Bright & Brilliant: Hampstead and the Slade School

12 February 2015

In this post, I will give an introduction to the current exhibition, Bright & Brilliant: Hampstead and the Slade School, with a focus on the organisation of the exhibition as well as the content. I’m not going to talk about the exhibition in depth, or all the artists involved as I don’t want to completely rob you of the opportunity to explore it yourselves!

Generally, when planning the temporary exhibition programme we consider whether themes or proposals from third parties meet our very general aim, which is to explore aspects of Hampstead, or its residents, and the history of the local area. We try and make the programme interesting, engaging and varied, and we always take on board visitor feedback from each exhibition to inform future plans.

Rather than start with themes or ideas and try to shoehorn exhibitions into them, with a small collection it is best to start with the collection. I like to ask myself: What have we got, what would be interesting to show and what stories can these objects tell?

Burgh House is fortunate to have a wonderful collection, begun by local historians Christopher and Diana Wade, who founded Hampstead Museum in the late 1970s. They wrote numerous letters to local residents, borrowed objects from other museums, archives and private individuals, and received hundreds of donations. We are able to continue to add to this collection through donations, and through our modest purchase fund.

The impetus behind Bright & Brilliant was to showcase some of the star objects and pieces of art in the Burgh House collection that are rarely displayed. Among the things I was most excited to show was our very own Duncan Grant painting, our C. R. W. Nevinson watercolour, and the clothes worn by Daphne Charlton in the portrait painted of her by Stanley Spencer (which is in the Tate collection and is reproduced in our exhibition). But how to tie these things together? Reading about these artists and their circles, it was striking to find that the Slade School was one thing that connected them all, and so it seemed to be a good focal point for the exhibition.

For those who may not know, the Slade School of Art was founded in 1871 with endowments made by Felix Slade, a collector and antiquary. Based at UCL, the School has always been associated with innovation in the field of contemporary art, and it has produced many of the most successful British artists of the last 140 years.

One of the Slade’s early tutors (I think it may have been Henry Tonks) described a ‘Crisis of Brilliance’ at the school in the early 1900s – and it was at this time that artists including Dora Carrington, C. R. W. Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer and Sydney Carline were studying there. The period the exhibition focuses on encompasses this time and these artists, with a few decades and artists either side.

The ‘Crisis of Brilliance’ artists all went on to have remarkably successful artistic careers of differing magnitudes, and all had strong links to Hampstead. Whether or not you consider the link to the area relevant to them or their work, it can’t be argued that this is where many of these brilliant artists met, socialised, worked, and in the case of Dora Carrington, tobogganed on the hills of the Heath.

Carrington, famous for her relationship with the writer Lytton Strachey, a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, didn’t reside in Hampstead, but her own brother Noel admitted that ‘it was almost certainly at the Nevinsons’ house in Hampstead that she began to acquire the feeling that a woman’s role in life must not be one of subservience’. Her views on life were arguably changed here, in Hampstead, at Nevinson’s House.

C. R. W. Nevinson was born in a house on Keats Grove, and later had studio space at Steele Studios, between Belsize Park and Chalk Farm. The Nevinson painting in the exhibition, titled In Old Hampstead, shows a street scene near his studio, on the corner of Haverstock Hill and Prince of Wales Road. Nevinson was good friends with fellow artist Mark Gertler, who worked in a studio on Rudall Crescent, and later on Well Road, both of which are just a few minutes walk from Burgh House. Gertler, who spent much of his childhood in East London, enjoyed living in Hampstead near fellow artists, near the Heath and within reach of central London.

It isn’t an unusual phenomenon that artists and writers have been attracted to Hampstead; a hundred years before Gertler, Constable found inspiration in the skies above Hampstead Heath, and painted prolifically here. Offering a compromise between town and country, and inevitably the draw of other artists, Hampstead became a meeting point for creative people.

Nevinson and Gertler frequently visited the Carline household on Downshire Hill; all three Carline children, Sydney, Hilda and Richard, were artists, as were their parents. Their home offered a welcome refuge (and food!) for their friends, and artist Henry Lamb described their meetings as the cercle pan-artistique of Downshire Hill’. Richard Carline later suggested, somewhat sceptically, that they actually received so many visitors because artists often preferred to go out to meet their friends rather than risk invasion of their studios without warning.

Sydney Carline was good friends with Gilbert Spencer, the brother of Stanley Spencer, and the Spencer brothers were a central part of this close group. Both fell in love with Hilda Carline, but she eventually chose to marry Stanley in 1925.

