Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 15, 2019
Lynda Nead The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017. 416 pp.; 190 ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300214604)
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In Britain, contradictions characterized the decade and a half following the Second World War. The country, looking to rebuild itself, kept one eye on tradition and continuity, and even resorted to a nostalgia for the Victorian past. The other eye looked toward a clean start, to the innovative, to the modern. In order to convey this entangled “structure of feeling,” Lynda Nead—explicitly building on the gloss that Raymond Williams gave this phrase—makes the brilliant choice of organizing the book The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain around two visual poles that exemplify this tug between past and future: grayness and color. She traces them in the streets of bombed-out London and the fog and pollution that contrasted with the desire for an aesthetic that would signal an optimistic new start; looks at a different meaning for “color” in the Windrush generation of immigrants, and the visual language that registered Britain’s links to the commonwealth; and then, through an exploration of domestic decoration and everyday fashion, juxtaposes the brightness of postwar modernity with a continuing atmosphere of reticence and drabness. Nead shows how a model kitchen at the Ideal Home Show exhibition can be as symptomatic as a canvas influenced by Abstract Expressionism. As Williams explained in The Long Revolution (1961), a period’s defining and distinctive characteristics are especially discernible in “the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity . . . this structure of feeling is the culture of the period” (4). Following his lead, Nead emphasizes the components of everyday life. In doing so, she collapses—or rather, shows how the period collapsed—many distinctions between “high” and “popular” culture. In all of this, she underscores the fact that however strong the desire for a new, bright start might have been in postwar Britain, the long shadow of Victorian values and aesthetics continued to stretch over many aspects of British life.

The blurring of distinctions: this literally happened in the dense fog that enveloped London in December 1952, filling the air in the memorable photograph of a bus preceded by a man carrying a flare—a form of illumination that harks back to a much earlier time. Stasis or progress, the familiar rendered unfamiliar, Victorian in its contemplative, melancholic resonances: this muffling fog, pollution caused by burning economical coal dust, supports many symbolic as well as circumstantial readings. Its grubby color, as Margery Allingham pointed out in her 1952 crime novel The Tiger in the Smoke (which inspired Nead’s title), is also the khaki of the war years: years that left a residue of bomb sites and housing and food shortages, a world in which boundaries between externalities and interiors, whether material or psychological, were often unclear.

There is a finely calibrated forward movement to Nead’s narrative, while each chapter is clustered around carefully chosen themes and motifs that show the oscillations that existed between everyday life, with its frequent dullness and deprivations, and optimistic, aspirational plans and templates for the future. That cloying fog both plunged London’s inhabitants back into a world of Victorian slums and provided the impetus behind the 1956 Clean Air Act; Nead shows how the publicity surrounding this act quite literally emphasized the desire to “let in the sunlight” (11). (This particular cry was also uttered by such late nineteenth-century reformers as Jacob Riis, another instance of the Victorian period’s tendency to reemerge.) Housing reform is central to her second chapter, which examines the representation of bombed ruins—a motif that found itself in an uneasy dialogue with the Romantic tradition—and bomb sites, which suffered no such aesthetic hangover. These derelict, often sinister spaces provided ideal settings for British noir movies, and Nead deftly discusses their use of light, shadow, and suspense. One of the many delights of this book is the introduction it provides to many lesser-known films of the period, whether criminal narratives or more everyday domestic dramas. Another strength is its attention to the materiality of visual production, whether discussing the printing methods that gave the black-and-white photographs in Picture Post their distinct, high-contrast qualities or the saturated effects of Technicolor film stock.

The idea of letting in the light returns in chapter 3, when Nead’s compelling reading of a film that is still well-known—David Lean’s Great Expectations—builds toward the moment when Pip tears down the curtains in Satis House. If contemporary cinemagoers saw this as a symbol of optimism, banishing the Victorian shadows still draped over society, Nead also includes a very telling photograph from the film’s shooting: the Victorian horse-drawn coach that conveyed Pip to London stands alongside a bomb site (and, one might note, a London Transport bus bowls along in the background). For Nead, this anachronistic juxtaposition of Victorian and postwar stands for the jumbled temporalities of the time.

