An Introduction to the Literary Analysis of English Art and Modernism 1900 - 1939 by Charles Harrison

Discussed in this essay are two books; English Art and Modernism 1900 – 1939 written by Charles Harrison, published in 1981 and Contemporary British Art, written by Herbert Read published in 1951. Although it may seem unusual to include the published dates of the books in this portion of the essay it is important to understand the different prospective each of the writers had. The dates show that Harrison had much more time to reflect on past events and this retrospective view point may have clouded his judgment or contain miss informed information in a Chinese whisper effect.

Where as Read’s book is most likely to have been written as the art was happening; he includes discussion about art work with dates from 1950 (only a year before publishing.) There are advantages to this method, the writer can write about the art as and when it happens, vibes and feelings about each movement can be captured on paper, such feelings or opinions which may be lost with time or hindsight.

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However, one must question how his relationship with the artists would have influenced the book enormously, quite possibly in a biased way. The way in which Read chooses to discuss the end of a time line could also be a disadvantage because he has not allowed himself any reflective over lap unlike Harrison.

Contemporary British Art attempts at fact rather than opinion, this is stated in the opening paragraph of the book “thought the reader will not expect the impersonal objectivity appropriate to an official report, I use formal phraseology to describe my aim because this is not a record of my personal opinions.

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” Does Read state this to try and avoid criticism about biased possibilities? It is a fairly systematically book going through the movements date by date, discussing some of the artists of that period; who they were influenced by and who in return they influenced. The read is short, interesting, precise and to the point, the text is not difficult to read and there seems no reason for it to be so. Although English art and Modernism in the 1900 – 1939 discusses a smaller time frame its account of English art in the first half of the twentieth century is much more detailed; when Read may only mention something, Harrison may go into much greater detail. The book breaks down the time line into headings and although on the one hand this may seem a useful system it may make the art seem quite rigid and contained within a group.

Reads starting point is believed to be the beginning of modern art in 1910 when the first Post – Impressionist exhibition was held. He discusses the main artists of the time; painters Branywyn and John and the sculptor Epstein, these artist have been described by Charles Marriot as being engaged with “the domestication of French Impressionism without prejudice to the native tradition.” On the other hand, although his book title suggests otherwise, Harrison does mention some earlier work before going on to discuss Sickert as in Read’s book. Beginning just before the actual focus allows readers to understand the origin or influences of the art in question. Read however beings straight away dealing with the “beginning” of contemporary British art committing it to a set date, this seems like a sweeping generalisation for something which must have happened over a period of time. This may tend to give the reader the impression that modern art is a totally separate idea which has no other background, almost as if it just appeared from no where.

Both Read and Harrison then go on to discuss a group including Sickert who were breaking away from Impressionism calling themselves the Neo – Realists including groups such as the Camden Town Group and the Fitzroy Street Group. In his book Harrison describes Sickert as an individual and was the most independent artist between 1900 and 1910, Read also mentions his greatness describing him to be the finest artist since Turner. He is praised by Harrison as helping to keep art alive during the war along with Gore and Pissarro and for his great influence to younger artist. The Camden Town Group are also highly praised in his book, observing their talent and unique style to be unmatched. Under the heading of ‘Post – Impressionism and the New Movement’ Harrison goes on to discuss the failings of Cezanne as does Read mentioning his unpopularity and his rejection by the likes of Sickert. Both writers also discuss the radical critics Fry and Bell at this point in their chronological accounts. Harrison goes into massive detail about both the critics and discusses their theories.

Reads next points are about Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism, Harrisons next chapter also discussing similar movements is titled ‘Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism’. Read briefly mentions the move discussing its origin where as Harrison goes into huge details about movements that were relatively short. Although one may have been worried about Harrisons grouping of art movements into chapters one can see here that it has not become a problem; he does not suddenly change and forget about what he was discussing in the previous chapter but manages to flow the movements together extremely well. He discusses the fall of Post Impressionism which was no longer to seen as extreme, Frys loss of his vanguard position in 1913 and the hostility he was receiving from the new young artists. The main artist discussed in this chapter is Percy Wyndham Lewis who was described by Harrison as surpassing the likes of Gore, John and Gilman, being on of the first artists to show Cubist influences. He is highlighted in Reads book as being one of the only artists not influenced by the Paris School and praises him for this but, does points out its failing in being too quickly introduced. Harrison talks about Lewis in huge detail and practically dedicates this chapter of the book to him; “the mechanical and geometric were upheld against the organic and the naturalist energy against sensibility will against morality, in the assertion of an ideology compatible with Humes.” Read on the other had describes his art as a mixture of English aestheticism and Latin intellectualism. Harrison also mention the London Group and their derivation from the Fitzroy Street Group and the Camden Town Group, he highlights the problems they experienced right from the start with the dislike of Fry and their shambles of a first exhibition. Also mentioned in Harrisons book are the very small upper class group ‘Bloomsbury Circle’ who were renowned for their homosexuality this was in great contrast to the Futurist and English rebels who were renowned for their aggressive heterosexuality. Harrison also mentions the huge influence that magazines were having at the time i.e. Poesia.