A friend of Mark Gertler, but slightly on the outside of the group, George Charlton was an accomplished artist who studied at the Slade before he was called up to fight in the First World War in 1917. After the war, he was invited onto the staff of the Slade and was dedicated to his art and to teaching. In the catalogue accompanying a retrospective of Charltons work at the Highgate Gallery in 1982, Julian Halsby claimed that by concentrating on his teaching at the Slade, and shunning publicity, he denied himself the recognition that came to many of his contemporaries’.

George and Daphne met at the Slade School – Daphne, George’s pupil, was beautiful and outgoing. After they married, the two moved to 40 New End Square, just opposite Burgh House. They moved in artistic circles and stayed at Dora Carrington’s house in Tidmarsh shortly after they wed in the early 1930s. The couple’s friend Ian Kellam wrote a short book on his experience of their friendship and mentioned that when Daphne invited people over for dinner, George would often disappear upstairs to work as soon as he could. This may have had something to do with his shyness, which I think is evident when looking at his self portrait – you get the impression of a modest man, looking slightly away with an expression that is difficult to read. Daphne’s self portrait, by contrast, is bold in colour and style – she looks directly out at us, and her beauty and confidence are evident.

Daphne began an affair with Stanley Spencer most likely in the late 1930s. As well as painting several pictures featuring Daphne, including the well-known portrait in the Tate, Spencer also painted her wallpaper! Scraps of this were given to Christopher Wade for the museum, and can also be seen in the exhibition. Daphne and her friend Ian Kellam donated many items to the Burgh House collection, including the blouse and hat Daphne wore in the Tate’s Spencer portrait. Daphne and George painted the immediate area a great deal; knowing that they lived so close by somehow makes these observations feel much more personal, an insight for us into their world.

As I mentioned, George was dedicated to his teaching position at the Slade and this is evident through the attention he paid to the quality of teaching staff. In a letter to his friend and colleague, the Professor of the Slade Randolph Schwabe, in 1946, George stated:

‘Obviously the addition of some young blood would be most invigorating, & just what the School wants, now that it has such a keen & gifted lot of students & the appointment of young men would give them confidence in themselves, & it would certainly cheer me, whereas yet more middle-age would depress me completely. I need hardly add that I have no personal interests in this matter, so long as the candidates are well under thirty. We should then be doing what the Slade has done before, looking for vigorous young talent, not chasing after well-known names.’

The exhibition touches on just one or two of the ways the Slade was special in the decades when the featured artists studied there. Its open acceptance of female students from the beginning was exceptional, as women were offered the exact same education as male students, something that was not usual at the time.

Reading about the school’s teaching methods, they do sound quite traditional; students a hundred years ago were expected to work sketching antique sculpture, and when their work was considered good enough by their tutors, were permitted to go on to the life drawing room. Despite this traditional approach, many of the most talented artists thrived, experimented and innovated, especially under tutor Henry Tonks. Tonks taught at the Slade from 1918 to 1930, teaching Spencer, Nevinson, Gertler and many others, encouraging or discouraging students in his well-known direct manner. A successful artist in his own right, Tonks is probably best known for his drawings and paintings of soldiers with facial injuries, undertaken during the First World War.

The exhibition certainly does not seek to provide an exhaustive history of the Slade, nor in-depth biographies of all the artists included. It also does not make any bold claims on the significance of Hampstead on these artists lives and work. What it does do is draw them loosely together, and offer a jumping-off point for thought and further consideration.

I would like to swing back to the practical considerations of putting on an exhibition like this. Boring, but essential, is budget. You may be surprised to hear that temporary exhibitions even of this scale can cost a good thousand pounds, and that is a conservative estimate. As Burgh House is a charity with a very small operating budget, contributions and donations are invaluable for us to make exhibitions like this a success. Gill Clarke, a Schwabe scholar, kindly loaned the Schwabe material on behalf of the artist’s estate, free of charge, as did the lender of the wonderful Carrington painting on foil.

Exhibitions also offer the opportunity for me to draw on our valuable volunteer and staff resources and skills, to undertake tasks such as proof-reading and editing text, working towards events organisation and promotion, as well as design of logos and interpretation panels, on top of their day to day tasks. This exhibition would not have been possible without Andrew Hunt, who was our Events and Operations Manager who tragically passed away recently. Andrew designed the logo and panels, as well as the postcards, and helped me hang the works he made sure everything looked just as you see it.

To supplement the exhibition, we are holding a craft session for families on 20th February; and, on 15th March, Marilyn Greene will lead a guided walk around all of the houses, studios and scenes relating to the artists and works in this exhibition. We are also delighted to have East London Group historian David Buckman at Burgh House on 9th April, when he will give a talk on Phyllis Bray.

Bright & Brilliant: Hampstead and the Slade School is open now and runs until 19th April. Burgh House is open Wednesday to Friday and Sunday, 12:00-5:00pm. Free entry.