THE EFFECT OF WAR ON BRITISH CULTURE
AN ADDRESS BY
SIR ERIC ROBERT DALRYMPLE MACLAGAN, K.C.V.O., LL.D., D.LITT.
Chairman: The President, Mr. Thos. H. Howse
Thursday, October 14th, 1948
My Lord, Honoured Guests and Gentlemen: I wonder if we in this fair Canada of ours realize how fortunate we were during the last war. Owing to our geographical position we were able to wage war in far places with all our energies while our home land remained inviolate from land, sea or air.
As we all know, England was not so fortunately situated and air bombing destroyed countless art treasures and historical monuments, which can never be replaced.
Today we are very fortunate indeed in having as our guest speaker, a very distinguished visitor from Great Britain, in the person of Sir Eric Robert D. Maclagan, who is going to tell us some of the effects the war has had on British culture.
Sir Eric is a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford and when I remind you that his father rose to great heights and became Archbishop of York, it would seem but natural that Sir Eric would choose a career in the realm of art and literature.
Sir Eric joined the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1905 and served in various capacities until he became a Director and Secretary, resigning in 1945.
He was loaned to the Foreign Office in 1916, went to France in 1918 and was attached to the Press Section of the British Peace Delegation to Paris in 1919.
Sir Eric has lectured at Dublin, Edinburgh, Belfast and Harvard Universities, and also at University College, Hull.
Sir Eric is President of the Museum Association and Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries. He is also Chairman of the Ministry of Town Planning and several other public bodies.
With such a background it would seem to be but natural that Sir Eric is also well-known as a writer and has written several books and articles.
I now have much pleasure in introducing Sir Eric Robert D, Maclagan, K.C.V.O., whose subject will be "The Effect of War on British Culture."
Gentlemen: I think it is extremely rash of you to have invited as a speaker one whose life has almost, if I might say so, been spent in a glass case in a museum, who would really qualify for the description which these dealers are so fond of giving to the object you wish to buy when they say it is a real museum piece.
But, as your Chairman has reminded you, the war and the continued bombing from the air did have effects of very wide reaching character in England and they even touched those sequestered places--museums. Everybody, I think one may say, in most parts of England--quite certainly everybody in London--had a good deal to put up with and those who came to London from outside were generous in their praise of the way in which especially the poorer people who necessarily suffered very much more, the magnificent way in which they stood up to it, but it was a real crisis for all forms of life, including those which could be summed up in the word "Culture".
There is a story which I am afraid may be familiar to those, who like myself, come over from England, about one old woman who was living in a small house and the house was bombed and reduced to ruins and she was buried under the ruins and the rescue squad came along and uncovered her head, and found she was all right, comparatively, but it would take them some time to dig her out. So they cheered her up the best they could and after a few minutes one of them who had been exploring the ruins of the house came back and said, "It's all right, Ma, we have found a bottle of whisky in a broken cupboard. I will uncork it and pass some of it down to you", whereupon a voice came out of the ruins, "Don't you dare touch that bottle, young man. I am keeping that for an emergency."
That was, I think I may say, fairly safely, the spirit in which a great many people in London met those attacks and they always felt that the real emergency might come afterward.
But what I have been particularly asked to speak to you about is the effect of the war and the immediate aftermath of the war on the people who have contributed to Art and Letters in various forms. I think one would have to make some kind of division between the different kinds of creative artists, because I think the effects of the war were very different upon them.
If I might speak first of all of writers, I suppose in a way they suffered less from the impact of war than most other classes of creative artists. That is to say that their material is so simple that they continued to be available. The war provided them with an additional subject of absorbing interest. I should be afraid to say how many novels written during the latter part of the war depended on their denouement on the happy accident of a bomb wiping out more inconvenient members of the cast, and the demand for books was enormous. Of course, it was difficult to get books printed in sufficient numbers, but nonetheless a great many books were written and all of them were bought with avidity, so it was extremely difficult, as a rule, to secure copies of books unless you got in right at the beginning.
Just before the war England lost the writer who was acclaimed to have been the greatest poet in the English language--W. B. Yeats, who died in 1939. During the war his younger contemporary friend, T. S. Eliot, went on writing great poetry and has just been, more or less on the occasion of his 60th birthday, rewarded with the highest honour which the King can confer upon him--the Order of Merit--and without attempting to go into a general catalogue of writers, such authors as Somerset Maugham produced admirable work during the war and a great many others that, as I said before, it would be invidious and tedious to attempt to mention.
