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This Enchanted Isle

The Neo-Romantic Vision
from William Blake to the New Visionaries

Peter Woodcock

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There is no need for us to travel to exotic locations in search of lost tribes. We have one of our very own, right here in the British Isles. This lost tribe was a group of British artists, writers and film-makers who lived and worked between the two World Wars and until the mid-nineteen fifties. They then became part of a lost generation.

These artists were known as the Neo-Romantics and their work had a great influence on post-war Britain. Raymond Mortimer, reviewing the exhibition New Movements in Art – Contemporary Work in England, first used the term 'Neo-Romantic' in 1942 to depict a group of artists who shared a similar vision. However, there was no movement or manifesto. These artists were brought together by the conditions of the time. They were greatly influenced by the works of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. Certainly European art had been an influence, first with the painters Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse, as well as the Surrealist movement, but the British Neo-Romantics were more concerned with depicting the qualities of their own landscape and culture. This particularly connected with the English tradition of art which has its roots not only in ancient carvings, but also in illuminated manuscripts.

Although the Neo-Romantics embraced nature as their source, it was not a benign, sentimentalised vision of nature. There was often a sinister, barbed edge to it. Ruined buildings to be found in the bombed cities after World War II, where nature had reclaimed its territory, was a favourite subject. Their landscape often portrayed allegorical images conjuring up another dimension, an unseen reality beyond everyday appearances.

Paul Nash is the key artist in the Neo-Romantic tradition. When he went to the front as a war artist in 1914, he was so appalled at the destruction of men and landscape, that when he returned to England, his paintings changed completely. His work became bolder, stronger and was more influenced by Vorticism and Surrealism. Although he integrated aspects of Surrealism in his work, he finally rejected any 'isms' and developed his own unique visual language. He explored aspects of the English countryside which evoked a strange, otherworldly atmosphere. The phrase he used to describe his paintings was 'genius loci' – translated as 'spirit of place'.
During World War II, when European and British cities were devastated, artists, writers, poets and film-makers reacted creatively in response to the nihilism and destruction. After the war, the availability once again of Europe, of the brilliant colours of the south of France, Italy and Spain, were like a breath of fresh air to our monochrome, camouflaged, rationed Britain. These sun-drenched landscapes permeated post-war society. Ancient myths re-emerged: Icarus, Orpheus, the Minotaur. The shores of the Aegean could be felt in the galleries of London. And yet this was not simply a return to nature, a sweet and light fantasy. Like mankind, nature can be cruel and sadistic. Our cities with their bomb sites still unbuilt in the early Sixties presented us with ruins and shadows, an almost gothic splendour which certain artists such as John Piper, Graham Sutherland, and John Minton, revelled in.

Neo-Romanticism was often theatrical, combining a sense of drama with the macabre. It is flamboyant, embraces decorative qualities and nostalgia. It looks back to a Golden Age, not forwards with the idea of progression to be found in Modernism. Yet nostalgia can be many things, as the writer Kazuo Ishiguro says: "Nothing wrong with nostalgia. It is a much-maligned emotion ... nostalgia is the emotional equivalent to idealism. You can use memory to go back to a place better than the one you found yourself in."
(Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro by Suzie Mackenzie, Guardian Weekend 25th March 2000.)

Historically, Neo-Romanticism died in the mid Fifties. However, the imaginative doorway opened by Paul Nash still reverberates today with painters, writers and film-makers, out of the mainstream, quietly pursuing the quest for 'something beyond appearances' which does not fit into the vogue for cynicism or self-declaration.

The prevailing culture during this period was, of course, the cinema. Many now see the Forties and Fifties as the Golden Age of British film in which directors as diverse as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Crichton, and Humphrey Jennings, captured both the realistic and imaginary world of Britain. But it was also the cinema which imported and popu larised a whole new mythology – 'the American Dream'. Seen as the land of plenty, of endless sunshine and readily available sex, America, or at least the Hollywood version, was highly seductive. Along with the Hollywood movies came the invasion of American culture. The Abstract Expressionist painters Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell stole the scene. They changed the face of art, redefining space and mass, emerging as champions of a new creative impetus which challenged Europe as the bastion of culture. Only later did we learn how much of a cultural invasion it had been, propped up by finances from the CIA to counteract the dangers of the creeping European Leftism.

After the war ended, it could be said that Britain went through a crisis of confidence. Through the following decades we lost connection with our own source, with our own cultural roots. Hence our neglect of the Neo-Romantics. Despite this, however, an undercurrent of art, films and writing on the images and writings of William Blake, the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley, the antiquarian discoveries of William Stukeley, the magical realm of Doctor John Dee, persists to this day.

Another element which embraced the 'genius loci' subversively crept into our culture during the Sixties. John Michell had reintroduced a new generation to the mystical concepts of a 'hidden' British landscape with his book The View over Atlantis. Michell, a radical antiquarian, brought to life the idea of a carefully laid out 'celestial' landscape linked by ley lines. Ley lines had first been discovered in the 1920s by Alfred Watkins, a Herefordshire entrepreneur and pioneer photographer. These invisible 'lines of energy' connect ancient monuments, prehistoric stone circles, churches, even nuclear power stations – creating another dimension of reality. It is this psychogeographical concept that writers as diverse as John Michell and Ian Sinclair have explored over the last three decades.
The British have always revered the land. For artists it has always been a major theme. In our art, literature, poetry and music, the landscape continuously evokes an atmospheric and often mystical presence. This presence is aptly summed up by Christopher Hobbs who worked with Derek Jarman: "The Britain Derek believed in perhaps never historically existed, but is always present."

While investigating the Neo-Romantics, one could easily ask: where does it begin and where does it end? Although the artists, writers and film-makers included in this book constitute the nucleus of Neo-Romanticism, there are other strands, other influences which I have also included. John Cowper Powys, that magus and under rated writer considered by many to be one of Britain's greatest novelists, is a forerunner to some of the ideas found in Neo Romanticism. Powys' dense and imaginative writing explores not only the world of nature and mythology, but also the world of the inner self. His sense of nature is at times dark and brooding, creating an eerie sense of presence as if we are about to accidentally enter some elemental realm. Arthur Machen, another lost genius, not only evoked mystical realms amid the hills of Wales and the streets of London, but set the scene for the kind of gothic horror also found in elements of Neo-Romanticism. That haunted novel by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, appears both as an opera by Benjamin Britten with designs by John Piper, then later as the film, Jack Clayton's The Innocents.

And what of today? Amid all the Brit-Art hype there are those who are still pursuing a visionary quest, exploring the spirit of not only the landscape of the British Isles, but the urban and inner city spaces as well. This Enchanted Isle is a plea for a return to the art of the imagination – art which concerns itself not only with the 'genius loci', but connects the viewer to a higher state of consciousness. We need not go far for our terms of reference. We have our own indigenous magic, our own vocabulary hammered out through the centuries from ancient rituals, stone circles, hill figures, the language of Shakespeare, to the newly evolving awareness of ecological and mythological issues. This does not mean embracing a xenophobic attitude. We live in a world rich with diverse cultures. But it would be a tragedy to lose contact with our own roots. Finally, This Enchanted Isle is only a taste of the vast and complex world of creativity which depicts the magical and spiritual realm of Britain. This book is certainly not an exhaustive survey. The artists, writers and film-makers chosen here are but examples used to convey the flavour of Neo-Romanticism and the spirit of place. There are many others. Some may disagree with the categories. I can only hope that it will encourage further investigation into this rich and highly rewarding area.

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