The pond at Charleston farmhouse is possibly the setting for a summer scene of languidly posed male bathers – some naked – painted by Duncan Grant in 1920/21. In its colour tones and the application of “stippled” brushwork, Grant reveals his debt to the French pointillist technique of multiple dots, although Grant’s dots have become much larger and more like strokes. Beyond pure style, the homoerotic nature of the painting flags up another possible reason for the withdrawal of artistic bohemians to the countryside at a time when society (and the law) made clear its disapproval of those flouting conventions. Rural – or at least relatively isolated – areas enabled artists to live their lives in the way they wanted, and in the partnerships they desired, without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Eric Gill, living and working in nearby Ditchling, also led an unconventional life, if in a more extreme manner. Accusations of sexual aberrations including incest, abuse and bestiality have belatedly overshadowed his professional reputation as a sculptor and engraver
of note, but he was an important figure in the context of British art of this time. Eight of Gill’s sculptures had appeared in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, and the pared-down carving of his stone figures integrated well with the Bloomsbury artists and the French masters on show. The first sculpture by Gill that Roger Fry owned was rejected for fear that the presentation of the Virgin Mary as a sexual being might offend “a good many people’s susceptibilities”, but he commissioned another as a replacement.
In Ditchling, Gill set up home and a series of workshops providing space for stone carving and a press for printing designs and illustrations of religious scenes. Artists such as the Catholic painter and poet David Jones were attracted to this way of life, as were those in search of the lay religious community led by Gill as a tertiary of the order of St Dominic (Jones briefly became engaged to one of Gill’s daughters).
By the early 1930s, Gill had left Ditchling for Wales and the painters at Charleston had been eclipsed by younger artists such as Paul Nash. His depictions of Sussex have a darker, slightly menacing edge to them, and can perhaps be linked to his own experiences on the Western Front.
The dramatic perspectives and strange juxtapositions that appear in the views painted from Nash’s studio at Iden have been interpreted as statements of mourning: fallen trees as a symbol for the dead was common in the art and literature of World War I. Landscape at Iden from 1929 is unpeopled, distilled into a composition of forms, its disparate elements brought together as if in a nod to surrealism – a landscape so real that it looks unreal.
The years leading up to the World War II also saw an influx of artists and architects from the Continent escaping fascism. The German-
Jewish émigré Erich Mendelsohn and Russian-born Serge Chermayeff found a sympathetic supporter in the socialist Earl De La Warr, who commissioned the two architects to build the De La Warr Pavilion on the seafront at Bexhill in 1935. This construction of concrete and steel, with large windows and cantilevered balconies, has the clean lines and curves of classic modernist architecture, and is now celebrated as one of that decade’s most remarkable buildings. (Chermayeff found another admirer in Eric Gill, who discussed with him setting up an “Académie Européenne Méditerranée” – a school dedicated to the modern – which was never realised.)
Inside the De La Warr, the design included a curving staircase, chairs by Alvar Aalto and a mural by Paul Nash’s contemporary Edward Wadsworth, who had moved from London to Maresfield, near Lewes, in 1929. Wadsworth’s art is inspired by the sea and everything nautical: anchors, sails, flags and ships’ propellers. The inanimate objects are linked thematically but remain separate, a tension underpinning them in the manner of a surrealist composition, although Wadsworth never had any formal links with the surrealist movement in Britain.
At the other end of the county, collector and patron of the surrealists Edward James lived in his opulent family home, West Dean House. Having accused his dancer wife Tilly Losch of adultery with Prince Serge Obolensky (she countered this by accusing him of homosexuality) they had divorced, and in 1934 James left London for West Sussex where he attracted a number of surrealist visitors including Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. Dalí at the time was in dire financial straits, so James offered him a monthly salary for a year in return for everything he made. As a result, Monkton House, the hunting lodge on James’s estate, completely subverted the traditional English interior, creating a theatrical fantasy where anything became possible: a sofa resembling lipsticked lips, a telephone in the shape of a lobster…
Another Sussex resident, Roland Penrose, was instrumental in promoting surrealism in England. In 1936, he organised the first International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London, which included work from James’s collection. Penrose and his wife, Lee Miller – an accomplished photographer, war reporter and model – invited the cream of artists from the continent to stay at their home in Chiddingly. The likes of Picasso, Miró, Ernst and Man Ray all visited and left their mark.