As he traces London’s art scene from the 1940s to the 1970s, the configuration of friends and rivals he presents is as lucid as a family tree. Filled with vivid anecdotes that might have otherwise disappeared into the Soho air, Modernists & Mavericks is Mr. Gayford’s masterpiece, and a major work of modern art history ... Mr. Gayford identifies a common thread of 'idiosyncratic accommodations'—to the history of art, to photography, to war and its aftermath, to Romantic Paris and the romance of postwar London. He also detects a common pursuit of what Freud called 'art that is in some way concerned with truth'—an effort to produce painting that, in Mr. Gayford’s words, 'felt like reality without imitating it.'
This is a panorama, one that feels in some senses definitive (largely, perhaps, because he has the guts to turn periodically away from the most famous figures of the time, the better to allow other names—David Bomberg, say, or Victor Pasmore—a look in). But it also swirls excitingly. Even the long, drawn-out conflict between abstraction and figuration appears here not as some dry, academic thing, but as the very air artists breathed—and on which some of them would end up choking ... Gayford deploys [Francis] Bacon’s voice to brilliant effect, and you hang on to every word, from his conviction that he wanted his pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, leaving a trace of human presence 'as a snail leaves its slime' ... In Modernists & Mavericks, then, he [Bacon] is inevitably the star around which all the other planets orbit.
As Martin Gayford shows in his superb survey of British painting from 1945 to 1970, London—almost exclusively—became the gathering place for young men and women determined to make art appropriate for the new age ... Gayford has interviewed many of the leading British artists of the postwar generation and, for good measure, has been painted by Freud and written books with David Hockney. These encounters have given him a great deal of verbatim comment from figures who were at the front line; he has mined it with adroitness to illustrate the shifts and movements of the period ... in this wonderfully accomplished book, full of anecdotes and aperçus, there is hardly an anodyne figure. If, time and again, Gayford reinforces Roger Hilton’s observation that 'very few artists know what they are doing,' his mavericks made unique and gripping art as they tried to find out.
Gayford starts with people, moments and meetings, standing firm in the belief that 'pictures are affected not only by social and intellectual changes but also by individual sensibility and character.' Three cheers for that faith in individuals ... Gayford starts with people, moments and meetings, standing firm in the belief that 'pictures are affected not only by social and intellectual changes but also by individual sensibility and character.' Three cheers for that faith in individuals ... The book’s span allows Gayford to plot several generations in relation to each other, and it’s striking how many of the most potent encounters involve forms of teaching ... Gayford attends particularly to the relationship between long concentration and sudden achievement ... The great figures of the 60s are passing—which is all the more reason to be grateful for a book that takes us right into their world.
It is an exciting story. This is not a book about plasticity, or tactile values, or the merits of one medium (acrylic, say) over another (oil paint, say). There are the necessary paragraphs about philosophical issues like the relation of draughtsmanship to painting or issues posed by Hockney’s fascination with what EH Gombrich called 'the art of illusion.' But these are never allowed to slow down the narrative. If you are interested in modern British art, the book is unputdownable. If you are not, read it. You soon will be. This is not a picture book with commentary. The images are there for the text ... Gayford’s eye for the dramatic, his novelist’s approach, feasts upon events and stories ... Gayford carefully avoids an elegiac note ... Yet it is difficult for the contemporary reader not to sing a lament for the makers ... His driving account of a miraculous time in British art may well prove its memorial.
Gayford acknowledges that these artists had no 'coherent movement or stylistic group,' and the book suffers for it: chapters feel randomly organized rather than unified. However, this is still a fascinating look at postwar London artists, filled with entertaining figures ... This well-researched history shows the enduring results of such single-minded nonconformity.