Now, if I passed from writers to people with whom I was very directly concerned at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the craftsmen to whose reputation England really owes a great deal, they suffered terribly from the impact of war because materials of almost all kinds were in short supply and silversmiths and potters and cabinet makers and so forth literally could not carry on their work because they could not get raw materials. Furthermore, they were just the kind of producers whose work would be less in demand and it was only with the utmost difficulty that they managed somehow to carry on through the years of the war. A certain amount of assistance was given them. An institution was founded with which I had the honour of being connected, the Central Institute of Arts and Design, and;that tried to keep the interest in the crafts alive and made certain effort, not altogether without success, to get materials for them. But there is no doubt that they were extremely hard hit and I am afraid that that particular side of English art production has suffered in consequence. And to a slightly less extent the same applies to sculptors and to painters. They also found the question of material extremely difficult. It was almost impossible to get canvasses, it was very difficult to get actual paints and the other materials of their craft, and had it not been for a great deal of help from the Government I think they would have emerged in even worse shape than they actually did. But the Government employed a great number of the younger artists on war work, some of them going abroad with our armies, some of them staying at home and recording the changed life of Great Britain during those war years.
They again, like the writers, were provided with a fresh group of subjects and many of them--let me mention just two examples: the painter who died only recently, Nash--one of our best painters who did a great deal of admirable work in the way of war pictures, especially connected with the Air Force; and Graham Sutherland, who did wonderful pictures of the work in factories in England, and perhaps above all, the sculptor, Henry Moore, whose drawings of the life in the shelters and of life in some industries like the mining industry, are probably familiar to some of you, at any rate in reproductions.
They, then, as I say, carried on as best they could and curiously enough, actually during the war two of those artists--the two I mentioned--Graham Sutherland and Harry Moore--were given two important commissions for a church in the Midlands at Northampton and they produced two of the finest works of religious art which have been executed I think in this century.
The musicians were very active, I think, during the war. It is a long time since England has had a musician of international reputation and I think that there is one now in Britain whose opera, "Peter Grimes" was actually produced, if I remember right, just before the end of the war, and has since another opera of great interest and many other works, and other composers-again I don't propose to inflict a catalogue on you-went on with their work-again not much affected by any difficulties with material, although naturally conditions were difficult for all creative artists.
There was an immense activity in theatre during the war. That, I suppose, is natural enough. People urgently require recreation and all forms of theatrical life received a great impetus during the war. There was only one theatre in England which was open absolutely continuously, and I am bound to admit to you that it was of the kind that is known on this side of the Atlantic, certainly in the United States and perhaps also in Canada, as burlesque, but it still has a "pride" notice: "We Kept Open All The Time", outside of the theatre. Although most theatres had to close down at intervals, sometimes owing to destruction, sometimes owing to extraordinary difficulties of transport and lighting and although they had to change their hours, I believe anyone would agree the theatre was in a very flourishing condition during the war in London and in other parts of England and that it is in a very flourishing condition in England now. I can certainly assure you that anyone who wants to get a seat for any of the better performances in London has to book a long time ahead.
The architects during the war did very little work. They were, most of them, doing other things, but immediately after the war came to an end they were in a period when the difficulty was for them to choose between all the different commissions for reconstruction which they were being given.
That is a very hasty kind of summary about the effect, so far as I see it, of the war itself on creative artists. But I think what is more interesting is the effect of the war on the public of those artists.
You can imagine during the war it was not easy in London for people to satisfy their natural desires to see pictures, sculpture, so forth, or even to hear music, al though music was available in various forms in London, even through the war. But there is no doubt whatever that the moment the war was over the English public and, of course, the London public is the most fortunate in that respect--the English public showed an almost incredible and very astonishing avidity for every kind of art. Every exhibition that has been held since the war has been crowded out, and in most cases you will see what is to us a very unusual sight-queues standing outside museums and art galleries to get into exhibitions.
They laugh at us a little bit in London about the way we queue for everything. They tell us the immediate instinct of the English man, and perhaps still more of the English woman, is when she sees a queue to join it and find out later what people are lining up for.
But those queues for all the exhibitions that have been held in London since the war have been very impressive sights, and for various reasons: since the war there has been a far greater movement of works of art, both from foreign countries and from other parts of the British Empire than there was before the war, and these temporary exhibitions have excited an enormous amount of interest in England.
Further, there is now as a direct result of the war, a body called the Arts Council, which is sending works of art from London to the provinces in England in far larger quantity than was ever possible before the war, and these exhibitions, again in the provinces, are exciting an enormous amount of interest.
