Two Temple Place, hidden away in a back street two minutes from Temple Tube station in London, is a beautiful late Victorian building, with its own artistic merit. Each year it hosts a small, unusual exhibition gathered from regional collections. This year’s, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, focuses on the work of the Bloomsbury Group and others who lived in Sussex in the first half of the 20th century.
The show begins with the beautiful, gentle lines of Eric Gill’s well weathered Garden Statue: The Virgin. This was commissioned in 1911 by artist and critic Roger Fry (who coined the term Post-Impressionism) after it was considered that Gill’s earlier design of the Virgin was too overtly erotic and that it might upset visitors – a recurring characteristic of the exhibition. Photos by Vanessa Bell (once Roger Fry’s lover) endearingly show Fry’s daughter Pamela perched on the statue.
Other works by Gill include a lovely wood engraving of Petra, Girl in Bath, modelled by his own teenage daughter – and the exhibition doesn’t shy away from the problem of re-evaluating Gill’s work in light of his incestuous relationship with his daughters. This is in stark contrast to his deeply felt Catholicism – he converted in 1913 – and his founding in 1920 of a Catholic crafts community in Ditchling, Sussex, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, which advocated artists working by hand. Its motto was “Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses”.
Sensuality, if not eroticism, runs throughout the exhibition, including several works by Vanessa Bell and her live-in lover Duncan Grant, who shared Charleston (their Sussex farmhouse) with her and her husband-in-name Clive Bell.
The glorious first floor Great Hall features a Henry Moore statue Mother and Child, “the symbol of enduring fertility”, which apparently raised protests from neighbours when Moore had it in his front garden in Hampstead. Later it stood in the garden at Farley Farm House, near Chiddingley in East Sussex, home of the photographer Lee Miller and artist Roland Penrose, which was a retreat for Surrealist and Modernist artists including Pablo Picasso. Penrose’s paintings use bold, startling colour.
In contrast, Miller’s strangely intimate photographs show Picasso, Moore and others in incongruous, humorous poses, including New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg with the Long Man of Wilmington in the background; he’s standing, pencil in hand, as if drawing it.
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