The Real and the Romantic English Art Between Two World Wars

Frances Spalding

A fresh look at a period of English art that has surged in interest and popularity in recent years, authored by one of Britain’s leading art historians and critics.

The twenty-first century has seen a surge of interest in English art of the interwar years. High-profile exhibitions have attracted record-breaking visitor numbers and challenged received opinion. In The Real and the Romantic, Frances Spalding takes a fresh and timely look at this rich period in English art.

The devastation of World War I left the art world decentered and directionless. This book is about its recovery. Spalding explores how exciting new ideas coexisted with a desire for continuity and a renewed interest in the past. We see the challenge to English artists represented by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, and the role played by museums and galleries in this period. Women artists, writers, and curators contributed to the emergence of a new avant-garde. The English landscape was revisited in modern terms.

The 1930s marked a high point in the history of modernism in Britain, but the mood darkened with the prospect of a return to war. The former advance toward abstraction and internationalism was replaced by a renewed concern with history, place, memory, and a sense of belonging. Native traditions were revived in modern terms but in ways that also let in the past. Surrealism further disturbed the ascetic purity of high modernism and fed into the British love of the strange.

Throughout these years, the pursuit of “the real” was set against, and sometimes merged with, an inclination towards the “romantic,” as English artists sought to respond to their subjects and their times. 


Frances Spalding


Frances Spalding is an art historian, critic, and leading authority on twentieth-century British art. Her books include acclaimed biographies of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant, Gwen Raverat, and John and Myfanwy Piper, as well as a biography of the poet Stevie Smith. She is emeritus fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Art. In 2005, she was made a CBE for services to literature.