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Book reviews

Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists

Caroline Maclean, (Bloomsbury , 320pp, £30)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Darling

Circles and Squares takes its readers into the studios and homes of many of the artists, architects and clients who sought to ‘make it new’ in the 1920s and 1930s. From Barbara Hepworth, Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson, Herbert Read and Margaret ‘Ludo’ Ludwig, all at the Mall Studios; Henry and Irina Moore at Parkhill Road (and later Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder); Wells Coates and Jack and Molly Pritchard (and Beatrix Tudor Hart) at Lawn Road, not to mention Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer (and very briefly) Laszlo Moholy Nagy; John Piper and Myfanwy Evans in Belsize Park; and the Coldstreams, W H Auden and Louis MacNeice at Keats Grove and Upper Park Road, the book introduces us to the often complicated love lives and social interactions that underpinned the modernism for which this north London enclave is renowned.

Maclean does a good job at conveying the heady atmosphere of Hampstead throughout the 1930s. There are highly-detailed accounts of the artists’ lives, using personal correspondence so that we can really hear the protagonists’ voices. Quotations, such as Mondrian’s observation, on being issued with his gas mask in 1938, that this was ‘not very encouraging’, take us right into the impending sense of doom as events in Europe took a turn for the worse. Extracts from letters between Ben Nicholson and Hepworth allow us to follow the unfolding of their relationship as well as gain a sense of the pure egotism that allowed them to step out of the romance and focus on their work, to continue their experiment into going modern and being British. Like all the couples (and sometimes the couples plus previous or additional partners!) explored in the book, there is a sense that we join them in their creation of a new dawn in which it was tremendously blissful to be alive. We also gain a sense of when such relationships went awry, for example when Coates fell out with the Pritchards, or as Unit One imploded from the sheer weight of artistic personalities involved.

The emphasis on lives as opposed to work does mean that the actual paintings, sculptures and buildings do get rather lost in the discussion, and the distinctly murky quality of the images throughout the book does not help in this respect. Nevertheless, Circles and Squares, in its emphasis on the human lives that created a British modernism, provides an added dimension to the existing scholarly literature on this key moment in the nation’s cultural history.


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