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Art and soul: the people’s painters

From Ken Sprague and Josef Herman to Cliff Rowe, a new book celebrates the work of ‘socially committed’ artists

15 November, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Cliff Rowe’s watercolour Woman Cleaning a Locomotive at St Pancras Cleaning Yard, 1942. National Railway Museum, York image: © Anna Sandra Thornberry, Daughter

AS bombs fell down with deadly accuracy on King’s Cross and St Pancras, the rail workers put their lives at risk on a daily basis to keep the crucial transport hub moving.

Troops and arms, food and material – all poured in and out of the station. And the brave men and women of the railways were joined in the yards and sidings by a man armed with an easel and palette.

His name was Cliff Rowe, and he was determined to capture on canvas the work of the people who turned up every day to a site that was a priority for the Luftwaffe to knock out.

In a new book by art historian Christine Lindey, Art for All, Cliff’s story is told alongside 30 other artists who in the early to mid-20th century used their talents to capture, celebrate and consider the world of the working classes, and the prevailing political movements of the times, and celebrate new forms of art that were artistic beacons on the road to liberty, equality and fraternity.

Christine Lindey is described by former Tate curator Simon Casimir Wilson as “a doyenne of British art history and one of the most original, accessible and principled practitioners” and her book considers the life and times of artists she has identified as being “socially committed” – meaning they were linked by a commitment to a form of representational art that asserts the importance of working people and their lives.

Cliff Rowe’s ETU Strike, Albert Hall, 1953-1954

They range from the likes of Ken Sprague and Josef Herman to Cliff Rowe.

As the book outlines, Cliff was born in 1904 in Wimbledon into a working class family, his father a clerk and his mother a shop worker in a small corner shop.

“After his mother died when he was eight, he and his three siblings ran wild,” the book states. He went on to study art at Wimbledon College and then on to the Royal College of Art – but left as he felt the staff had little interest in new forms and style.

By 1919, Cliff was working as an illustrator and during the 1920s became politicised.

He produced art for Irish communist party publications and through this met the editor of the publication Irish Freedom, Pat Dooley. It was Dooley who gave him a copy of The Communist Manifesto, a book he found “compelling”.

“It solved many intellectual problems, that I felt the scales fall from my eyes,” he said.

Cliff Rowe’s The 1926 General Strike, 1953-1954

Rowe travelled to the USSR in the early 30s and stayed for 18 months working as an illustrator, in a country were foreign artists were made welcome and work was plentiful as the USSR focused on mass public information and literacy campaigns.

As Christine describes, Cliff was interested in how artists look at the world of the workers and decide that a Marxist could grasp the “truth in what he saw” because they would “understand the inter-relationships of human beings, machinery and their surroundings”.

He was interested in how the machine and worker interacted, and what happened to the product of such a relationship, adds Christine. And it was with this mind that he started a series of works in the St Pancras locomotive cleaning yards.

“This essential war work, much of it undertaken by women, occurred within a prime target for enemy fire, a danger faced by both the worker and the artist,” writes Christine – and the results are brilliant portrayals of people and production.

Combining “conventional naturalism with modernist simplification,” as Christine describes it, he used geometric circles and horizontals formed by the engines and the railway arches.

He also painted the gasometers, using Leger-like Modernist lines to show them against the King’s Cross sky.

Cliff Rowe’s ETU Strike, Bolton, 1953-1954 image: © Anna Sandra Thornberry, Daughter/Photo: Unite The Union

The war brought challenges – but also opportunity.

Many artists fled London to avoid the Blitz, but as the capital remained the centre of patronage, many had to stay behind, as Cliff discovered.

“Artists found themselves being able to earn a living by enlisting, and then there was considerable patronage by the state and various government ministries for art,” writes Christine.

“Patronage changed as the latter employed artists as propagandists, camou­flage designers and edu­cationalists as well as ac­quiring and commission­ing war-related art for the nation through the newly established War Artists Advisory Committee.”

The book covers a span of decades, and considers not just the subject matter chosen by the artists but how economic survival and forms of patronage impacted on their varied social and professional conditions.

Christine illustrates how they were all shaped by the political and social upheavals of the three decades preceding the Second World War. The mechanised slaughter of the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution – and its accompanying focus of propaganda art – the General Strike, Great Depression, the rise of Fascism and then the battle to defeat it – all became topics and inspirations for the artists featured in the book.

And as Cliff observed in 1943: “It is doubtful anyone knows what is ‘proletarian art’ or ‘Socialist realism’ or ‘Marxist art’ but thank goodness there are many strongly held opinions on these questions.”

Art For All: British Socially Committed Art From the 1930s to the Cold War. By Christine Lindey, Artery Publications, £25

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