Baroque Between the Wars: Alternative Style in the Arts, 1918–1939 by Jane Stevenson - review by Adrian Tinniswood

Adrian Tinniswood

Not a Straight Line in Sight

Baroque Between the Wars: Alternative Style in the Arts, 1918–1939


Oxford University Press 319pp £35 order from our bookshop

Clients who visited the Mayfair studio of society photographer Hugh Cecil in the 1930s found themselves in a curiously exotic room. The walls were silver and the ceiling was black. Where the fireplace had once been, there was an alcove of black marble and glass. It held a statuette of a Pierrot in black and silver. On the black carpet stood a black glass table perched on silver sphinxes. ‘Even the most obtuse of clients’, says Jane Stevenson in her entertaining study of alternative artistic styles between the wars, ‘will have recognized that they were entering the domain of black and silver.’

The domain inhabited by the decorators, painters and poets who fill the pages of Stevenson’s new book is lush and louche, replete with gleaming interiors, exotic dancers and the heavy scent of lilies. Stevenson’s declared aim is to demonstrate that those who rejected modernism created something new themselves; that, in her words, ‘much of what was going on which was not modernism was an equally cogent set of responses to the problems of modernity, definable as a modern baroque’.

There have been several attempts recently to reposition cultural activity in Britain between the wars, to challenge the easy juxtaposition of hard-edged, ideologically driven modernism and the anti-industrial nostalgia that was a relic of the Arts and Crafts movement. Foremost among them is Alexandra Harris’s brilliant Romantic Moderns (2010), which argues that those artists and writers who felt unable to embrace modernism didn’t retreat into the past but actually created a movement of their own. Stevenson readily acknowledges her debt to Harris, but Baroque Between the Wars stands proudly beside Romantic Moderns. Covering different ground, it is learned and thought-provoking, navigating a path through a labyrinth of artistic expression, the eclectic nature of which is itself an expression of interwar baroque. And any thesis that seeks to make connections between Chanel No 5, the Italianate village of Portmeirion in north Wales and the Ballets Russes, to name but a few, needs to make a virtue of eclecticism.

Central to Stevenson’s argument is the notion that interwar baroque was a queer style. ‘A statistically implausible number of men and women important in the interwar arts’, she says, ‘were gay.’ In fact that style, which, following Osbert Lancaster, is nowadays described as ‘Curzon Street baroque’, was at the time more often called ‘buggers’ baroque’.

Stevenson supports her claim by outing more gay and lesbian artists, patrons and performers than OutRage! and the National Trust put together. As well as the usual suspects – Cecil Beaton and Gerald Berners and Vita Sackville-West and Radclyffe Hall – she cites literally hundreds of designers and writers who contributed something, however small, to queer culture, and in so doing helped to define a coherent alternative to modernism.

Straight characters are few and far between. When they do pop up, their work often has a queer quality to it. So we learn that while the Russian neo-romantic artist Eugene Berman wasn’t gay, ‘his ruined landscapes and dead divas appealed to a gay sensibility’. Sacheverell Sitwell, whose Southern Baroque Art (1924) had a profound influence on the visual arts in Britain between the wars, wasn’t gay either, notes Stevenson wistfully. But she brightens up at the thought that ‘he expresses a sensibility more common in gay writers’.

At the outset, I felt slightly uneasy about this determination to see queer culture everywhere. Defining a cultural trend by the sexual preferences of its practitioners seems odd, even unnecessary. So what if architect Philip Tilden was ‘discreetly homosexual’? Who cares if Constance Spry and Elizabeth Bowen had affairs with women as well as with men?

But Stevenson convinces by sheer force of numbers, piling on the evidence until it seems as though it was queer not to be queer in the 1920s and 1930s. And this is one of the great strengths of Baroque Between the Wars. Stevenson has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the period and the style, in all its many forms. The book covers a glorious array of cultural activities, each with a chapter to itself, from architecture, painting, literature and dance through to Anglo-Catholicism, flower arranging and the predilection for unusual interiors. Ivor Novello installed a mirrored bedroom in his apartment over the Strand Theatre, complete with furniture veneered in mirror glass. Helena Rubinstein slept in a Regency-style sleigh bed made of Perspex, while her New York apartment was draped in cellophane. The poet Mina Loy decorated her Paris apartment with floral collages of metallic paper, with ‘coloured cellophane everywhere’, which sounds visually rather distressing. ‘Excess is an important baroque quality of the interwar use of flowers’, says Stevenson, after noting how Nancy Astor’s London house was ‘literally lined with lilacs for a ball’, and how Philip Sassoon covered every inch of unused floor space in his hall and gallery with sweet hyacinths. Excess is an important baroque quality, full stop.

Stevenson writes with gentle humour and a keen sense of the absurd. We learn that before Angus McBean became a photographer, he lost his job as a salesman at Liberty for ‘whacking a customer on the bottom with a 50-inch roll of tapestry fabric in a moment of uncontrollable exasperation’. Gerald Berners kept a pink, squeaking Disney pig at his ancestral seat of Faringdon House, because, he said, it reminded him of Vita Sackville-West’s lover Violet Trefusis.

The most obviously baroque manifestation of the cluster of sensibilities described in Baroque Between the Wars was the renaissance in mural painting. The work of the artistic heirs of Verrio and Laguerre was often found not in cathedrals and great houses but in department stores, restaurants and ocean liners. Domestic settings seemed unsuited. As Dorothy Todd and Raymond Mortimer wrote in The New Interior Decoration (1929), ‘Town life has become so nomadic that one often hesitates to have beautiful decorations done which cannot be taken away in a pantechnicon when one moves.’

The murals of Rex Whistler were exceptions to the rule. If the Tent Room he painted for Philip Sassoon at Port Lympne in 1931–2 is one of the great 20th-century interiors, then his masterpiece is the haunting fantasia he created at Plas Newydd in 1938, an evocation of a mythical world and a memorial to his difficult relationship with Caroline Paget, the bisexual daughter of another client, the sixth Marquess of Anglesey. Stevenson ends her valuable contribution to the cultural history of the interwar period with a poignant description of Whistler’s self-portrait as a gardener’s boy at summer’s end, sweeping up the petals of a fallen rose while his aristocratic lover sails her little dinghy away from him. ‘As an expression of sophisticated melancholy’, she writes, ‘it bears comparison with the English baroque of post-Civil War cavalier verse: the evocation of halcyon days, forever gone.’

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