Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Pukka dreams: Christopher Wood & Cedric Morris

Here’s a recent impulse buy I don’t regret: Cedric Morris & Christopher Wood. A Forgotten Friendship, by Nathaniel Hepburn, published last year to accompany a show of the two that tours till this June.

Wood by Wood

Wood by Wood

I hadn’t really noticed the connection between Christopher Wood (self-taught painter and opium smoker, who threw himself under an incoming train at Salisbury railway station in 1930) and Cedric Morris (self-taught painter and Bright Young Baronet, who, with his lifelong partner Arthur Lett-Haines, went on to found the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, only to have it burned down in 1939 by the young Lucian Freud). But when you set their work side by side, as in these pages, the likeness becomes obvious.

And instructive. Both men espoused a fashionable naivety of style, and at first glance the similarities shout. Yet on closer inspection we may feel that Morris can’t have had to work too hard at becoming a naïf, being basically a rich boy who couldn’t draw too well to begin with – a sort of upper class Outsider. But Wood had to unlearn earlier sophistications, and it’s Wood who comes out on top here. Morris’s world is the real world minus some element of the real that he never quite mastered; Wood’s world is the real world but somehow wonderfully reordered and recreated.

Morris by Morris

Morris by Morris

Wyndham Lewis knew Kit Wood well, remembering him as “a sixfooter who … camped in my garden”, and estimating him as “the only ‘post-war’ English painter of outstanding merit.” In my piece on Lewis’s The Apes of God, in the Wyndham Lewis Annual for 2008, I argue for Wood as the inspiration for that novel’s naïf “genius” Dan Boleyn. But unlike Boleyn, as Lewis recognised, Wood’s “romantic nature was able to organize itself sufficiently to get something out of paint. His pictures have imaginative beauty which is as easy as a reverie and it does not put you under duress like a nightmare. It is the gentle dream of a dairymaid. But it is a pukka dream.”

Lewis had encountered Morris. Did he find Morris’s dream pukka? I’m not sure.

Nathaniel Hepburn has researched the doings of Wood and Morris’s artistic and social set in painstaking detail, and his book is a welcome addition to the Wood corpus – lavishly illustrated and already available online for considerably less than the headline price. Hepburn is curator of Mascalls Gallery, a proper public gallery housed at a Kent comprehensive. In these times of cultural austerity, as Gove batters the breath out of the curriculum with his nasty little Ebacc, just how good is that?

Speaking of schools, I’m struck by the strong parallels between the cult of the naïve, the minimal tuition at the Paris “academies” frequented by Wood and Morris, the laissez-faire regime of Morris and Lett-Haines’s East Anglian School, and the strictly hands-off approach to art education pioneered at Dudley in the ‘twenties by Marion Richardson (with the approval of Roger Fry). Richardson aimed to preserve adolescent direct expressiveness at the cost of any kind of instruction, and hers became the dominant model of school art well into the ‘sixties, eventually being superseded in many schools only by a belated sub-Bauhaus approach. My grammar school Art master would sooner have shot himself than have been caught actually teaching me anything, but that’s maybe a topic for another time …

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