Waugh and the Buggers’ Baroque

The current TLS has a review of a book by Jane Stevenson entitled Baroque Between the Wars: Alternative style in the arts, 1918–1939. The reviewer Michael Hall seems to have enjoyed the book because of its period and subject matter but thinks that the author has got her premise wrong. Stevenson argues that in the period under review, the modernist art movement created a counter-cultural backlash which she describes as a kind of baroque revival. To distinguish it from previous revivals of the styles of that period (as recently as the Edwardian years) it has sometimes been denoted as the Buggers’ or Decorators’ Baroque after the trade that promoted it and their sexual preferences.

The reviewer brings Waugh into the story at two junctures. First he cites Decline and Fall published in 1928. In that novel:

…Evelyn Waugh poked fun at the modern movement in the form of King’s Thursday, a country house designed for Margot Beste-Chetwynde in the style of a chewing-gum factory by Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus (an architect who rather surprisingly is not referred to in Baroque Between the Wars). Yet for most English people the buildings that first attracted attention as distinctively modern dated from the early 1930s and had little to do with Le Corbusier, Gropius, [cited by Stevenson] or Silenus. Most famously there were Charles Holden’s tube stations, from 1931 onwards, and Elisabeth Scott’s theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, completed in 1932. Scott’s design was indeed criticized but it can’t seriously be argued that any of these buildings provoked a counter-cultural reaction, and so Stevenson ignores them.

After arguing that Stevenson got it wrong about precisely what caused the reaction, the reviewer goes on to find fault with another cause that she ignores–WW1:

Although the argument that interwar baroque was a counter-cultural movement provoked by modernism is unconvincing, it is certainly plausible that it was reacting to something. Stevenson’s reluctance to deal with alternative interpretations of its origins may owe something to her strict observation of the book’s chronological boundaries, 1918–39. Although she points out early on that the first novel to feature a second world war is probably Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), she ignores the impact of memories of the First World War, or apprehensions about a second, on the culture of the 1920s and 30s. Another, and more fundamental, explanation for the rise of interwar baroque is not referred to until the book’s epilogue and then only in passing. In an analysis of Edith Sitwell’s collaboration with William Walton on Façade, Stevenson writes that “many of the poems feature Victorians in hell, type figures of an older generation who have reduced themselves to a set of mechanical responses and shibboleths – the pompous faded ghosts of nineteenth-century patriarchy”. Does this not sum up rather beautifully what it was that her baroque writers, artists and designers were in fact reacting against?

While he disagrees with the author’s premise on what caused the baroque reaction to modernism, the reviewer agrees that there was such a reaction and finds parts of the book that he enjoys and concurs with. For example:

Her chapter on religion – a subject ignored by [earlier books of the period] – concludes with a thoughtful account of Campion Hall, designed for the Jesuit community in Oxford by Edwin Lutyens and furnished by Fr Martin d’Arcy, its Master from 1933, as “a subtle exercise in imagining what England might have been like had it remained Catholic” […]

And other reviewers have also largely enjoyed the book–e.g. Literary Review and Times Higher Education . As noted in the latter’s review (by James Stevens Curl), the reaction against modernism was not confined to architecture but was reflected in literature as well and included:

[… ]Lord Berners’ multicoloured doves and his 1937 novel The Girls of Radcliff Hall (in which an all-male milieu is encapsulated in a girls’ school story); “hetties” and “nancies” in the “MacSpaunday” circle around the poets Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis; Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton et al […]

Given that the book appears to be a lively discussion of the artistic movements coinciding with the flowering of Evelyn Waugh’s early work, it seems likely that it would prove interesting and entertaining to many of our readers as well. Any one who has read it is invited to comment as provided below.

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