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Driven to abstraction

Isabel H Langtry finds a book that shines new light on Hampstead’s place in the modernist art movement an engaging read

22 May, 2020 — By Isabel H Langtry

Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicolson with the triplets in the Moholy-Nagy’s garden. Photo: Private Collection/Moholy-Nagy

LOOKING for a satisfying quencher if you have a thirst for knowledge about Hampstead buildings, and the remarkable group of people involved in the creative processes at a time that shaped culture and built Hampstead’s reputation as the European centre of creative thinking in the mid-20th century? Then look no further than Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists.

Did you know that a UK branch of the wonderful Bauhaus had been planned from Hampstead by Walter Gropius, the founder of the German Bauhaus movement?

Hampstead has attracted artists, writers and intellectuals since the early 18th century. Shelley, Byron, Keats, Reynolds and Constable loved the rural peace and the beauty of the Heath, only three miles from the City of London. Gainsborough called the Bull and Bush “a delightful little snuggery” we hear, and Ford Madox Brown painted his great canvas Work on the Mount, Heath Street.

The book brings to life the huge complexities of achievement and the sheer ambition involved in the production of modernist buildings.

Illustrating in domestic details the difficulties of life for the creatives who pushed the boundaries while suffering in poverty, but overflowing with ideas and ideals.

Barbara Hepworth is a critical figure in all of this, she was managing three babies in a semi-basement on Church Row. This speaks directly to us particularly now, when we have ourselves been confined in our personal spaces, juggling the emotional and physical challenges that the Covid-19 lockdown has brought.

Hepworth was dealing with a damp, cramped space, “the gas was leaking and the boilers leaking and the windows are falling in” she said to her friend Herbert Read. He encouraged her to send the triplets to the Wellgarth Nursery, believing that the Russian method of “bringing children up collectively” was best. Barbara realised that it was cheaper to send them to the nursery than to keep them at home, but she could not do it, they were still very young and very fragile.

She and Ben Nicholson, her lover and father of the triplets, were trying to arrange care over two house­holds. Nicholson at this time, we learn, was still married to Winifred. They had their own three children and an open marriage arrangement, supported to some extent by their Christian Science way of thinking, with its mystical focus, ideals of kindness, forgiveness, positive thought, and thought transference. It was experimental thinking, and in line with the times in Hampstead.

As an art student I had heard that Hepworth strapped all three babies on her back and continued carving. This may well be a myth, but nonetheless, it is a compact and impressive attempt to explain how hard Barbara found it to leave her babies and her drive to work. I loved Hepworth for this, I don’t mind if it’s a myth because mothers and fathers will understand the struggle and the enduring problem that work and caring remain.

We learn that another kind of experiment was developing in Hampstead, – architect Well Coates’s modernist Isokon building, a white block of flats that looks like an ocean liner. Its concept was to free people from household chores and enable them to focus on the important things: art, politics and love, a utopian concept that apparently created a less than tranquil reality.

By 1935, the year of abstraction, Hepworth was desperate to get back to work. There was an explosion of creativity, she and Ben Nicholson were at the heart of this great excitement which surrounded the Unit One group of artists, and the first publication of a journal dedicated to abstract art called Axis.

We are told that when Herbert Read the art historian who lived in Platts Lane met Henry Moore, Hepworth and the Axis group of creatives, he understood intuitively that they were involved in “creation rather than representation” and interestingly they all saw the value of art being at the heart of education.

Moore became the first patron of what was then the Hampstead Artists Council and remained so until his death, subsequently HAC became integrated into what is now Hampstead School of Art.

The Axis group, we are told, championed the work of others such as the untrained artist Alfred Wallis, a fisherman from St Ives who painted seas and ships and houses on scraps of wood and cardboard using boat paint. I have holidayed in Wallis’s house `– anyone can, it’s for hire.

There you can see one of his paintings in situ, hanging on an oversized nail as he would have done it – “the charm of the thing” as Nicholson saw it.

The book is a perfect holy grail for those of us that are fascinated by the culture developed in Hampstead at that time and the enduring complexities of human relationships.

I loved the book with its atmosphere of sheer creativity, risk taking and ambition in which art could grow, before the war ruined it all.

  • Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists. By Caroline Maclean. Bloomsbury Publishing £30
  • Isabel H Langtry is a sculptor and Principal of Hampstead School of Art


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