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.