What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.
This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.
With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.
Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.
Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’  which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.
But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.
Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.
Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.
The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.
As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!
Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1