Martin Gayford begins Modernists & Mavericks by making the point that postwar British art has come a very long way in terms of international acclaim. To indicate just how far, he quotes the price realised at auction by Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud in 2013 (a cool $142.4 million). He then sets out a plan to trace the development of British painting from the end of the war to the early 1970s, having chosen that somewhat arbitrary date, he says, since painting itself fell out of fashion then in favour of such new media as performance and installation art.
Such an undertaking is certainly welcome, since previous attempts to chart this territory have given overwhelming emphasis to the biggest names (featured in this book’s subtitle), leaving whole expanses of British painting during that rapidly changing era in shadow. To shed more light on the varied artistic activities that characterised those decades, Gayford draws on interviews he has conducted over the years with numerous British painters, from Victor Pasmore and John Craxton to Gillian Ayres and Frank Bowling, which give the story an authenticity and freshness that it might otherwise have lacked. He also makes no division between figurative and abstract art, claiming, with the benefit of hindsight, that the barrier between them was always far more ‘porous’ than those waging that strange, stylistic ‘civil war’ ever imagined at the time.