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"I didn't sleep with everyone … I wouldn't have had time to paint!"


HISTORY

Circles and squares

By Caroline Maclean (Bloomsbury £ 30, 296pp)

When sculptor Barbara Hepworth and painter Ben Nicholson joined a group of friends on vacation in Norfolk in 1931, it only took them a few days to fall in love passionately.

They played naked cricket on the beach and danced all night. When Barbara's husband came to see them for a week on vacation, it was so obvious that they had an affair that he immediately returned to London.

None of them seemed particularly worried about their respective spouses – Ben's wife had just given birth to their third child – but then infidelity was almost a matter of course in their circle. As this beguiling report by a closely linked group of artists, designers and writers shows, they had high ideals, but were not particularly disturbed by conventional morals.

Together, Hepworth and Nicholson were at the heart of the Hampstead Modernists, which in the 1930s stretched into a green corner of north London that was attracted to affordable rental prices, proximity to the Hampstead Heath wilderness, and a supportive circle of like-minded friends.

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painter Ben Nicholson (picture) joined a group of friends on vacation in Norfolk in 1931

At different times, poets W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, war photographer Lee Miller, sculptor Henry Moore and artists Paul Nash, Piet Mondrian and John Piper.

Like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, everyone was experimental, unconventional, wildly creative, and had messed up personal life.

Circles And Squares immerses you in the 1930s art world, but be warned – if you're not familiar with modern art, you'll have to google a lot to find out who is who and why these artists matter.

Oddly enough, the author Caroline Maclean even neglects the definition of modernity: since you asked, Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it "a break with the past and the simultaneous search for new forms of expression".

Barbara Hepworth was already living in Hampstead when she started her relationship with Nicholson. While their marriage ended without much drama, he flitted for several years between Barbara and his wife Winifred, who was a good painter herself.

Nash was influenced in his step to surrealism by his short but intense extramarital relationship with the artist Eileen Agar (pictured by Eileen Agar), another member of the group

Nash was influenced in his step to surrealism by his short but intense extramarital relationship with the artist Eileen Agar (pictured by Eileen Agar), another member of the group

He seemed confused about his wife's plight: one of his friends commented sourly while Ben and his group thought there was no jealousy. . . it didn't seem to work that way.

Shortly after falling in love with Ben, Barbara made an abstract sculpture out of pink alabaster and created a hole in the middle. Pierced form, as it was called, represented a major breakthrough in her work and also inspired Henry Moore, who soon followed.

"By opening the sculptural form to the interior, Hepworth changed 20th century sculpture," Maclean writes.

She and Ben only married in 1938, but gave birth to triplets four years earlier.

Despite the demands of motherhood, Barbara continued to work at a wild pace. "I am not viable if I cannot work – even an hour a day keeps me civilized," she said.

Circles and squares by Caroline Maclean (Bloomsbury £ 30, 296pp). Today, affluent Londoners - whether artistic or not - can buy a piece of this piece of 1930s history

Circles and squares by Caroline Maclean (Bloomsbury £ 30, 296pp). Today, affluent Londoners – whether artistic or not – can buy a piece of this piece of 1930s history

Her friend Henry Moore lived around the corner from them in Hampstead; Moore had known Barbara since they were both at Leeds Art School. Down the hill was the painter Paul Nash, who had done brilliant work as an official martial artist in the First World War.

Nash was influenced in his step to surrealism by his short but intense extramarital relationship with the artist Eileen Agar, another member of the group. Agar held its own in the male-dominated group of artists. Recalling a month-long house party in Cornwall with members of the Hampstead set, she said, “Anyway, I didn't go to bed with everyone who asked me. When do I have time to paint? "

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is about the masterpiece of modernity, which became known as the Isokon building. It was the idea of ​​engineer Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly who wanted to build a block of flats in Hampstead that would enable a semi-community life. They asked dashing architect Wells Coates for help to build it; Predictably, Molly soon started an affair with him.

The pure white building, with a shape reminiscent of an ocean liner, had exterior walls made of concrete, a material that had never before been used for residential purposes in Britain.

His tenants included Agatha Christie, who lived there during the war. She liked the "informal and happy atmosphere" of the building and wrote nine of her novels there.

A sign of how influential the Hampstead Modernism had become was the surrealistic exhibition in London in 1936 that Roland Penrose helped to organize. He, Eileen Agar, Paul Nash and Henry Moore all contributed, along with a number of leading contemporary European artists – Dali, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Magritte, Giacometti and Brancusi.

The crowd opening the show was so big that the police had to cordon off Bond Street.

Dylan Thomas offered guests cooked cords in teacups while a performance artist wandered around with a dummy leg in one hand and a pork chop in the other. When the show ended, Dali appeared with a diving helmet. The playwright J.B. Priestley thundered that the exhibition came out of "moral perversions", but the audience was thrilled.

When the war was declared, the group either drove abroad or, like Ben and Barbara, to safer places like Cornwall.

Looking back at that time, Barbara compared it to "being carried on the crest of this robust and inspiring wave".

The white Isokon building, a memorial to these heady days, was increasingly run down and sold to the Camden Council in 1972. Ken Livingstone, the chairman of the Council of Housing, wanted to tear it down, but was saved through its listed status and eventually saved. The apartments were beautifully renovated.

Today, affluent Londoners – whether artistic or not – can buy a piece of this piece of 1930s history.

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