Landscape Painting in Postwar Britain
February 1954 is one of Roger Hilton’s non-figurative works held in the Tate Collection, London. The artist made a number of such paintings claiming to have been influenced by the work of Piet Mondrian whose abstractions in primary colours within black and white grids he had seen in Amsterdam. The difference was though that Hilton’s work did not simply explore colour and geometry of form; one can still discern references to the human body. The works of British artists of the immediate postwar years seemed closely linked to the real world, and particularly to nature.
The 1950s were a decade of transition, in which a dominant critical mode, especially true in relation to landscape – welcomed abstract painting that permitted figurative interpretation without enforcing a single reading. Notably, the painters associated with St Ives i.e. Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost were forging their own, unique language which would transcend constructionist limitations. They achieved this by experimenting with non-figurative imagery, often used as an expression of their response to the natural environment. In their painting there was a close connection between a concern for compositional structure, the act of mark-making and actual physical sensations (“caressing skin, grasping a body, climbing a hill, swimming in the sea, gliding in the sky”, as the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon stated in an interview) – a dual focus on the formal and experiential aspects of art.
The antecedents of this view were set by the artist-critic Adrian Stokes, associated with this group from the 1940s, and an ardent theorist of perceptual art, who wrote extensively about the necessity of the relationship between the artist and the outside world. He claimed that the true artist “claims that he cannot work without the conviction that his painting will be the equivalent, […] though in no sense the mere representation, of an outer experience.” (Critical Writings by Adrian Stokes, Vol. III)
In the immediate aftermath of the World War II which threatened sovereignty, fractured geographical and political identities and cultures and left the land scarred and damaged, landscape became invested with deep and special significance. During this time, Romanticism unsurprisingly re-flourished and the first psychological accounts of the phenomenology of place and space started appearing. Landscape painting became a visual manifestation of national identity which had acquired a great meaning in these circumstances.
Whilst relying on established notions of the British visual tradition, the introspective nature of wartime Neo-Romanticism ultimately allowed for the liberation of landscape painting from ideological constraints and the ease with which it assimilated modernism. War not only strengthened the idea of place and the landscape as a redemptive genre, but equally, in a counter direction, it encouraged the idea that art should set itself apart from society entirely, either as a perceptual investigation divorced from social enquiry, or as complete formalism. Modernism had brought a new emphasis on aesthetic appreciation and a reaction against mythical, historical and narrative tendencies in traditional landscapes. The work of Monet and Cézanne was redefined in a contemporary context and British artists, such as Lanyon, Heron and Frost, influenced by European and American postwar modernist models started experimenting with new approaches to landscape. In view of these foreign influences, the need to establish the existence of a strong, innovative home-grown avant-garde became imperative.
As institutional support in the arts increased, regional cultural communities were rejuvenated and British art started being promoted abroad. It is fair to say that landscape painting, an often overlooked genre, was an enduring and adaptable art form which significantly contributed to the integration of British art into modernism. (Feature Image: Patrick Heron (1920‑1999, Boats at Night : 1947, Oil paint on wood, support: 450 x 495 mm, Tate).