Is it perverse to publish a quasi-footnote to a post that’s half-written, unsatisfactory and may indeed never survive to enjoy the thrill of online publication? Probably so, but I’m not about to let that stop me.
In the course of writing about the marvellous Evelyn Dunbar (who? yes, that’s exactly the point) I started trying — not for any very good reason other than as a distraction from what I was supposed to be doing, although frankly picking up the dry cleaning or doing some ironing might have been more constructive — to compile a list of the ten greatest British artists of the twentieth century.
By ‘of the twentieth century’ I mean artists who produced the bulk of their work during that century. By ‘British’ I mean artists who produced the bulk of their work while living in the United Kingdom. By ‘artist’ I mean anyone who produced visual art, although due to the fact that my ignorance of sculpture transcends even my ignorance of painting, drawing or graphic art, sculptors are likely to be disadvantaged here. And by ‘great’, I mean — well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?
In any event, here’s the list I compiled, in no order at all:
1. Sir William Nicholson
2. Walter Sickert
3. David Bomberg
4. William Orpen
5. Paul Nash
6. Ben Nicholson
7. Eric Ravilious
8. Francis Bacon
9. Graham Sutherland
10. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, John Minton, Keith Vaughan, or, ahem, Evelyn Dunbar. (I’m changing my mind on this last one minute by minute, hence this representative sample of runners and riders.)
Errors and omissions: I am squeamish about including J. S. Sargent, if only because he fits no more neatly into the twentieth century than he does within the definition of ‘British’ above. Barbara Hepworth and Antony Caro are perhaps also ill-treated, for reasons described above. Henry Moore is not ill-treated — just moderately over-hyped elsewhere. Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin and their fellow Constructivists are, on the other hand, slightly unfairly neglected, if only because I don’t know enough about their work. And — probably my fault more than his — I’ve just never ‘got’ Patrick Heron.
And then there’s the question of influence. Wyndham Lewis was an unpleasant man who was, briefly, very influential, while Peter Blake is by all accounts a very nice man whose work has been persistently influential. Neither of those achievements constitutes, to my mind anyway, greatness. Auerbach’s achievement, although important and often beautiful, is perhaps best regarded as a footnote to Bomberg’s. Victor Passmore seems to me to have done what had already been done elsewhere, no better than anyone else was doing it. Ditto Roger Hilton. And as for Lucian Freud, I persist in regarding him as a flawed artist, fatally limited as much in skill as in ambition, whose work has lived up neither to its early potential, nor to its subsequent art-critical apotheosis.
It is easy to see why this list might be condemned as woefully biased towards the earlier half of the century, insufficiently forward-looking, excessively representational and indeed sporadically neo-romantic in its inclinations. To which I can only reply, ‘guilty as charged’, I guess.
So, over to you, the legion of desperate undergraduates, mostly harmless stalkers, online pals and countless inscrutable silent lurkers who visit this site. How, if at all, would you alter this list? Or is it perfect already?
And finally, needless to say, lists of this sort are, almost without exception, coat-trailing nonsense of the most self-indulgent, intellectually irresponsible sort. But, well, I’m not going to let that stop me, either.