THE SPIRIT OF PLACE
Malcolm Yorke’s The Spirit Of Place is one of my favourite books. At the time of it’s publication in 1988, I was twenty years old and you can be assured that at that time I did not have a Scooby Doo about ‘neo-romanticism’, nor any of the artists associated with it. My head was “elsewhere” at the time, but buried deep – and given to rise to the surface on occasion – was a burning seam of Romanticism that has become, over the passage of time, my prime directive. I attribute it to growing up on the very edge of a council estate, where the street stopped abruptly at the end of our back garden and untold acres of fields and woodland took over. It wasn’t all Wind In The Willows though, as cutting through the midst of it was the M621 motorway, industrial estates and legions of electricity pylons marching across the horizon. Such intrusions kept you grounded, and made you appreciate what was there with more intensity. And never were those impressions more intense than when I wandered through them on my own, my head full of who knows what, soaking up impressions that I would only put to use over 30 years later. Yorke’s book is a carefully-considered appreciation of other artists who all seem to have been similarly touched in their own ways, all now considered as key figures in the British Neo-Romantic art movement, that was at its peak between 1935-55. He writes with generosity and humour about all the artists he’s chosen to focus on, even when they behaved terribly and endured real hardships, and is not afraid to prick the balloon of pomposity where it’s required, or challenge prevailing attitudes to certain artists and movements (for example, I get the distinct impression he was underwhelmed by Surrealism and thought Dali was a twat of the highest order). This makes it different from the standard art hagiography, and ensures that all the figures discussed are shown as fully-rounded human beings, with all of their failings exposed, but also their ability to rise above those failings and do work that I feel is often overlooked in favour of weaker fare.
The book has been through a couple of editions, with cover designs I’ve never been impressed by.
As my own hardback copy is lacking a distjacket I decided to make my own (above), using a work by Graham Sutherland as the basis. Sutherland was the most radical of all the Neo-Romantics, producing works with unsettling details and a controlled ferocity in their creation that prefigured Francis Bacon (and it was Bacon who in later years dismissed Sutherland’s paintings from his Meditteranean period as “lesbian postcards”) and was at odds with most of his contemporaries. Only Paul Nash, the other key figure from the movement, came close, though the violence in his work came from his bitter experiences during World War One, the lingering effects of which shortened his life. Other artists featured in the book – Robert Coulquhoun, Michael Ayrton, John Piper – were radical in their own ways, all influenced by the steady flow of new movements from the Continent, while still determined to use those influences to define a particular British vision. It was Nash who coined the term ‘Genius Loci’ as a way of defining what he was trying to depict in his paintings, in essence ‘the spirit of place’, the indefinable thing that those suitably attuned can sense inhabits a particular location, be it Avebury, the mountains of Wales, the cliffs of Dover, or somewhere more personal to the artist, but imbued through the prism of their own emotions with particular significance. It’s that term I used for my own self-publishing venture, and if there is a consistency to my books and my own art then it is a connection to the places I paint and draw and write about, and how those places shape people. I have always liked Don DeLillo’s term ‘the unseen something that haunts the day’ and feel that’s a better definition of what ‘Genius Loci’ really means, and I think that’s what all the Neo-Romantics were doing – trying to delineate what that unseen something could be. If I had to define my art it would be in Neo-Romantic terms, but I’ve never wanted to be part of any group, and I don’t think any of the artists from that mid-20th Century era in British art wanted that either. They were all operating on their own, for the most part, creating idiosyncratic visions informed by their times, which is all you can do as an artist. Yorke does a fine job of drawing attention to these artists and detailing the context in which they lived and worked, and I recommend acquiring a copy, which though long out of print, you can get fairly cheaply second-hand.