‘The Great War’ is the next chapter to Harrison’s book and at this point, Read also mentions the effect of the war on English painting. The war was taking over art; in 1915 Lewis quotes “the war had stopped Art dead,” Harrison also mentions how “Vorticism was taken over by history.” Read brushes over the war quite quickly but Harrison goes into detail about artist who were now fighting for their country, slowing the artistic process down. He describes how futurists such as Nevinson tried to take the beauty out of war and paint it; some of his works include ‘Returning to the trenches’ of 1915 – 16 and ‘La Mitrallcue’ of 1915. The tradition style paintings brought out much more feeling and emotion than the Vortists could ever offer, although they did try like other movements by adjusting their styles. Harrison carries on in his next chapter to discuss the artists who had been involved in the war, a lot of whom were members of the English radicals. The war had left a bad taste and the beginning of the twenties and was an extremely standard time for the majority of English art. 1919-1924 appeared to be an extremely confusing time for art and there was an eclectic mixture of classical, Post Impressionism, Vortisum and the Fitzroy Street Group. Harrison mainly discusses critics in this chapter but does mention a few small short lived groups for example the taking over of the Bloomsbury Circle by the London Group and the X – group which included Wadsworth, Ginner and Hamilton. These groups are not mentioned by Read but he does mention the Fauves who Harrison does not mention. He talks once again of Lewis and the Vortists and there huge influence on later ‘modern’ artists. Harrison goes on to mention another group which Read does not; the ‘Seven and Five Society’ whose aim was not to have a group theory but to express their own feelings and not to exploit others.

The two authors appear to have taken different directions at this point and although do both mention some of the same artists there are now few similarities between the books unlike the first sections. The two authors do not really come together again until the endings of the books when they both discuss Hepworth, Nicholson, Moore and other similar none expressionistic artist. After discussing Lewis, Read goes on to mention the tradition English painting which was making a small come back which such artists as Nash, Bell and Grant. He also discusses the influences that other countries particularly Germany and Scandinavia had on Expressionism. Read diverges a little here and mentions how between the sixteenth and nineteenth there was little good English art and this gave way for art from other countries to come in. The industrial revolution did not help matters either; there was no place for them at that period in history. Read carries on discussing the expressionists and the different types and levels of expressionism they had in them.

This excellently shows the merging that happened with art and that there was no clear cut lines and often perhaps art should not be placed into these groups. He mentions Henry Moore as one of the border line expressionists, although he does not fit in with the usual niche there are elements of the expressionist trends of Colquhoun’s and Sutherland’s. Read seems to think that because of his unique style he should not be placed in any group but expressionist is the title which best fits. Another group around at this time were a group of extreme abstract which included Nicholson and Hepworth. These artists were heavily criticised because their art often did not have any connection to the organic world which had never really been done before. Nicholson is discussed much earlier on in the time line by Harrison than he is by Read. In his seventh chapter ‘Still life and landscape in the twenties’ Nicholson’s paintings are largely mentioned by Harrison along with Nash. Their main concern was to bring art back to still life andlandscape; this is of massive contrast to the Nicholson we meet in Reads book whose art has no organic connections. Obviously this does not actually mean a contradiction but rather a contrast in the time and art they have chosen to discuss.

Also in this chapter Harrison mentions the huge influences of not only war but of industry, strikes and other political issues of the time. It is in his next two chapters that Harrison addresses the sculpture that Read discusses. He begins with the less controversial early works of Moore before going onto discuss Hepworth, Nash, Nicholson and Wadsworth; some of whom were members of the 1933 ‘English Contemporary Group’ many of who later went on to form part of ‘Unit One’ which Harrison dedicates a whole chapter to. Harrison carries on discussing the ‘Seven and Five group,’ introduced quiet a few chapters ago, this really shows the readers that although Harrison appears to be talking about a lot he is really only talking about forty years of history, this also reminds readers once again that just because new groups do come along, the old groups do not necessarily die out immediately. Harrison highlights Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore as the leading figures of the early thirties particularly Nicholson and Hepworth who were at the centre of modern art society. Harrison discusses their personal lives a little here which appears rather peculiar since this has not really been done before and is rather irrelevant. Harrison’s closing chapters mentions moments such as the Surrealists, Realists and Romantics which Read does not even touch on. The reasoning behind this may be that Dada and Surrealism, according to Harrison, were relatively unknown for their time and the movements may have even by passed Read.

The front covers of the book should also come into question when comparing the two books. Reads plain factual cover, sums up what his book is trying to embody; a factual account of contemporary English art. Harrison’s book however, shows the 1923 painting Edith Sitwell by Wyndham Lewis. This is quite a bold statement for a factual book, why was this painting put on the cover? Perhaps one should wonder if Harrison’s book contains more opinion that we first might have thought. Could it be that Harrison has favored Lewis here and therefore the same might be true for other artists, or could it simple be that the painting looked good on the cover; in fact, Harrison may not have even chosen the cover to the book. From the covers, Read book does look more factual and probably a little dull in comparison to Harrison’s book which appears far more modern than that of Reads. One should remember thought that Harrison did have more time that Read to put the finishing touches to his work and one should probably not dwell on this matter too much.

It can been seen then, that although at first the two books seemed very similar, perhaps only differing in the lengths at which topics were talked about it turns out there is much more diversity to art than one may first imagine. Both writer bring out the main artist of each movement and branch off from there each highlighting different artists along the way. Both books do well to concentrate on English art when here was so much influence from around the globe. Criticism of Reads book would be about his sweeping generalisation and perhaps is a little lacking in detail however, this does make for an interesting read where as a reader may find a small loss of interest in Harrison’s drawn out account of only forty years of English art. One should also question Reads relationship with the artists having an effect on his art at the same time as questioning Harrison’s retrospective view.


  1. Harrison, Charles English art and Modernism 1900 – 1939. London Allen 1981
  2. Read, Herbert Contemporary British Art. Pelican books 1951


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An Introduction to the Literary Analysis of English Art and Modernism 1900 - 1939 by Charles Harrison. (2021, Sep 14). Retrieved from

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