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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A brilliant way to treat entangled lives: "A Crisis of Brilliance" by David Boyd Haycock

I am standing in our kitchen wondering why I chose David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance as the first book I read at our new home in France. Only tiny traces of the massive snowfall that greeted our arrival remain in the garden and half remembered schoolgirl French is slowly coming back to me. I do still feel like a bit of a newbie – a student on an exchange trip rather than a permanent resident. So maybe that is the reason behind choosing such a quintessentially English book for my first read.

A Crisis of Brilliance is that rare and excellent thing: a collective biography. It traces the lives of five British artists of the early twentieth century – Stanley Spencer, Dora Carrington, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler and Richard Nevinson. These artists all entered the Slade School of Art by wildly divergent routes at approximately the same time. They met, fought, loved and formed there and they are rightly associated with one another. When Britain went to war in 1914 they would be shattered apart – never to be reunited – never to recapture the glory days of their youth. For each of them the war would mean something different – alienation; disintegration; fear; grief; development; fame. For all of them their best work would emerge from the horror of conflict. The images that they produced, of landscapes torn asunder and men treated like machines have become standard ways of looking at the Great War – but at the time they were groundbreaking.

There are too few collective biographies in the world. Thinking about people in groups makes so much sense – we all live love and work in groups and the traditional format of the cradle to grave individual biography is often limiting. The subjects of Haycock’s book were drawn inexorably together and so Haycock has treated them together. They were all brilliant subversives who rejected the ordinary and the respectable. Individually and collectively, they lived for their art. In some cases they are already well known. Anyone who has seen “Carrington” will know the tragedy of Dora Carrington’s end as well as the unlikely subject of her most abiding love. Visitors to Cookham will know of the gentle, gauche Stanley Spencer whose paintings have come to represent so much of English identity. The brilliance of Haycock’s book is that he shows the staggering level of entanglement between these people.
This tale is a whirlwind of passion, repression, love, intelligence and alienation. Although it is non-fiction, Haycock’s prose reads effortlessly and often has the power of a novel – it moves from one scene to another, taking in a vast array of colourful characters. In many respects the beguiling, enchanting, often dishonest Dora Carrington, or “Carrington” as she preferred to be known stands at its centre. Crop haired, charming, confused, deceitful, she attracts almost everyone but struggles to respond to their affections. Mark Gertler, the Jewish émigré artist is the brooding, difficult heathcliffe – tormented by his visceral love for Carrington. Paul Nash stands aloof: courteous, urbane and thoughtful. Stanley Spencer, that genius of the English countryside is locked into a world where the verge of Jordan meets the Thames valley. Richard Nevinson is the angry, difficult young man who pushes away those whom he loves the most. Although we have all heard about them before, because Haycock has been brave with his format and approach, they come alive afresh on the page.


  1. I agree there are not enough group biographies-this sounds like a fascinating work

  2. Sounds fascinating. I've got Pat Barker's Life Class waiting for me to read. I think it's set around the same period. Just reading your blog has increased my wishlist considerably!

  3. I haven't read the book, because I have rarely had a good look at post-WW1 art before. But now I am writing and thinking about the topic, I will create a link to my post.

    Thank you
    Art and Architecture, mainly