By Sonia Brownell
[Transcribed from Horizon Volume III, No. 17, May 1941]
On May 17th an exhibition of paintings by the Euston Road Group will be opened at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and will continue for two months. This has been organised by the Contemporary Art Society, whose work since the war deserves great praise and particularly support. Not only does it still continue to buy paintings by living artists for presentation to gallerys [sic], but it has organised exhibitions of paintings for sale throughout the country, of which this is the fifth.
Everyone who is interested in contemporary painting knows the name ‘The Euston Road School’. Some look on it as a movement of vitality, promise and importance; while others, amazed that work which appears to them so commonplace and unexciting can have attracted attention, attribute its success to chance. As this is the first exhibition to be devoted to their work, it will be possible to see it as they themselves wish to present it; for although some of Coldstream and Pasmore’s best pictures are unfortunately in America, the selection is certainly representative and indicates their approach to their work. Although each of the painters constituting the group has an entirely personal style, there is a similarity of approach which gives the exhibition the unity which has caused the interest in their work to be collective as well as individual.
The Euston Road Group consists of only a few painters and their pupils, with not a very large body of work. Claude Rogers, William Coldstream and Rodrigo Moynihan were at the Slade together in Tonks’ last years, and shortly after they met Victor Pasmore and Graham Bell. The School as a school was opened by Coldstream, Pasmore and Rogers in 1938, when they took a studio off the Euston Road. It was Sir Kenneth Clark who was largely responsible for this venture, as his patronage enabled three of them to devote their entire time to painting and give up the various jobs by which they had been supporting themselves, while his continued encouragement ensured the survival of the School; Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Mrs. Anrep were also among those whose interest were invaluable. Their pupils were young students who admired their work and painted in the studio with them. Though at present – as is inevitable and only natural – the work of these pupils is largely imitative and the influence of the older painters remains the most striking feature of many of their pictures, some of them show great promise; Colin McInnes, Denys Dawnay and Basil Rocke exhibit some interesting work, and Lawrence Gowing, who is beginning to make a reputation for himself, is seen to advantage.
In the years leading up to 1938 they had, like most young painters, experimented in a variety of methods of painting, but a genuine similarity of interests and feeling had brought them to together and gradually led them to the formation of styles alike enough to constitute a group; so that this group was not an artificial product, but the outcome of a natural growth, with the ‘Euston Road Style’ not the result of a programme or manifesto, but a natural development which they had been at no pains to cultivate. They had found no satisfaction in working within the conventions of any of the modern schools, nor had they the urge to reply on the exploitation of any personal idiosyncrasies exaggerated into a style of extreme individualism. Behind the work of these painters was a desire to paint unhampered by what they considered the mannerisms of most contemporary schools of painting, to try to see they objects they painted directly and to render the in all their complexity.
The painters of the Euston Road School resemble each other in that they all paint almost entirely from nature. They find the release of their imagination in the visual selection of subject-matter which for any reason at all excites or interests them, and in the careful exploring of its appearance. And so their subjects are nearly always simple ones, people or things which can be directly observed while the artist works. To try to render what was seen in all its complexities, although certain of its features may appear to be unsuitable for translation for into an existing pictorial manner, is their concern; and it was particularly interesting at a time when such methods were not generally used by the younger painters. The Post Impressionists seemed to have driven too much of the humanism out of their art and to have narrowed it down to an affair of design, while the compulsory anarchy of the Sur-Realists was equally unsympathetic to the temperaments and talents of the Euston Road painters. They might perhaps be called ‘prose-painters’, for they work slowly, referring to the authority of the observed fact before making each statement. They do not deliberately set out to describe their emotions or allow their attention to be diverted from the visual appearance. Technically they work most often by building up their pictures with layer upon layer of their paint, reaching an impasto only at the end in certain passages.
But if they are slow workers and their output compared with that of many modern painters small, their methods and approach are such as to allow them to work with deliberate clarity and some detachment; and the excitement of their work for the spectator lies in their ability to throw new light on plain subjects and make us as interested in them as the painters themselves.
[Horizon note: Paintings by Pasmore and Gowing were reproduced in Horizon, Nos. 7 and 12]