Circles and Squares by Caroline Maclean review – the Hampstead modernists

From Bauhaus to bohemian love … the intricate lives and art of interwar modernists are captured in this hugely enjoyable and well-plotted book

In 1937 the art critic Myfanwy Evans published The Painter’s Object, an anthology of new essays by leading artists of the day including Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Nash. While Evans’s aim was to present a snapshot of contemporary practice, it’s clear from her introduction that she wasn’t holding out for consensus. In fact, she suggested, the art world was currently in the middle of a series of all-encompassing “battles” between “Hampstead, Bloomsbury, surrealist, abstract, social realist, Spain, Germany, heaven, hell, paradise, chaos, light, dark, round, square”.

Evans’s breathless list was meant to be playful, but she was making a serious point. Within the broad church of modernism, you could find the cool abstract grids of Piet Mondrian, the increasingly politically engaged style of Picasso or, more recently, the curve ball of surrealism, as represented by Salvador Dalí and his lobster telephone. What made the struggle for dominance more intense is that much of it was being played out within a few streets around Hampstead and neighbouring Belsize Park in north-west London.

It wasn’t simply that British artists including Henry Moore and Nash had piled into NW3, attracted by cheap studio space and good northern light. It was that the area was increasingly home to distinguished émigrés, driven out of Europe by the Nazis’ conviction that modernism’s machine-tooled, mass-produced aesthetic was the product of a covert communism. Following the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, many of the influential art school’s faculty, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy had taken refuge in the Isokon building, a sleek new residential complex on Lawn Road in Hampstead that was the closest that British architecture ever got to the modernist ideal of “a machine for living”.

Above all, Evans understood that the current culture wars involved not just ideologies and manifestos but flesh-and-blood people. She knew all about the drunken japes, open marriages, shabby accommodation, ecstatic assignations and slow wars of attrition through which art got made in the 1930s. An affair with another painter, for instance, might bring someone towards a new way of seeing, while a feud with a flatmate could result in a sculptor’s violent change of direction. Artists continued to produce work in the midst of babies arriving, holiday leases being taken, motor cars giving up the ghost, savings running dry. And it is this human story – or rather these stories – that Caroline Maclean delivers in this hugely enjoyable and well-plotted book.

A good place to start is with Evans herself, quite possibly the only bona fide Hampstead native in this story. As a clever Oxford undergraduate she had admired the published art criticism of a young unknown painter called John Piper. Invited by friends for a weekend on the Suffolk coast – then, as now, an outpost of north London – Evans was picked up at the station by a fellow house guest who took her straight to the beach for a swim. He turned out to be Piper and they lived happily ever after, at least once he’d obtained a divorce from his painter wife who was already in love with someone else. Modernist life, unlike its art, never ran in straight lines.

The Isokon building in Hampstead, London, a refuge for Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
The Isokon building in Hampstead, London, a refuge for Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Photograph: UrbanImages/Alamy

Together and separately John and Myfanwy Piper worked through the implications of the move towards pure form that they witnessed in the work of contemporaries including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Nash. The Pipers worried that their erstwhile friends’ lofty, depersonalised approach to object and image-making actually constituted a political dereliction in these increasingly desperate times. In The Painter’s Object, Myfanwy included a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, which violently depicts the destruction of humanity by aerial bombardment during the Spanish civil war. Its brilliant horror was enough to nudge John Piper away from abstraction and towards a figuration of ordinary, everyday things, which he now reported seeing with a new intensity. Where once Piper’s landscapes had been as spare as an architect’s plans, now they bristled with churches, trees and monuments – all those dear sights that would soon be at risk of wartime obliteration.

More topsy-turvy is the story of Hepworth and Nicholson – how the sculptor and the painter met when married to other people and how they tried their best, as civilised people (not to mention positive-minded Christian Scientists), to avoid causing emotional pain. Inevitably, however, their inability to take decisive action resulted in extra suffering all round. Nicholson’s discarded wife Winifred behaved like “an absolute dear”, according to Barbara, who suggested that the two women should live together and welcome periodic visits from the man whom they both loved. Nicholson, conveniently, believed that as long as he stayed true to his own desires then happiness would automatically follow for everyone else.

Despite all the comings and goings, all three artists found time to practise their tennis, with Winifred perfecting what Ben called “a very pretty stroke”. What really threw a spanner in the works was the birth of triplets to Ben and Barbara in 1934. This was the sort of corporeal reality that abstract artists might find difficult to absorb. Who was going to look after the babies while Ben developed his “constructivist” painting and Barbara concentrated on her pebble-smooth sculptures? The nanny, of course. One of the happier results of the flatlined economy of the 1930s was that there was always a “local girl” around whether you were in Hampstead or St Ives, to mop floors and wipe noses.

Circles and Squares is a skilful work of synthesis, which draws on the piles of biographies that already exist of the principals and supporting players. Given the huge cast of characters, it is perhaps inevitable that there are times when the narrative starts to sound like a boho court circular, an endless list of who has left for the south of France and who has turned up for dinner. But Maclean never forgets that ordinary life matters too. Someone takes the No 24 bus into town, while Jack Pritchard, co-designer of the Isokon building, quarrels with his architectural partner Wells Coates over where the bins are to go.

Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists is published by Bloomsbury (RRP £30).


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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