PRINT September 1962


Sir John Rothenstein’s British Art Since 1900

Sir John Rothenstein, British Art Since 1900 (Phaidon), 1962. Illus., 181 pages. 

THE PICTURE OF BRITISH PAINTING and sculpture is, happily, not nearly so dreary as this book would lead one to believe; one must only keep in mind that almost the entire flock of painters and sculptors who have given vitality to English art in the last decade are completely ignored both in Sir John’s rather stuffy preface and in the deadening series of half-tone photographs following. (One would think that national pride, if nothing else, would encourage the publisher to be more lavish in color plates for the first illustrated survey of 20th Century British art!)

Often enough, it is a brilliant present which directs the historian to the organization of a formless past into a Tradition. Wave after wave, for example, of brilliant contemporary poets have constantly re-shaped and given new life to, the past in English letters. In America, the flowering of abstract expressionism has proved a touchstone for a viewing with fresh, new eyes, of our own recent past. English painting, however, still awaits its Brilliant Present. There has been in England as yet, no Impressionist or Post-Impressionist period, no Expressionist breakthrough, no Abstract-Expressionist furor to force English criticism to see its own past with new eyes, to determine which artists, in fact, had been the true keepers of The Tradition.

There is every reason, however, to suspect that the English breakthrough is right around the corner—that anyone writing a survey of 20th century English painting with a careful eye on the paintings and sculpture of William Turnbull, Henry Mundy, Peter Stroud, Robynn Denny and John Plumb, to name but a few, might have done more with the subject than Sir John, who does not appear to be aware that any of these people exist. Had the job been delegated, for example, to Lawrence Alloway, the book might have had a little less “who” but a little more “why,” a little less presentation but a lot more evaluation. The great failing of the current book is its inability to make sense out of the continuity of English art.

––Philip Leider