That is a point on which I should fear no kind of contradiction, that one immediate result of the war has been to arouse and excite the appetite of the public in Great Britain for works of art.
I think exactly the same thing is true about music. I have already said that the theatres in London are crowded and I hope will remain crowded because that is the best guarantee of good productions. But certainly concerts in London are absolutely packed now. We received a terrible loss in the fairly early stage in the war because the only really convenient concert room in England, the Queen's Hall, was completely destroyed by a direct hit from a bomb. But the concerts had to be moved to the Albert Hall, which while much larger is a very much less convenient building for most kinds of concerts and they are absolutely crowded out there.
In museums during the war naturally there was not much to be seen. All the most important things were sent from the London Museums and Galleries to places of safety in the country and I hardly dare even mention that subject because my recollections of it are so very full and so many queer and interesting things happened in connection with that evacuation that I should be talking for the rest of the afternoon if I began mentioning it.
But some of the museums--the Victoria and Albert Museum, with which I, myself, have the honour of being connected, kept open, like the little burlesque theatre, practically all through the war. We were closed for about a month or two after the outbreak of war when no one had the least idea what was going to happen. We were closed for a fortnight when we had an explosive bomb 125 feet in front of our front entrance which left us by no means unscathed and you couldn't admit people to museums or libraries when a large piece of ceiling had a habit of coming down with the vibration from outside.
But apart from a few breaks like that the Victoria and Albert Museum was open right through the war. In the latter part of the war they started an extremely good system by which one picture a month was brought back from its place of safety in Wales and put on exhibition and I can assure you, if you have only one great old first rate Master to look at, you look at it with a great deal of attention. It used to be carried down to the safest place in the cellar during the night. However dark the days, it was visible.
The Director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark, realized they could not show their pictures. There were a certain number of rooms in the National Gallery which were reasonably weather-proof, with wide' ceilings and floors, and he had the very happy idea that these could be used for concerts. So quite early in the war a system of very brief lunch hour concerts was started at the National Gallery at which the very best performers in England gave their services for a very low fee and which were arranged so the people could come in in their lunch hour, and I can assure you, practically every day those concerts at the National Gallery were crowded out.. There again, if you wanted to hear a quartette, or hear Myra Hess playing Beethoven on the piano, or something of that kind you had to go pretty early if you were going to get in. Arrangements were made by which a simple little sandwich lunch could be obtained and some people who gave up their lunch hour listening to good music didn't go altogether unfed.
That was one of the happiest after effects of the war on the art life of Great Britain, and I think it is a thing that probably will have later results because though the National Gallery is, of course, now occupied with its own pictures, there is such a demand for the lunch hour concert that I very much hope they will be able to start up somewhere else before very long.
Now, I can't pass over altogether, and here again if I were to begin talking about it I should go on indefinitely, the most tragic effect of the war on the art in England which was, of course, the actual destruction of great historical architectural monuments and particularly of the 17th and 18th century churches in the City of London. That is a loss which can never be altogether made good, but there is great activity about repairing those churches that are capable of repair.
I, myself, have had the honour of being associated with those activities during and after the war, and everything is being done that can be done, but I am afraid it is going very slowly because of the lack of labour and the lack of material. It is going very much more slowly than we had hoped.
Now, I have already touched on some of the post-war effects, but I think one might add this to what I have said That is I have already said the public has shown this extreme avidity for exhibitions, for music, for all kinds of art. It is showing the same enthusiasm still for books. But there the position remains a difficult one. We are very, very short of paper in England. All publishers are suffering from it and they are quite unable to make good the losses to their stocks because we have to remember that many of the publishers have places of business in the city and that those places of business were destroyed and years of books, years of stock were destroyed in one moment by bombs. The publishers are in great difficulty and. I believe I can say that this applies particularly to educational books.
One of your guests at the head table today knows far more about that than I do, but I do not think I should be incurring any risk of contradiction if I said that is one of the great problems in England now--the great dearth of educational books, the great difficulty of buying books, of even the most essential kind. This has driven people to make much larger use of the public and university libraries than they (lid before the war.
At the same time in our universities, particularly, there is a very great increase in the number of students. In some of the small universities, particularly in the country the numbers have been doubled and trebled in relation to what they were before the war, whereas it has been impossible to make a corresponding increase in the 'teaching staff. So all work in universities in England is being done under very considerable difficulty, with the shortage of books and the shortage of accommodation and perhaps most serious, the shortage of teachers.
That is an effect about which we are all naturally delighted, that more people should want to go to university, but we haven't altogether solved the problem of how to meet their requirements when they get there.
