Circles & Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

There seems to have been a mini trend towards the publication of group biographies over the past couple of years. Perhaps most notably Square Haunting, Francesca Wade’s luminous account of five fascinating women who found themselves living in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the first half of the 20th century. Wade’s biography is focused on two central aspects: a specific geographical area (the aforementioned Square) and a common theme (a quest for independent living and ‘a room one’s own’).

Like its Bloomsbury counterpart, Caroline Maclean’s group biography, Circles & Squares also zooms in on a particular area of London (in this instance, Hampstead) and a unifying theme (here it’s modernism). While Circles isn’t quite as eloquent as the Wade, it remains a fascinating read – not least for the array of modernist artists, architects and writers we encounter on the page.

The book is structured such that each chapter focuses on two or three individuals (typically featuring a romantically involved couple) working in a similar artistic space. So, in the opening chapters we have the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben and Winfred Nicholson, with other associated luminaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Walter Gropius following in subsequent sections.

Maclean opens in September 1931 with the coming together of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during a fortnight’s holiday in Happisburgh, a small village on the Norfolk coast. It’s an engaging opening, capturing the carefree mood generated by the freedom to work, interspersed with swimming, dancing and playing games on the beach. Ben (married with three young children at this point) and Barbara (also married) fall in love, sparking a relationship that continues for the next eighteen years.  

One of the things Maclean does particularly well in Circles is to capture the fluidity of these artists’ lives, the sense of like-minded souls gravitating towards one another, irrespective of the collateral damage to marriages and other relationships. For Winifred, the breakdown of her marriage with Ben gives rise to conflicted feelings, painful at first, although these wax and wane somewhat over time. By contrast, Ben holds onto his own ‘subjective truth’ throughout, viewing himself as the centre of things and morally correct.

Winifred’s unhappiness is painfully apparent, and it is not surprising that she felt conflicted at times. Ben, on the other hand, believed that by staying true to his feelings, everyone else would be happy, eventually. A close friend described how they ‘thought they were freeing themselves’ from bourgeois constraints, and ‘they thought there was no such thing as jealousy’ but ‘it didn’t seem to work out that way’. (p. 24)

For a while, Ben shuttles between Barbara in Belsize Park and Winifred (in various locations), with both women showing considerable patience and grace during a very trying period. Eventually however, Ben and Barbara move in together, mostly settling in Belsize Park, although Paris also features heavily here. Triplets come along in 1934, cementing their relationship further, and the couple finally marry in 1938, less than a year before the start of WW2.

Meanwhile, in the early ‘30s, another modernist movement is beginning to take shape in Belsize Park, focusing on architecture as the enabler of a new way of living.

Designed by the architect Wells Coates, a modernist white block of flats that looked a bit like an ocean liner was built over the winter of 1933 and the spring of 1934. The Lawn Road flats, known as the Isokon, were built to free people from the clutter of daily life, to release them from household chores. They did not need to cook or clean so that they could focus on more important things like art, politics or love. (p. 51)

The Isokon building (which some of you may be familiar with) is born out of a vision developed by the charismatic architect Wells Coates and the forward-thinking engineer Jack Pritchard. It’s another fascinating development – not only for its contribution to the British modernist movement but also for its ambition to facilitate an alternative lifestyle. The Pritchards, perhaps more than any other couple in the book, display a nonconformist approach to living. Their marriage is an open one (with Coates actively involved in an affair with Jack’s wife, Molly); and their attitudes to child-rearing are equally, if not more, progressive.

Maclean is mindful of conveying the various tensions involved in the development of the Isokon, ranging from the multitude of financial issues to the more ideological or emotional ones. As the author rightly points out, there is a degree of irony here, nicely captured in the following quote.

There was an irony in the fact that Molly, Jack and Wells wanted to free people from the chaos of their lives when their own lives were far from simple. (p.76)

Subsequent chapters focus on other key players in the modernist movement, all of whom coalesce around Hampstead at some point in the 1930s, leading to some sharing of inspiration and ideas. For example, the sculptor Henry Moore and his wife, Irina – both of whom were present during the pivotal Happisburgh holiday in September 1931 – spend the 1930s living in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, just around the corner from the Nicholsons. Other British artists and writers who feature prominently include Paul Nash, John Piper, W.H. Auden and Myfanwy Evans/Piper (editor of the abstract art magazine Axis). The rise and fall of various artistic movements are covered too – most notably Unit One, a group of sculptors, artists and architects looking to ‘bring together a diverse range of abstract modernism and surrealism’.

