Lynn Chadwick at home in Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire, where his Artists' Lives recording took place.

Opening up to international influences: British art in the 20th century

Michael Bird looks at how 20th-century British artists were affected by contact with their counterparts abroad.

When we talk about the art world today, it’s understood that this really is a full-scale world. It is an international phenomenon, in which artists routinely travel thousands of miles for exhibitions, residencies and biennales. It’s hard to imagine an earlier time when, for many British artists, a voyage on the boat train to Paris was a life-changing adventure. The USA, meanwhile, was a semi-mythical land, known through movies and jazz but seldom experienced first-hand. During the second half of the 20th century – a period richly documented in Artists’ Lives recordings – opportunities for travel and contact with artists abroad transformed the experience of being an artist in Britain.

The early 20th century

In the early 20th century it was war rather than art or culture that most often provided a first taste of abroad. Except for a privileged few, France was synonymous with the trenches rather than the Impressionists or Cubists. During the First World War the surgeon–artist Henry Tonks served on the Western Front. He produced detailed watercolours of horrendous facial injuries that would be the subject of early attempts at reconstructive surgery. When Tonks returned to peacetime life as professor at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, he drummed into his students a life-or-death obedience to observational precision.

When Eileen Agar recalls Tonks’ repeated order, ‘Don’t look at that French rubbish!’ she still sounds indignant at the age of 91.

Recorded for Artists’ Lives in 1990, shortly before her death, Agar speaks with all the passion of a young artist. She reminds us that Tonks and his generation of teachers played a formative role in modern British art. For students like Agar, they were the perfect authority figures to rebel against.

To escape the insular, academic ethos of British art schools, young artists who could afford to made straight for Paris. Robert Medley, a contemporary of Agar’s at the Slade, describes what a revelation it was to encounter both up-to-the-minute modern art and the Old Masters in the Louvre Museum on a daily basis. England, by contrast, was ‘covered all over by a grey blanket… I just hated coming back to London.’ Then, with the outbreak of war once again in 1939, Europe became inaccessible to artists for the next six years, except in an official role. Leonard Rosoman served as a war artist aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable: ‘I’ve always been attracted by the sea […] and it was a rather marvellous thing for me when I did my war artist thing that I was on ships all the time.’ Young people from working-class families like Terry Frost, who would never have considered art school an option, found new directions opening up in the unlikeliest settings. Serving in the commandos, Frost was captured by the Germans on Crete and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Bavaria. Here he began to paint portraits of fellow inmates – the start of his artistic career.

Post-war Britain

After the war, the British art scene was energised by artists and art-world professionals who had arrived as refugees from Nazi Europe. These included Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Josef Herman, Paul Feiler, and the dealers Erica Brausen, Charles and Peter Gimpel. The cultural nationalism of the Tonks era belonged to a vanished age, as art in Britain became increasingly interconnected with what was happening abroad. Despite the restrictions of post-war economic austerity, foreign travel was once again possible. There was still nothing so exciting as that first trip to Paris, as Elisabeth Frink recalls. She and her fellow students from Chelsea School of Art discovered the pavement café frequented by Alberto Giacometti. They would sit there every day, covertly observing the great sculptor. He was a living link to the pioneering age of European modern art, such as you would never encounter in Britain.

At the same time, there was a dawning awareness of what was happening in American art and popular culture. Studying at Gravesend School of Art in the late 1940s, the teenage Peter Blake was desperate to own a pair of blue jeans, like the ones an art teacher had brought back from the States. Since you couldn’t buy jeans in Britain, he customised a pair of blue cotton dungarees. Art students, he explains, were always first on the scene with new fashion trends, like black polo-neck sweaters – the French existentialist look of the post-war era.

The Venice Biennale

It was also at this time that government agencies woke up to the idea that art could serve as a form of cultural ‘soft power’ in the new Cold War geopolitical order, in which Britain’s economic and military influence was dwarfed by the USA and Soviet Union. Under its dynamic director of fine art, Lilian Somerville, the British Council promoted British artists abroad with astonishing success. Lynn Chadwick, a former architectural draughtsman and Fleet Air Arm pilot, had been making sculpture for only six years when he represented Britain at the 1956 Venice Biennale. It had been assumed Giacometti would win the International Prize for Sculpture. When this was awarded to Chadwick, he became the first-ever world-famous young British artist.