There are two developments in England which I think must have just a brief mention. One, the creation last year of the Edinburgh Festival. That was a great experiment. I had put up a very considerable sum of money to guarantee the Festival and they arranged a programme of exhibitions, of concerts, of plays, of operas, of everything, every sort of activity during the period of three weeks or so in the summer. The Festival last year was an immense success-not quite a success financially, but a success in every other way and it was repeated this year. It was again a tremendous success and I believe there is no question that it is going to be repeated next year.
It was quite a new departure in England. To some extent I suppose an imitation of the Festivals of the same kind that had been held on the Continent at Salzburg and other places in the period between the wars and has been becoming a permanent characteristic of cultivated life in Scotland.
Then we had an extremely interesting open air exhibition of sculpture in Batterson Park. Such a thing, as far as I know, had never been held before. Statues and groups were taken out of the national collections, out of the galleries and other collections and put in the open air and a great many sculptors provided work of their own and lent it and two or three sculptors, including Henry Moore, did work especially for the exhibition. It was a quite unexampled success. I was a little bit concerned with it. I was on the Committee and we had some doubts, partly based on our knowledge of the uncertainties of the English climate, as to whether an outdoor exhibition in London would really be a great success. It was a triumphant success. We had far, far more visitors than we expected. In fact, the visitors were so numerous that the grass was completely trodden away in front of the more prominent exhibits. I hope very much that that experiment may be repeated at some future date.
May I then sum up by saying that in spite of all the difficulties which artists and writers and persons with the power of creation in all different fields met with during the war, and in spite of many difficulties that exist now that the war is over, on the whole the record is rather a cheering one, so far as England is concerned. I don't think the future ages will look back-it is very nearly ten years now-on the last nine or ten years as being in any way a barren or discreditable period in English art and letters. At any rate, I think we may say fairly that England has emerged with at least three workers in the field of the Arts who have that kind of international reputation which is not very common at any time and to which only very few nationals of any country can aspire. I mean, of course, T. S. Eliot, as a poet. It is an extraordinary thing to look in the volume which has just been published of essays and so forth, just published in honour of Eliot's 60th birthday. The immense amount of interest his poetry has aroused, for example, in India and Ceylon and in practically all the countries of Europe. Nearly all the greater European countries have published translations of Eliot's works and essays, and we have I believe, given the world a poet of the very first order.
Then in sculpture, I think exactly the same applies to Henry Moore. I am myself concerned with the art work of the British Council and I know from every Council the one unfailing demand, is, can't you send us a large scale exhibition of the work of Henry Moore? Probably many of you know there was a very big exhibition last year in New York and a large part of it went on afterward to Australia. But sculpture is difficult to transport. It is risky to transport and it is expensive to transport and that does make it much more difficult for the British Council or any other body to send around exhibitions of sculpture and the corresponding exhibitions of painting and drawing and so forth.
Even so, I think there is no question that perhaps for the first time during anything like the last couple of centuries, England has now a sculptor who, whether people like him or not--I don't mean to say everybody does admire Henry Moore--certainly has a reputation of the most far-reaching character.
And the third I would name would certainly be the musician, Benjamin Britten, because there again, except for the light opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, English opera has not had much of a public outside England for a long time. Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes", and his second opera, "The Rape of Lucrece" have been performed in Switzerland, in Belgium, in Stockholm, and in Paris if I remember right, and in other countries of Europe, and it is only the very great difficulty of moving materials of opera about that have prevented those operas being given in a great many other countries as well.
I think even with those three artists as types to mention for what England has managed 'to achieve of recent years, that England need not be altogether ashamed of herself in this rather remote, if you like, aspect, which you have so very kindly allowed me to speak to you about today.
And I would only like before I sit down to apologize for the fact that my sequestered life has made it quite impossible for me to address you on any of those many subjects of importance and interest which I know your other guests have treated in the recent past. Thank you very much.
THE PRESIDENT: I am going to ask Mr. Pugsley if he will be good enough to voice the thanks of this meeting to Sir Eric.
MR. PUGSLEY: Mr. President and Gentlemen: I would like to express the thanks of the Club for the entertaining and instructive address that we have heard today. As Sir Eric is doubtless aware we have recently had an inspiring exhibition of the work of the British War Artists here in Toronto. In Canada we have also been deeply affected by British culture and we have enjoyed hearing what is happening in Britain today. We are therefore deeply grateful to Sir Eric for the time and trouble he has taken in giving us this talk today. I have much pleasure in moving a vote of thanks.