The Last Romantics

I don’t own many art books, drawing most of my creative inspiration from literature, music or just looking out of the window, but this is one of the few on my shelf and it’s one I refer to often. The Last Romantics: the Romantic Tradition in British Art was an exhibition held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1989. Covering the period from the fag-end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 19th century through to the first stirrings of 20th century Neo-Romanticism, the works selected represent everything that Modernism was determined to destroy, and resolutely failed to. As unfashionable as paintings like these might be – perhaps even more so in the late 80’s when the exhibition was held – the best of them still have something to offer. For a start off, they’re really well painted, there’s an abundance of technical ability on display and when even a once-shocking work like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has been thoroughly deconstructed and neutered by the monoculture, there’s still something about this:

Edward Robert Hughes’ ‘Oh, what’s that in the hollow?’ that makes you pause and wonder what it is the artist was trying to convey. That sense of mystery, of ‘what is this?’, pervades the book, which covers a period when Britain went through monumental social changes, raising questions and concerns that the more engaged artists tried to address in their own ways.

Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Nativity’

Glyn Warren Philpott’s ‘Repose on the Flight into Egypt’

This book also introduced me to the fantastic work of Phoebe Anna Traquair (above, ‘The Hunt’), whose murals and book “illuminations” suggest a Blakean influence while at the same time anticipating Art Deco and Pop Art. That’s what I see in a lot of this romantic imagery, the evolution of ideas and themes that subsequent generations of artists would need to consider if they were going to make their own work with any kind of resonance. The fact that so few paid any attention explains much about the moribund state of contemporary art today. The influence of this kind of work may not be immediately apparent in my own, but as with the literary and musical influences, I’d like to think it’s in there somewhere.

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