With its rolling hills, seaside resorts and quaint villages, the picturesque county of Sussex would seem an unlikely hotbed of radical artistic innovation. But appearances can be deceptive.
Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, a wide-ranging exhibition which has just opened at Two Temple Place, draws on the collections of nine Sussex Museums and galleries as well as loans from across the UK to reveal that for the first half of the 20th century – and especially between the wars – this most genteel corner of England was colonised by some of the most original artists, thinkers and writers both from the UK and abroad.
The opulent setting of Temple Place, an ornate neo-Gothic mansion designed by Henry Waldorf Astor at the end of the 19th century, might also appear to be a surprising setting for an exhibition devoted to progressive Modernism. Yet, weirdly, it works.
On the one hand, the intricately carved wood, elaborate stained glass windows and lavish metalwork might epitomise exactly what many modernists were rebelling against. But on the other, the relentless ornateness of these interiors also provides a unifying backdrop that knits together the disparate range of artworks created by the different artistic enclaves that came to rest in Sussex.
These include Eric Gill’s kinky kissing Christ, cavorting nudes by Duncan Grant, satirical films and architectural photographs by Bauhaus exile Laszlo Moholy Nagy or Salvador Dali’s Mae West Lips sofa.
In the first room, tradition and innovation meet head on in a marble coffer engraved by the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska with a sexy, stylised floating nymph. This was filled with the works of young poets to form the centerpiece of a performance organized by Ezra Pound in 1914 at the grand aristocratic West Sussex home of the writer Wilfred Scawen Blunt, with the subtext of the event being to praise the natural world as opposed to the corruption of urban life.
A crowd of tyro poets eating peacock in a stately home may not seem especially modernist, but the notion of Sussex as a rural idyll, offering privacy and space to pursue progressive utopian ideas – but also being conveniently close to both London and continent – fed into many of the strains of modernism that play out through this show.
The rustic seclusion of Sussex gave rise to the honed down, erotically-charged religious imagery crafted by Eric Gill and David Jones in the Catholic community of Ditchling founded by Gill in 1920; as well as to the couplings and collaborations of the Bloomsbury Group in and around Charleston House, which was occupied by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916.
Sussex also provided a green, pleasant and suitably incongruous backdrop to the surrealist shenanigans that took place in the 1930s when the flamboyant patron Edward James commissioned Salvador Dali and Paul Nash to design the interior of Monkton House, the purple-painted hunting lodge of his grand family home in West Sussex.
Here Dali’s Mae Lips sofa had one of its earliest incarnations nestling at the foot of the South Downs, and this now familiar image now regains some of its original subversiveness as it sits uncomfortably at the bottom of Temple Place’s baronial staircase.
James also had the wet footprints of his wife the dancer Tilly Losch woven into his stair carpet, a section of which here presides over Mae’s lips - although after the couple’s scandalous divorce James replaced them with the paw prints of his Irish wolfhound.
There was more Sussex Surrealism in and around the home of Roland Penrose and his wife the photographer Lee Miller, who entertained many illustrious visitors at Farley Farm House in the wonderfully named Muddles Green. These included Picasso and the cartoonist Saul Steinberg, who here appears in a Miller photograph, looking decidedly out of place in his dark city suit, arm aloft as if satirically putting a few finishing touches to the Long Man of Wilmington on the hillside behind him.
Other visitors from the continent who made a more permanent mark on Sussex were the German Jewish emigré Erich Mendelsohn and Russian born Serge Chermayeff, who designed the sleekly modernist De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill. This opened amidst a storm of hostile local protest in 1935, but is now regarded as one of the UK’s most significant 20th-century buildings.
In this section of the show devoted to Bexhill and international modernism there’s also Sussex resident Edward Wadsworth’s jaunty crisp- edged design for De La Warr’s restaurant as well as his more strangely surreal Bronze Ballet. An eerily still arrangement of propellers on a quayside, he remembers painting it uneasily in 1940 to the sound of bombardment from across the Channel, “all mingled with the call of the cuckoo”.
For even before the outbreak of war, an important factor that underpins much of the work on show is that many of the artists who chose to live and work in Sussex did not feel entirely comfortable in their surroundings.
Lee Miller’s photograph of the rolling Sussex fields viewed through the barred window frame of Farley House indicates her misgivings about rural bliss. A key Sussex detractor was Edward Burra, who grew up in Rye and who, despite extensive travels, stayed there most of his life. However this did not prevent him from disparaging his hometown as “ducky little TinkerBell towne…like an itsy bitsy morgue quayte dead”.
One of Britain’s most original and underestimated 20th century artists, Burra is represented here by three luminous watercolours which show Rye and its environs infused with a sinister malevolence. John Piper is another whose seemingly innocuous scene of the Seven Sisters Cliff in Eastbourne made in 1933-4 presents a less than positive comment on the threat to the Sussex shores both from home and abroad. The white cliffs are collaged with German newspaper reports of the rise of Nazism, which are accompanied by printed advertisements for expensive and socially divisive English private schools.
For whether as place of refuge, point of rebellion or source of satire – or sometimes all of the above – the cosiness and conservatism as well as the natural beauty and rich history of Sussex has proved remarkably effective in firing the imaginations of artists of all inclinations. Even if some of them didn't really want to be there in the first place.
Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April. 2 Temple Place, London, WC2R 3BD; twotempleplace.org