on 18 November 2011
A Crisis of Brilliance is a lovely book. The lives of five artists who were all at the Slade together are interleaved against a background of the social norms of a time long lost. A time which was swallowed up by the First World War and all its horrors. Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson come from diverse backgrounds. They are all obsessive talented artists whose lives are intertwined whilst struggling in the whirlpool of their times. David Boyd Haycock evokes with learned brilliance the historical backgroung against which these vulnerable artists live their dramatic and tempestuous lives. Mark Gertler, probably the most talented, was obsessed with Dora Carrington who went on to love Lytton Strachey, yet married another only to commit suicide after Strachey's death. Stanley Spencer is obsessed with his village of Cookham only to be dragged away to war. Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson become war artists and then are faced with the crisis in 1919 of what a war artist without a war should do. For all of them their careers and talents developed in different ways. Surprisingly, shy, introvert Stanley Spencer became the greatest achiever of them all, being knighted in 1959 shortly before his death from cancer on 14th December.
on 8 December 2009
A Crisis of Brilliance is a group biography of five outstandingly talented young artists whose lives intertwine in the period leading up to the First World War. The achievement of this biography is that it manages to keep each of their individual stories going, while never losing sight of the wider context - the Slade, artistic movements, the build-up to the War and contemporary social and sexual mores. The author has clearly done a huge amount of research but this book never feels heavy going - on the contrary, you can almost believe Haycock was there himself, witnessing events firsthand and describing what he saw with insight and sympathy. For me, Stanley Spencer was the character who came most vividly alive, though all are deftly captured. I have always been fascinated by this period, and by the young lives that were so distorted and damaged by the First World War, but A Crisis of Brilliance has given me a new layer of understanding. A wonderful read.
I don't wish to rebut the other comments about this book - it was due to them that I bought it. However, the book's focus is entirely on the lives of the artists to the exclusion of discussing their works adequately. Yes, these people did lead colourful lives but it would be helpful to unpick and explain some of their works (Stanley S and Mark G really deserve better). Realistically, this book is closer to journalism than art history. Do read it - its a terrific, gossipy book - although don't expect insights into the works of art.
(The author's short introductory book Paul Nash is a must if you wish to learn more of this fascinating artist's work.)
on 16 February 2010
Although I studied Art History at A level over twenty years ago, I have read very little on the subject since. Given to me by a friend, A Crisis of Brilliance has re-sparked that old interest. This is testimony largely to Haycock's approach. The book is no fictionalised biography, but it reads almost as entertainingly. We follow five Slade artists through their most formative years, all their lives to some greater or lesser degree intertwined; but, as if the drama of their relationships and ambitions wasn't enough, this is played out against the backdrop of WWI. Haycock contextualises the drama wonderfully, vividly conveying a sense of the period out of the personal.
My one criticism is that I wanted to see more of the paintings written about. That said, since a sad scarcity of them in the book itself has got me planning a visit to The Imperial War Museum, I don't suppose that should be considered too great a failing!
20th century English artists weren't on the A level syllabus when I studied; if they are now - in fact, even if they're not! - then this is just the kind of book to draw students into the subject. It reads like a superior soap opera. Brilliant.
A CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE is one of the best biographies I've read. Haycock not only succeeds in bringing to life five fascinating and important painters at a time in their lives before they had achieved success or 'found themselves' artistically, he also illuminates, in elegant and accessible prose, a whole period and milieu - the years just before and during the Great War. We are first introduced to each artist individually, before their lives come together at the Slade School of Art in London, where they were all students under the famous drawing master Henry Tonks. The book divides roughly into two halves, with the first taking place before the war, and dealing with how the artists' friendships and relationships helped to form them as painters; in the second, Haycock traces the effect of the war on them and their art. Like all the best biographies, it manages to transcend its subject, telling a universal story about the artist's search for identity, and the struggle to find an adequate response to the great upheavals and traumas of his or her time: some of the most interesting and moving passages concern the very different personal and aesthetic reactions of the five artists to the war. Very highly recommended, and perhaps not just to those already interested in these particular artists.
The comments on the cover of this book are entirely justified, it is a most enjoyable and interesting read, and flows like a novel. The author, Haycock, has constructed a history of the artists attending the Slade School of Art in the first decade of the twentieth century and followed their careers principally to the end of the First World War. This was a particularly illustrious period for the Slade and the careers of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Gertler, Nevinson and Dora Carrington exemplify this flowering of great talent. Haycock does include material on other students and their sponsors and critics of the time. The author is very good at describing the complicated web of friendships and often obsessive relationships between the members of this group and how their artistic careers were supported or inhibited by the important figures in the artistic world of the time, notably Eddie Marsh, Fry, Rothenstein, Clive Bell and Ottoline Morrell. Haycock describes this tumultuous tale which involved murder, suicide and the devastating impact of the First World War in a very fast moving and lucid fashion. Sensibly, the author does not choose to follow the lifelong progress of the artists in detail after the War, but provides a summary of their somewhat declining work after that blaze of early creative glory. It is true that Haycock covers little that is new and not already available in excellent individual biographies but this bringing together of these interesting characters in this "novel" like fashion is a good read and will appeal to all interested in the art and colourful characters of this period.
