Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean - review by Kevin Jackson

Kevin Jackson

Sex & Sculpture

Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists


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Hampstead: one of the few London districts to have become a national and international cliché. For many years, it was taken to be the natural habitat of the kind of people Michael Frayn affectionately spoke of as ‘herbivores’. To their admirers, such fuzzy creatures were tolerant, sceptical, humane, thoughtful and well informed. But to some – the carnivores – they appeared pretentious, affected, soft-headed beardy weirdos, arrogant and self-obsessed. For a long time it was said that the standard subject of the middlebrow English novel was adultery in Hampstead, though that sneer is now hopelessly outdated.

But clichés begin in truth: Caroline Maclean’s breezy account of Hampstead in the 1930s offers abundant evidence that the area really was a hotbed of new ideas, new forms and new ways of living. If not quite a rival to Periclean Athens or the Florence of the Medicis, Hampstead provided a home, over the course of about a decade, to a number of dazzling talents in painting and sculpture, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Paul Nash – most of the names that dominated interwar British culture and made the rest of the world sit up and take notice of our visual arts again.

Hampstead was also a generous host to artists from other countries, many of them already famous and influential. Into this category fall Alexander Calder, Lee Miller and two deserters from the Bauhaus in Germany: Walter Gropius (whose most enduring English creation was Impington Village College, which the architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner called one of the best buildings in England, ‘if not the best’) and the multi-talented László Moholy-Nagy.

During his years in England, Moholy-Nagy worked like a demon. He designed books for Faber, worked in advertising for London Transport, Imperial Airways and Abdulla cigarettes, designed interiors and window displays for a menswear shop in Piccadilly, took atmospheric, wild-angled photographs for several books (including one by John Betjeman, that least modernist of writers), made a documentary film about lobsters and contributed to Alexander Korda’s science-fiction epic Things to Come, as well as holding exhibitions of his own painting. Moholy-Nagy was keen to set up a British Bauhaus, but he could not excite many others about the idea, and in 1937 he went to Chicago, where he founded the New Bauhaus: American School of Design.

Another Hampstead resident was the painter Piet Mondrian, who stayed for two years before moving on to New York. Mondrian liked London very much: ‘he took pleasure in the wide streets, the mansion blocks in Belsize Park and the tourist sites.’ He told his brother that he loved the way that London combined the city and the countryside, which was something he had never witnessed elsewhere, and certainly not in Paris, which he described as a ‘toy city’ in comparison.

Hampstead-based writers were also an important part of this milieu, among them the art critic Herbert Read (later co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts), who became the informal spokesman for, and supporter of, Moore, Hepworth and co. Another art critic, the amiable Adrian Stokes (very much a cult figure some forty years ago, but largely forgotten today), flits in and out of the narrative in a tantalising manner – it would be nice to have heard more about him. And though their role in the visual arts was only slight, two of the country’s leading poets lived and hobnobbed with the artists: W H Auden, who was for a time a lodger with the artist Bill Coldstream and his wife Nancy on Upper Park Road, and Louis MacNeice, who rented the critic Geoffrey Grigson’s flat in Keats Grove.

And was there adultery in this Hampstead? Indeed there was. The noun ‘affair’ crops up again and again, and virtually every chapter seems to have a story about X leaving Y and Y jumping into bed with Z. Most of the leading characters were still fairly young in the 1930s, at the age when marriages are made and soon broken and children tumble onto the scene, bringing noise and chaos and financial strain. It was joyous for some, agony for others. Louis MacNeice, for one, suffered what amounted to chronic postcoital melancholy. He imagined ‘the pounding and jingling of bedsteads but somewhere in the hearts of the couples on the beds is a reedy little voice of query: Is this enough? Or is it what I really want? Or can this possibly go on?’

MacNeice put the blame for all this erotic confusion on Freud, who, by teaching that repression was a bad thing, led people to believe that fornication was a virtue. ‘We are a nation of sexual frustrates,’ he concluded, though that does not seem a fair summary of the romping going on all around the postcode. Freud himself came to live in Hampstead at the very end of the 1930s; a lifelong Anglophile anyway, he must have found Hampstead an agreeable place to die.

One of the things that the émigré artists and writers did not find palatable was English cooking. Gropius, for one, was horrified at the way the British destroyed their vegetables with boiling and assumed that it must be a sign of national Puritanism, if not masochism. The Hampstead avant-garde agreed. One of the minor revolutions they launched was of cuisine. The menu for the Isobar – a club in the handsome new Isokon building on Lawn Road – might have been from any foodie publication of a half-century or more later:

The pepper in the mills is Telecherry Black; the bread is made to the Isobar recipe from stone-ground flour; the coffee is blended to the Isobar formula and made in individual Melior coffee-pots; Delhi rice (8 years old and hill-grown) is always served with the famous Isobar curries (which are made in three strengths), whereas Valencia rice is used for risotto; the anchovies served in the Club are imported direct from Collioure, Pyrénés Orientales

And so on, and on.

Circles and Squares offers a valuable corrective to the prevailing view that success, fame and influence came easily to the Hampstead modernists. They emerged against the background of a worldwide economic crisis. Most of the artists were poor and could scarcely scrape by on the proceeds of their work. An exhibition in London in 1936 featured works by Gabo, Brâncuși, Giacometti, Miró, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Hepworth, Moore and others. ‘Not a single artwork sold,’ Maclean observes, deadpan. Nor could they comfort themselves with the chill pleasures of critical acclaim. Most of the major newspapers derided their efforts, especially when the artists succumbed briefly to the charms of Surrealism. J B Priestley suggested that the works shown at a London exhibition sprang from ‘moral perversions’, produced by ‘effeminate or epicene young men, lisping and undulating’. What could he have been hinting?

Circles and Squares is an enjoyable book, though it will probably be most enjoyable to those who already know a fair bit about the period. It is rather short on spirited advocacy and is unlikely to win over many converts to the art of the Hampstead modernists, especially among readers, British and otherwise, who are still repelled by herbivores. With the main text running to fewer than 250 pages, many of them filled with photographs, it is a good deal too short to convey much of an impression of the personalities involved. But it does evoke a sense of an era in which it was bliss to be alive, and in love, and bursting with creativity and the possibilities of making life and art in new ways.

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