To venture to the Ben Uri Gallery in NW8 is to arrive at, quite literally, a shop front – which once penetrated, courtesy of a common entry-bell, opens out into a wealth of treasures, some of which would not be out of place in the best-renowned museums of the world. Some of the exhibits in the current show are no exception. The conception driving this exhibition is, however, simple but powerful: fifty works spanning the first fifty years of The London Group in all its modernist radicality.
Crammed into its two (ground and basement) floors, this catholic selection makes for much neck-turning. Just as one espies a small Gaudier bronze bird swallowing a fish in 1914, Gertler’s light-footed, supple Eve diverts the gaze to an act of creation, made in the same year. Some artistic groups immediately conjure up a style (the psychologically intense painterliness of Bloomsbury) or avant-garde controversy (the primal, even feral, rawness of Vorticism) or specific, not always accurate, reputations (the supposedly bloodless precision of the Euston Road School).
It would be difficult to jam the London Group into any such category – from the deceptively gentle, astute realism of Harold Gilman’s enigmatic portrait of Sylvia Gosse (1912-13, a rare image of her) via Roger Fry’s oneiric-realist depiction of Nina Hamnett (1917, lent by the Courtauld) to Bomberg’s hard-edged Ghetto Theatre of 1920 with its regimented, glum but warm togetherness, not to mention later contributions, such as Jessica Dismorr’s positively vibrating abstract forms (1936) and Dorothy Mead’s near-mutilated self-portrait of 1960 emitting the blank chill of the Cold War.
The real value of this exhibition, however, lies in the conversations without words that these paintings conduct quietly with one another: the amazement in Stanislawa de Karlowska’s colourful produce on display at a fruiterer’s in Swiss Cottage (looking back, and reminiscing, from her newly adopted country to her Polish homeland, perhaps) in 1914 conversing with the exaggerated colours of Spencer Gore’s more radical impression(ism) of Gilman’s garden at Letchworth (1912). These are different experiences of Britain, with different eyes and from different backgrounds – but from around the same time – and they each slowly reveal their own viewpoint. And such dialogues reverberate almost endlessly through the exhibition.
Some works break the involved conversations to speak directly to the viewer – none more so, in my view, than Coldstream’s portrait of W.H. Auden’s mother. My turning neck was arrested at this point. This unassuming, but staggeringly immediate portrait in different shades and tones of yellow and brown steals the show. No reproduction can convey the shimmering immediacy of this woman in old age: thin, almost frail yet erect, severe. Apprehensive, strong and vulnerable, she stares into a future where the inevitable outcome must be death, yet the painter urgently but naturally invites further enquiries about her thoughts, feelings and emotions.
For an informative, entertaining and cogent introduction to Modern British art of the early- and mid-twentieth century, it’s worth taking heed of the ‘uproar’ going on in St John’s Wood at the moment.
Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 is a the Ben Uri Gallery until 2nd March.