on 25 November 2011
Biographies of famous individuals are published by the lorry load- some are carefully written, based on a selection of source material and a 'reading' or angle on the subject; Others eschew selection and chuck everything in (including the kitchen sink) hoping that it will provide a full uninterrupted life. The latter gigantic doorstep biographies began to provide the basis of a critique of biography itself. The answer to such critiques was to write "group" biographies that explored the connections between like minded artists or family members. A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders is an example. The group biography provided thematic possibilities as well as shifting focus on different individuals to avoid the potential boredom and skim reading caused by those doorstep single lives.
So- A Crisis of Brilliance explores five famous members who were at The Slade School of Art in pre first world war Britain and the effects of the war on their collective and individual lives and artistic careers. It is a group biography of individuals who have all been examined in single volumes by other writers- Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington plus an examination of the overlapping and connected friendships with other luminaries such as Ottoline Morrell and Gilbert Cannan. For a book about artists this is a nicely produced book itself-an attractive and eye catching cover coupled with easily read font and good colour plate reproductions of some famous paintings- the only caveat is that some of the black and white photos in the text are not very clear. However, as a physical object its still a thing of beauty and is an argument against the kindle in its own right. Richard Boyd Haycocks prose is unflashy and effective in guiding the reader through the lives of these young artists and creates great sympathy for their differing personalities, obsessions and relationships. The skill lies in careful selection of quotation from letters, diaries and anecdotes linked with a perceptive linking of their personal journeys. He is also good on how they were perceived by others outside their close knit group and in providing pen portrait historical and social context. What is occasionally missing is enough analysis of key paintings but one understands Haycocks need to keep the story flowing. He also manages some fascinating comment (sometimes in good informative footnotes) about other characters such as Gilbert Cannan (who spent the last 15-20 years of his life in various mental asylums) and includes facts I have never seen before- the army was apparently creating bantam battalions in world war one to cater for the shorter recruit. The individual and interconnected stories are moving - particuarly, Gertler's unrequited love for Dora Carrington and Spencers unexpectedly messy relationships in his post-war persona. Ultimately Haycock has chosen a winning subject that could cater for almost any reader with an interest in the life of an artist or the pre war world and its demise. this is a very good group biography that is a model of its type. Yes, the writing could have more dash and verve; yes there could be more analysis of the art that was produced; yes, the photos could be clearer but it does the job very well and sees me reaching for individual studies of all five artists to find out more as well as realizing how amazing their work really was, The books frontispiece has a great photo of The Slade Picnic of 1912. Atmospheric, haunting and
rather elegaic- part of a very good read.
on 30 October 2013
The artists discussed here were incredibly gifted and at the same time were probably irritating and self-obsessed. This book celebrates the first factor but doesn't idealise them. Think there's an illlustrated edition to tie in with the exhibition, Get that if you can afford it as the pictures are truly amazing.
on 8 March 2013
brilliant book, I didn't want to put it down.
A remarkable insight into the blossoming of artistic talent and the influence of The Slade in the years leading up to WWI. A time of innovation and the loosening of the shackles of the Victorian era. The profound, though not always appreciated, influence of the Slade's Henry Tonks comes through.
It was a time of social change as well as artistic innovation form to which so many of the great artists of the time struggled to adapt. The story is so often of doomed youth; not attributed to the war though, more the inability to adapt to a changing time where sexual and other mores had overtaken the emotional ability of so many of the artists to cope.
The lives of Gertler, Nevinson, Carrington, the Spencer brothers and so many more entwine, some of whose artistic lives flower as war artists, whilst others find the emphasis on war increasingly difficult to justify.
The book is beautifully illustrated, for me perhaps the most moving was Mark Gertler's 'The Merry-Go Round', described by D.H. Lawrence as'..the best modern picture I have seen...', yet which was suppressed for so long.
on 26 November 2014
I'm most impressed with the way Haycock manages to make the story of these five artists lives so vibrant, eminently readable and gripping, and tells so much about the reaction of such minds to cataclysmic world events, while still remaining scholarly (if the number of references is anything to go by). My only complaints, which are certainly not the author's fault, are firstly that the print in the paperback version is unnecessarily small and seems grey rather than black, so that I found it trying to read. In the end, I bought the Kindle version too, which I could read easily, though of necessity the plates were in black and white. Secondly, I would like to see more of the artists' work, and there is not that much out there on the web. But there's nothing like having your interest fired; it gives you something to look for in art galleries. Anyway, all in all, what could be a dry narrative bogged down with excessive facts was a fascinating read and a fine insight into the artistic mind.