Art & Design
Art, design and architecture in 20th century London was influenced by the city itself. The international movements that shaped the course of the visual arts in the twentieth century were present in the work of London artists, but so too was the city’s unique flavour of modernity, a peculiarly British blend of past and future.
The personal visions of many London artists drew inspiration from their surroundings, not just in a literal sense but also in the city's character, its inescapable politics and its sense of place. The painter Walter Sickert rooted his post-impressionism in proletarian Camden Town. C.R.W Nevinson adapted revolutionary futurist styles to paint the masses crowding into the jazz-age metropolis. The 1960s Pop Art of Peter Blake drew as much from London's low-brow popular culture as it did from American models.
Art schools in London
London's art schools were central to creative practice in the capital. By the middle of the century London had 13 major art schools, most of which had developed from nineteenth-century institutions of technical education. London’s most important school of this type was the Central School of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1896 and funded by the London County Council. Central provided classes in a range of practical arts, from life drawing and textile design to typography and book illustration. It embraced what was later to be called industrial design, and its alumni included Douglas Scott who trained as a silversmith at Central in the 1920s but who later found fame as the designer of the Routemaster bus.
'Fine art' training for painters was provided by the Royal Academy School, the Royal College of Art, the Slade School of the University of London and several smaller schools, such as St Martin's School of Art. Training in architecture was provided by the Architectural Association, the Bartlett School of the University of London and some of London's polytechnics. Many of these institutions admitted women and the 20th century saw a small but increasing number of women making their living as artists, illustrators, designers and craftsworkers.
London - home of creative industries
Having trained its creative practiconers, London also provided them with jobs. London was the home of Britain's art market, but also Britain's creative industries. Advertising needed commercial illustrators. Newspapers needed graphic designers. Film companies needed art directors. In the 1920s William Lakin and Graham Sutherland were fellow students at Goldsmiths School of Art in New Cross. Both began their careers creating etchings for the then buoyant collector's market for modern prints. When this collapsed in the early 1930s, Lakin took his skills into advertising, ending up as the art director for the agency J. Walter Thomson. Sutherland earned his living by teaching in London's art schools.
If London influenced its creative practicioners, they in turn influenced London, through the visual culture and urban landscapes they created. Stylistically, the century saw a broad journey towards more 'modern' and abstract styles: then back again to a less austere 'post-modern' eclecticism. Architects’ enthusiasm for modernism produced the vertical slabs of London's 1960s tower blocks. By the end of the century a new generation of architects gave Londoners buildings with softer, curvy profiles and more decoration.
In visual art, mainstream styles followed the same broad path but, arguably, hardline modernism was weaker and post-modernism arrived sooner. Realism and surrealism proved themselves naturally suited to the romantic individualism and humanist concerns of many British artists from the 1930s onwards. David Bomberg, was one of many major London artists to look beyond international fashions and draw on his own cultural traditions, in his case from the Jewish East End, to create a more expressive painterly language.
In design, 20th century Londoners were presented with a ever-wider choice of 'looks' to represent their loyalties and lifestyles. The fragmented zigzag styles of the jazz age passed into the culture on toffee tins, dress fabrics and cinema programmes. These motifs stood for Americanised modern glamour. More traditionally-minded Londoners chose goods which reflected the English values of the Arts & Crafts movement. At the commercial end of the spectrum this meant mass-produced Tudor style furniture, and cottage garden wallpaper. At the more high-brow end this meant the hand-decorated pottery and woven textiles of London’s small craft workshops.
From cultural desert to bohemia
Artists also affected the topography of London. The presence of artists and art-schools changed the character of several London districts during the 20th century, turning seedy, run-down places into glamorous, bohemian ones. In the first half of the century London's artists quarters were the relatively genteel ones of Chelsea, Hampstead and Fitzrovia. In the second half of the century artists penetrated the working-class heartland of the East End. Here they sought out derelict industrial buildings and short-lease terrace houses to turn into squats, studios or living space.
Two artist-led bodies were key to colonizing the East End. In 1968 a group of artists led by Peter Sedgely took over an empty warehouse in St. Katharine's Docks to turn into temporary studios. Styling themselves as SPACE, the group became full-time studio providers, alongside the Acme Housing Association, founded in 1972 by another group of artists who also saw the potential of cheap property awaiting demolition.
Thanks to SPACE and Acme, by the end of the century the East End housed the largest concentration of artists in the world and its status within London had risen. No longer a cultural desert, the East End was now the dynamic pacemaker of London‘s new image as a creative city.