Chadwick was as surprised as anyone by his sudden fame. Looking back on this moment 40 years later, when his work had fallen out of fashion, Chadwick sounds philosophical about the rollercoaster nature of reputations. Interestingly, it was the battle-hardened German surrealist Max Ernst who warned him that this would happen. The very fact that their conversation took place at the Venice Biennale was itself a sign of how artistic networks were widening. International art events were still rare in the 1950s but increasingly becoming part of the scene.

Two years later it was Kenneth Armitage’s turn to represent British sculpture at Venice.

Armitage was impressed by the American painters and the sculptor David Smith who were in town for the Biennale. Abstract Expressionism, or action painting, was the first American art movement to captivate British artists. The sight of large abstract canvases by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning at the Tate Gallery in 1956 and 1959 got British painters splashing and dripping with arm-swinging abandon. Where Paris had been the magnet for Agar and Medley’s generation, it was increasingly New York that now attracted young British artists. To begin with, it was a two-way traffic. American artists were shown in London, while British abstract painters like William Gear and Sandra Blow were warmly received in New York.

Studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the mid-1950s, Robyn Denny began to experiment with large-scale abstract expressionist mark-making. Like his RCA contemporary Richard Smith, Denny rejected the idea of abstract painting based on natural landscapes and the environment. This kind of painting was associated with older artists such as Terry Frost, but Denny and Smith were much more interested in the new wave of American Pop Art, with its upbeat references to the imagery of urban mass culture and commercial media. Yet, unlike most American painters, they both continued to use colour in an atmospheric way. After graduating from the RCA, Denny won a travel scholarship to Italy. In Venice he discovered the distinctive clarity of the sea-light. ‘I always feel that the light completes the work,’ he says. ‘The light is the work, in the end.’ Words that could have been spoken 150 years earlier by J M W Turner.

In 1966 Denny and Smith were chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, along with David Hockney and Bernard Cohen. All four young artists were regularly exhibiting at the Kasmin Gallery, founded in 1963 by the dealer John Kasmin (always known as Kasmin or Kas). His purpose-designed gallery in New Bond Street had quickly become one of London’s most fashionable places to show and buy art. The long interview Kasmin has recorded for Artists’ Lives includes his description of the glittering social life around the 1966 Biennale. Kasmin’s business partner, Sheridan Dufferin, was a well-connected aristocrat. ‘If I look in my diary,’ says Kasmin, ‘it’s all entertaining and parties and lunches and ‘dos.’

Art, money, fashion, travel, fun – this was the high days of the 1960s. It wouldn’t go on in quite this way forever. Within a couple of years, British art schools would be rocked by student protests. The emergence of conceptual and performance art would lead to confident assertions of ‘the death of painting’. Internationalism began to take more politicised, confrontational forms. Artists such as Mary Kelly were involved in the Women’s Movement. Michael Sandle and Eduardo Paolozzi are among the many British artists who expressed their opposition to American military involvement in Vietnam. And remember, Kasmin’s tales of partying in exotic locations give us a dealer’s side of the picture. For most artists, however wide the international horizons, the place where things really happen is still the studio.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Eileen Agar, Robert Medley, Josef HermanElisabeth Frink, Peter Blake, Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage, William Gear, Sandra Blow, Robyn Denny, Richard Smith, Terry Frost, Bernard Cohen, John Kasmin, Mary Kelly, Michael Sandle, Eduardo Paolozzi, Leonard Rosoman

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Michael Bird
  • Michael Bird is a writer and independent art historian. He has written extensively on modern British art, including books on Sandra Blow (2005), Bryan Wynter (2010), Lynn Chadwick (2014), George Fullard (2016) and The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time (2nd edn 2016). His essays and journalism have appeared in The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, Modern Painters, RA Magazine and Tate Etc. He has consulted on major museum projects and regularly presents arts programmes on BBC Radio. He was National Life Stories Goodison Fellow in 2016 and is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Exeter. Michael Bird’s book Studio Voices: Art and Life in 20th-century Britain (2018) is based on edited extracts from National Life Stories Artists’ Lives oral history project.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.