The grayness of postwar Britain was a color of resignation, of weariness, of reminiscence. For new immigrants from the Caribbean, it was also, understandably, associated with cold and damp. But, as Nead emphasizes in her next section, it was also the springboard for possibility, the color against which chromatic richness signified modernity and reconstruction. These central chapters are a truly valuable contribution to color studies, drawing together the cheerful use of color in publicity and confectionery; in interior decoration (including the cultural significances of the names bestowed on different hues in manufacturers’ color charts); in film (the stock for both still and moving photography in Britain often looked as though bright hues had been infiltrated by misty weather); in dress; and, by no means least, in race relations. A refusal to rent a room to a black newcomer is not a complete remove from sartorial choices when it was possible to buy an overcoat in a shade of brown that was designated by a now-offensive racial epithet. Nead is astute about the connotations of brightly colored clothing—an immigrant’s mark of respectability but in another context, a sign of potential immodesty, even of suspect racial identity—something discussed in relation to a remarkable film about passing, Basil Dearden’s Sapphire (1959).

Nead also discusses contemporary theories about the psychology of color, which found their way into advertising and design. She calls our attention to the prevalence of specific colors at certain moments. The color of the 1951 Festival of Britain (indeed, of that whole summer) was, unmistakably, a citrus yellow: a fresh color that spoke to the image of vibrancy the festival organizers wished to project, and that was further reflected in the more whimsical gaiety of the Battersea Pleasure Gardens just down the river (which were, albeit occasionally, showered with soot from the adjacent new power station) and on the cover of the guide to Barbara Jones and Tom Ingram’s Black Eyes and Lemonade exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery the same summer. As Nead explains, this show opened up questions about the place of vernacular art within British culture (and within art galleries). What kind of authenticity does it represent? Was this sentimental nostalgia, of the kind that seeps into Richard Hoggart’s account of changes to working-class culture in The Uses of Literacy (1957)—or was it a sign of democracy? Very usefully, Nead juxtaposes the vernacular with a different kind of opening-up in art: the new presence in Britain of postcolonial artists like Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling, and the appeal to them of new types of abstraction and formal experimentation. And through the statements of British-born painter, writer, and curator Patrick Heron, she shows how the shock of bright colors in his abstract canvases were in deliberate opposition to British dullness, primness, and wistful blue-gray reflection.

In 1952, in his review of the Young Contemporaries exhibition at the Royal Society of British Artists Galleries, John Berger remarked on a different tendency in British painting: an attitude “based on a deliberate acceptance of the importance of the everyday and the ordinary” (270). It was exemplified by John Bratby’s Still Life with Chip Frier (1954), showing a whole jumble of utensils and packaged foodstuffs that appear to have been tipped out of a cupboard onto a table, with no more regard to the conventions of still-life composition than to those of subject matter. In her third section, Nead returns to the domestic ordinary. The place of the coal fire in the modern home invites consideration both of the meaning of home and of the fuel consumed in the hearth. English Sundays had their own inimitable atmosphere of dull grayness: Nead discusses the rhetoric of the decade’s legislative debates around Sunday observance, and through the place Sunday held in 1950s films. Finally, she turns a couple of everyday sartorial items—the dressing gown (so frequently gray) and the modern innovation of the housecoat—into the starting point from which many other issues open out: post-ration-book clothing and an expansion of choices; gender roles and expectations; and, equally important, companionate marriage. The coupling of such an ideal of domestic partnership with the new Queen’s language to the people of her commonwealth pulls together the macro and the micro polarities in this study: the sought-for stabilities of home and of nation, the resonances of drabness and color, and old roles jostling against the new in these years of reconstruction, growth, and cultural debate.

Lynda Nead started her career as a historian of Victorian art and culture, writing particularly astutely about the representation of women, the visual culture of the metropolis, and then about the new media that signaled and conveyed the modernity of the world in or around 1900. It’s fascinating to see her analysis turned to the mid-twentieth century. She emphasizes again questions of gender and of new visual forms—although her continued attention to London invites a query about the speed of change throughout the country, despite the official language of unity that ran through the rhetoric of postwar nationhood. (Nead rightly notes that official statistics often masked regional differences.) The recurrence of such points of reference tacitly underscores one of her major claims: that the presence of Victorian Britain was still strongly felt in postwar culture. But the most significant continuity is one of method. For like Nead’s earlier books, The Tiger in the Smoke is exemplary in demonstrating that visual history does not occupy a hermetically sealed space, but is continually in dialogue with social, political, and literary matters. More than this, she succeeds wonderfully well in conveying that most nebulous of things—the atmosphere of the time.

Kate Flint
Provost Professor of Art History and English, Department of Art History, University of Southern California

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