Circles and Squares by Caroline Maclean review: how the ‘Hampstead set’ reinvented modern art

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Molly and Jack Pritchard, who lived in the penthouse of the Isokon, pictured here with their children Jonathan and Jeremy on Hampstead Heath, 1934
Molly and Jack Pritchard, who lived in the penthouse of the Isokon, pictured here with their children Jonathan and Jeremy on Hampstead Heath, 1934 Credit: UEA Pritchard Papers, courtesy of Sally Pritchard

For a short time in the 1930s, London – or more precisely the peaceful, leafy suburb of Hampstead – became a polestar for modern art.

538prom精品视频在线播放Within a knot of streets about a mile square lived some of the 20th century’s most influential minds: the artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Piet Mondrian, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson; the art critic Herbert Read and the curator Jim Ede; Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus. In Circles and Squares, the art historian Caroline Maclean brings this charged decade, in which a slice of London bohemia debated endlessly how best to live and love, and shook British art from its stupor in the process, to glowing life. Bar a handful of moments in which the narrative loses focus, she recreates beautifully the strange mix of buoyancy and instability that characterised the decade.

The title is a veiled salute to the modernist set of the 1920s: the writers, artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group (Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell et al), whom the author Dorothy Parker quipped “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.

The book is loosely chronological, tripping from vorticism to abstraction and surrealism via some fairly tiresome-sounding mini-movements in between. That said, there is a lot of circling back and forward in time to inflate each individual member of the cast. And while that is deftly done, it is baffling to have to wait until several chapters in before the premise of the book is made clear. Similarly, if the book is about north London, why begin it in Norfolk, and among characters who never reappear?

Jack Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth working on a sculpture, about 1935 Credit: Hulton Archive

Hepworth and her first husband, the sculptor John Skeaping, were first to spot Hampstead’s potential. The downturn of the 1920s had carved up many of its impeccably rambling old houses into lodgings and workspaces that cost little to rent. In 1928, they moved into Mall Studios, a row of sweet live/work dwellings that in grander times had been state of the art studios for “gentlemen artists” to stroll across their gardens to after their kipper breakfasts.  The studios’ star attribute was a floor-to-ceiling, north-facing window, and Hepworth later described how happy she was to lie in bed on the mezzanine listening “to a blackbird singing in flight from tree to tree outside”.

The following year, she found digs for Moore (with whom she had studied at college) and his wife Irina, on nearby Parkhill Road. Here, over convivial games of shove ha’penny, the two sculptors bickered over who had thought to put a hole in their pieces first (in 1940, when Moore temporarily took over Hepworth’s studio, he admitted he struggled to tell their work apart).

538prom精品视频在线播放Other artsy types followed: Nicholson, by now Hepworth’s lover, moved initially to Parkhill Road but soon joined her at Mall Studios (while maintaining a relationship of sorts with his wife, Winifred – the book is full of open marriages and their fallout); the critic Herbert Read (chief champion of the new style epitomised by Hepworth and Nicholson) and his young girlfriend, Ludo (for whom he left his wife and child), and the architect Wells Coates, who livens the story up no end, ripping around Hampstead and Belsize Park in his Lancia Lambda and hosting Japanese dinners while sitting in the lotus position.

538prom精品视频在线播放Coates, who was condemned to a thatch of crinkly hair that rose in pomade-drenched zigzags from his forehead, designed the Isokon Building on Lawn Road (near Parkhill), a curvilinear, white rendered apartment block that is considered a masterpiece of the international modernist style.

Menu from the Isobar, the members' club in Coates's Isokon Building Credit: UEA Pritchard Papers, courtesy Sally Pritchard

Gropius and the artists László Moholy Nagy and Paul Nash were among its tenants, and mostly great admirers of Coates’ interior design. He favoured white linoleum, fitted cupboards, and ingenious gadgetry (I covet the wireless that doubled as a cocktail cabinet), all of which was intended to free The People from the burden of clutter and chores, the better to turn their minds to politics, art and love. From 1937, the Isokon also had its own club, where members could moot their utopian ideals while eating blue soup and bison tail. Once, they served “rook pie”, which Ludo declared she “did not like at all”.

Maclean relays engagingly how the parties that Ludo and Herb threw at Mall Studios, which they had kitted out with tubular chairs, a white sofa and Nicholson-print curtains, became “a kind of social glue in the modernist art world”. None other than Georges Braque and TS Eliot were regulars, and Virginia Woolf came once, though she annoyed Ludo by asking whether their home had once been a stable and later complained about “the hard chairs, the skimpy wine, & the very nice sensible conversion”. Read said she was “remarkable, but the cattiest woman I have known”.

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in Mall Studios Credit: Tate Images

I loved these little details, in which the Hampstead set flare beautifully into life. The Sunday afternoon salons at which they dined on macaroni cheese and stewed apples; Naum Gabo lending Mondrian a pair of slippers; Hepworth despairing of her studio being a “jumble of children… rock sculptures and washing”; Gropius’s wife, Ise, walking about in a black rayon cape; that the floor of Ede’s living room “shone like the back of an old fiddle”; that Moore had a habit of collecting twigs, stones, bones and shells which he left lying about his flat for his imagination to curl around – all of this is far more nourishing than those dusty sections of the book that dissect manifestos or who hung which picture at which exhibition.

538prom精品视频在线播放Of course, the war put paid to this “nest of gentle artists,” as Read had it, “this spontaneous association of men and women drawn together by common sympathies.” By 1940, they had all moved away. But what they created there rippled on. Read maintained that those 10 years in Hampstead were the crucible in which British art came of age, when it became “what it had not been for a century, an art of international significance”.

Circles and squares by Caroline Maclean 320pp, Bloomsbury,  £30, ebook £25.20