Bohemian rhapsodies

Caroline Maclean’s Circles and Squares reads like a roll-call of the artistic great and good of the interwar years — whose enterprise stands in stark relation to the mess of their private lives

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The Isokon building, Hampstead: A utopian experiment (© Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Hampstead, like Bloomsbury, is not merely a district but a state of mind. Back in the 1980s critics began referring to fiction about the domestic imbroglios of the metropolitan middle-class as “the Hampstead novel”. Half a century earlier this hilltop London suburb was home to a wave of artists, emigrés and Bohemians loosely banded under the imprimatur of modernism. Amid its villagey ambience of old pubs, pretty lanes and bosky hideaways, some of them sought a new way of living, though few succeeded: domestic imbroglios often got the better of them, too.

Caroline Maclean’s survey Circles and Squares at times reads like a roll-call of the artistic great and good of the interwar years. Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Herbert Read, John Piper and Myfanwy Evans were not only pioneers-in-arms but close neighbours; when they were not huddled in Hampstead or nearby Belsize Park they were often holidaying together in coastal retreats across Suffolk, Kent and Cornwall. Their community was enlarged and enhanced by an influx of talented refugees on the lam from an increasingly perilous Europe. Following the Nazis’ closure of the Bauhaus in 1933 several of the faculty’s leading lights—Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy—arrived in London and settled at the Isokon building in Lawn Road, a new residential experiment in concrete dreamed up by Canadian architect Wells Coates. This utopian ideal of collective living, which included a restaurant and bar in the basement, was often undermined by substandard design, a flooded boiler room and arguments about where to place the dustbins.

The enterprise of Maclean’s distinguished ensemble often stands in stark relation to the mess of their private lives. In marital terms the triangle was a regular figure within the circle. In 1931 Ben Nicholson, on holiday in Norfolk, began an affair with Barbara Hepworth while his wife Winifred, herself an artist, stayed at home tending their three children, one of them new-born. The domestic commotion it entrained became so febrile that Hepworth at one point suggested she and Winifred live together and receive the errant husband as an occasional guest. Nicholson himself, as a Christian Scientist, believed that being “true to his feelings” was the vital thing—not an uncommon conviction when a man is in the wrong. Cleaving to the spirit of three’s-company Hepworth, pregnant by him, would give birth to triplets. A sunnier story of artistic liaisons is that of Myfanwy Evans, who, arriving to stay on the Suffolk coast, was picked up at the station by John Piper—prelude to a coup de foudre, marriage and a lifelong attachment. Auden, Louis MacNeice and the Coldstreams pop up in later cameos, thickening the atmosphere of booze and infidelity.

Enjoyable as its individual stories are, this book is not a pleasure to read. Caroline Maclean has done the research but, like the fittings and fixtures of the Isokon building, the craftsmanship is found wanting. Group biographies are a technical challenge—all those lives and loves mixed in together—which if not carefully tended can become desultory, or plodding. Maclean’s habit of using “and” as connective tissue in a sentence is evident early on: “Molly grew up in Streatham and then Kensington and her father was a solicitor”. It becomes quite exasperating (“and . . . and . . . and”) over the length of a book. The perversity of her subjects’ behaviour also seems to pass her by; a nonjudgemental approach is laudable and even desirable up to a point, but so much of the material is presented without comment. If Maclean appreciates the comedy of how Myfanwy, mid-research, recruited “the landlord of a pub in Lower Assenden, a couple of miles up the road from Fawley Bottom”, she gives no indication of it.

There is also the group-biographer’s occupational hazard of trawling in waters that others have already fished. Circles and Squares comes in the recent wake of Fiona MacCarthy’s majestic life of Walter Gropius (its whole middle section devoted to his time in London) and many others in her line-up have also been the subject of single biographies and memoirs. Not much of the book is revelatory, though it is still remarkable to think of London’s brief unlikely period as the centre of modernism. The Isokon, its most visible monument, fell into terrible disrepair after the war. If Ken Livingstone, as chairman of housing for Camden Council, had got his way the building might have been demolished. It was eventually saved, and renovated. Visiting some years ago when Penguin held a book launch there, I marvelled at its bold proportions and clean white lines: there wasn’t a dustbin in sight.


Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists
By Caroline Maclean
Bloomsbury, 296pp, £30


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.