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Humankind: Ruskin Spear

Class, culture and art in 20th century Britain

Published in the UK 13th January 2022
Author: Tanya Harrod
Part of the Studies in Art series by The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing
Series Editor: Martin Harrison

Back in the 1950s, Ruskin Spear (1911-1990) was regarded as one of a team of painters who characterised the best of ‘English’ or ‘British’ painting. But this acclaim was not to last. This book mines Spear’s life, work and influences in order to explore what it meant to be a British artist in the 20th century.

Front cover of book Humankind: Ruskin Spear, class, culture and art in 20th century Britain by Tanya Harrod

Humankind: Ruskin Spear, class, culture and art in 20th century Britain

Although he could never reasonably be called whimsical or eccentric, Spear certainly had a heightened vision when it came to the places he knew best, particularly his beloved Hammersmith. The three square miles where he was born, lived and died became the chief subject of Ruskin Spear’s landscape, genre and narrative paintings, as well as many of his portraits. Spear’s Hammersmith was firmly working-class, his colours muted, his architecture well caught but not detailed, his Thames windswept and foreboding. He made much of traffic in the rain, the bright iconography of advertised hoardings and the red brightness of London buses and underground signs. His inspiration was the physical richness of painting as a catholic tradition - from Rembrandt to Hogarth to Manet to Frith to Sickert, the latter commonly acknowledged as his most powerful influence.

In the 1950s, Ruskin Spear formed part of the patchwork of difference that made up ‘British painting’. But by the late 1960s, Spear was persona non grata at the British Council and the Arts Council – institutions that had been only too happy to invest in Spear’s early work. Suddenly he was regarded as a commercially successful artist whose dogged commitment to vulgarity went beyond the pale. But what led to this fall from grace and – more importantly – was it really fair?

Spear’s approach has been identified as anglicised or naturalised Impressionism. Ruskin Spear: Humankind argues that it is so much more. This book posits that Spear’s loyalty to socially committed art has long been overlooked and that he deserves our attention as a wartime artist and pacifist, recorder of everyday life and post-war ‘peacenik’, whose paintings often mocked and satirised the worlds of art, politics and consumerism.

The second in the Studies in Art series from The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing overseen by series editor Martin Harrison, Humankind: Ruskin Spear, Class, Culture and Art in 20th Century Britain hopes to honour its title by offering a social history approach to Spear’ life and times. It seeks to use what Michael Baxandall famously called a ‘period eye’ to rescue his pictures and the political position they represented from the complicated establishment which ultimately disregarded them.

This book charts the rise of a working-class boy, aided, paradoxically, by a physical disability, and with generous help offered by London County Council funding and scholarships. Spear’s story now appears part of a remote, almost unimaginable world of social cohesion, one that is well-worth revisiting.

About the author

Dr. Tanya Harrod is an independent design historian. Living in London, she has written widely on craft, art and design. She is currently co-editor of The Journal of Modern Craft. Following the success of The Last Sane Man, her biography of Michael Cardew (awarded the James Tait Black prize for biography), Humankind: Ruskin Spear offers a social history approach to the life and times of one of 20th century London’s most unique artistic talents.

Sample pages

The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, in association with Thames & Hudson

Hardback; 280 pages; UK RRP £35.00
ISBN: 978-0-500-97119-2
13 January 2022.

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