The Fifties: Art from The British Council Collection


An exhibition of this size and scope can make no claims to provide a definitive account of British painting in the Fifties. Even so, it provides an illuminating and fascinating glimpse, however arbitrary, of the variety and quality of paintings made in England in a period that is now far enough away for us to see it with some historical perspective. It reveals a remarkable spectrum of practice, ranging from programmatic constructivisms, through varieties of abstraction more or less referential to perceived phenomena and natural objects, to a distinctive documentary realism. In what artists wrote and said at the time we discover corresponding divergencies of theory, or, to be more precise, widely varying thoughts about their practice. For British artists tend to the particular rather than to the general in their statements about art, and even when they align themselves with more rigorously theoretical movements in European art (constructivism, realism or surrealism, for examples) their commitment is more often than not compromised by an individualistic pragmatism, their art and utterance alike inflected by the metaphorical and the poetic.


If the best British art in this century, of whatever persuasion, can be said to have had an overriding characteristic, it is in its tendency towards an empirical eclecticism, as against that utopian striving for the pure and absolute that animated, in different ways, the major European and American modernisms. The obstinate individualism of British artists makes for stylistic diversity and distinctively personal emphases of expression even amongst artists with broadly sympathetic aims or affinities of interest. British efforts to create stylistic 'schools' or unified 'groups' have rarely lasted long, or gone beyond loose associations based as much upon friendship and academic or geographical proximity as on aesthetic policy or political ideology. Even so, looking back now it is possible to discern cross-currents and correspondences sufficient to indicate that British painting in the Fifties, whilst maintaining its idiosyncratic impurities of intention, successfully re-negotiated crucial links to contemporary painting on the continent, especially in its non-figurative manifestations.

In the immediate context, two cases are especially notable;

William Gear’s close links with Cobra between 1948-51; and Roger Hilton’s close association with Constant Nieuwenhuys which brought him to Amsterdam and first-hand contact with Mondrian’s paintings in 1953, and which effected a dramatic development in his work at that time.

Mel Gooding

The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Mel Gooding, entries and artists’ biographies by Tamsyn Woollcoombe and contemporary portrait photographs by Roger Mayne. ISBN 0 86355 391 5