publication is John Piper, Myfanwy Piuper: Lives in Art (2009). In 2010 she delivered the Seymour Biography Lecture. We published this paper, titled ‘The Biographer’s Contract’, in the February 2011 issue.

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