The tensions between the different facets of modernism that develop during the 1930s, particularly those pitting abstraction and surrealism, are also captured in the book. While Moore is something of a moderator, adopting an open-minded outlook on both schools of art, Ben Nicholson is highly singular in his approach, viewing abstraction as the only form of modernism worth supporting. (In reality, Nicholson wishes to ‘squash surrealism’; Moore, on the other hand, regards it as restoring a much-needed element of romanticism to art.)

It’s also interesting to note how many European émigrés in the modernist movement spend time in Hampstead during the decade in question. Architects such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design, and Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus leading light, also feature prominently – as do the artists Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy. 

In summary, then, Circles & Squares offers a fascinating insight into the bohemian world of modernism flourishing in Hampstead during this influential decade. By using Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as focal points for her treatise, Maclean explores the lives of the various luminaries who find themselves in the couple’s orbit. As these artists, architects and designers continue to push the boundaries of modernism in their work, new ways of living begin to emerge, defining a movement that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of art and creativity. With the outbreak of WW2 fast approaching, the momentum behind the group begins to dissipate in the final years of the decade, leaving us to reflect on what might have been had the war not taken place…

Karen has also reviewed this book, and I’m in agreement with her on its relative strengths and limitations – in particular, the downsides of trying to focus on a wide range of individuals. In addition, a little more coverage of the actual art or architecture itself wouldn’t have gone amiss. For example, at one point, we get a tantalising glimpse of Barbara piercing a hole in an abstract sculpture of pink alabaster to make her legendary Pierced Form. It’s a ground-breaking move that transforms certain aspects of 20th-century sculpture, opening up the form ‘to involve interior space’ – and yet, artistic details such as this are relatively few and far between.

Nevertheless, Circles offers some fascinating insights into this dazzling period of cultural history – definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the modernist movement. 

Circles & Squares is published by Bloomsbury; my thanks to Karen for passing on her review copy.

38 thoughts on “Circles & Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a really interesting area to visit. Pre-COVID, I used to go to the Royal Free for my Raynaud’s check-ups every six months or so, and these trips often gave me the opportunity to wander around!

      Reply
  1. Liz

    I’ve got this and Square Haunting to read as a pair sometime. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, albeit with its limitations and I look forward to getting around to both of them at some point.

    Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    I’ve read positive things about both of these ‘group biographies’ (and also noted the caveats you mention) – but it does sound interesting. I wonder how far this was ‘a group’, or more just a chance set of encounters? Does this become clear in the book?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good question. I think the connections between Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore were certainty very strong (Moore and Hepworth had already met one another at the Leeds School of Art, if I recall correctly), but the links with the architects and other modernist were probably more tenuous. That said, as Karen pointed out in her piece, there was enough interaction between some of these creatives to generate a cross-fertilisation of ideas. It’s a really interesting biography with some fascinating insights, albeit with the caveats alluded to above.

      Reply
          1. kaggsysbookishramblings

            Tend to agree, Jacqui – there were times when I thought she stretched the links a little too far, though the people she included were always interesting. I do think the book would have benefited from a tighter focus, which might also have allowed her to spend more time on the people she *did* cover and also explore the art a little more. I was about to comment on your post but will include my thoughts here! I’m glad you enjoyed the book – I did too, with the caveats I put in my SNB post. I like group biographies very much, and this particular collection of creatives were fascinating. But like you I really wish there had been more on the actual art and architecture, which is quite wonderful, and perhaps less concentration on the bed-hopping. However, it works well as an introduction to the movement and is a good springboard to go off and explore individual artists. They were so groundbreaking that individual big biogs are perhaps the next best place to go! :D

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, yes, yes to all of this…and thanks so much for sending me your copy as it proved a fascinating read, albeit with these caveats we’ve both expressed. It’s interesting isn’t it, how the tighter focus of Square Haunting makes that book a more satisfying read than the Maclean? There’s almost more room for the subjects to breathe in the Wade, which makes it seem less busy or condensed. As you say, Circles is an excellent starting point, a springboard from which to explore certain artists in depth. I’d definitely like to read more about Hepworth’s art – and Henry Moore’s too.

              Reply
              1. kaggsysbookishramblings

                That’s exactly it – Wade’s book has so much more depth because of her concentration on only those five women, and also because her book is longer, which I feel makes it a much better book. I enjoyed Circles but I loved Square Haunting…

                Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Actually, one thing I forgot to say is that Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore all joined the Seven and Five Society, which was a ‘formal’ group of seven painters and five sculptors. Under Nicholson’s influence, the group’s focus zoomed in on modernism, and there were some changes in membership that reflected this. So the artists and sculptors were definitely ‘a group’, albeit with some tensions between different facets of modernism, such as the balance between abstraction and surrealism I mentioned in my piece!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s an interesting aspect of this type of biography, one that’s rooted in a particular location or place. Having read it, I’d like to return to the area and revisit it with a different perspective. As you say, all those lives playing out nearly a century ago with so many different dynamics in the mix – the desire to create groundbreaking art vs the various personal attractions and tensions at play.

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    Definitely one for me. Hepworth and Nicholson are favourites of mine and I’m very keen on Modernist architecture. Hoping to visit the Isokon House in the not too distant future. There’s also 2 Willow Road which I believe is more interesting from the inside that out but booking tickets is far from easy. Great review, Jacqui. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, Willow Road sounds interesting – I shall look it up! Thanks for mentioning it. The Isokon is a fascinating building, and Maclean’s insights into its development are really interesting to read. I’m glad you like the sound of it, Susan – definitely one to consider for your forthcoming trip!

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I enjoyed the view very much, as I did Karen’s earlier one in SNB. I’m very interested in the visual arts but have trouble getting myself past the 17th century! Circles sounds like a very good introduction to a very interesting artistic movement.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks, Janakay. I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. A you say, it’s a interesting introduction to some of the leading artists in the movement, and I certainly came away from it with a good overview. A fascinating book, despite the caveats.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Square Haunting is brilliant. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Very much a book I want to revisit at some point, along with the Square itself!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    When I saw you had reviewed this one, I was immediately reminded of Square Haunting, which I still haven’t read. It sounds absolutely brilliant, portraying a large group of iconic artists. Have you read Long Live Great Bardfield from Persephone? It’s by Tirzah Garwood about her marriage to Eric Ravillious and her life in the midst of the Great Bardfield artists. I think you would love it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t read it, but it’s going straight on the list! What an excellent suggestion. I love Ravillious’s art, so an insight into Tizrah’s life sounds right up my street. Many thanks, Ali. Another book for my Christmas wishlist. :-)

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    Interesting review . Although I do find the narcissism of male artists like Nicolson very enraging . I wonder how much looking after of the triplets was done by him. Not a lot I imagine.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I suspect you’re right. It’s actually quite galling to see him bouncing between Winifred and Barbara for quite a few years before he finally settles with the latter. I know it’s very easy for me to say this from a distance (without the inevitable emotional attachment), but I’m surprised that Hepworth put up with it given her position!

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        He had 6 children! Hepworth had hers farmed out to different people.
        I had a look at some of his art. He was very taken with Mondrian and to me his work looks like a poor man’s Mondrian.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          !!!
          Yes, I can see the similarities with Mondrian in some of his works. Others remind me of Picasso, especially his pieces from the 1940s and ’50s…

          Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    I remember Karen’s post on this and thinking how difficult it must be to cover such a big subject with so many involved without losing control of the material. It’s understandable that ‘Square Haunting’ works better with its tighter focus. But a fascinating topic and time!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. Such an interesting period of British cultural history. How glamorous it must have been to live in the Isokon at that time with so many residents from the creative world! Agatha Christie lived there for a while too, although I think that was in the ’40s…

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    I adore Hepworth so I’d definitely be interested in this, but it’s a shame there’s not so much focus on the art. I don’t mind a bit about personal lives but it’s most interesting when it’s used to add context to the art. I’ve not read Square Haunting either so I’ll add it to the list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think there’s a major exhibition of Hepworth’s art at the Hepworth Wakefield at the moment, which sounds like it would be well worth a trip. There’s also an illustrated book ‘Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life’ (probably a tie-in with the exhibition). I’d quite like to see a copy in the flesh, so to speak, just to have a flick through it!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Liz Dexter

    I thought you might have ended up with Karen’s copy and it’s great that you agreed on your thoughts. I think I would find the same but I think I will still read it at some point, maybe with a tablet and some images to hand.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good plan. I think the lack of depth in some areas is an inevitable limitation of a biography like this, especially when the author tries to cover a little too much ground. I would have liked a bit more on the Moores, particularly given Henry’s artistic and personal connections to Hepworth. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth considering – I’ll be interested to see what you think!

      Reply

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