Young Writers of the Thirties

25 June - 7 November 1976

Press Notice

During the 1930s young British and Irish writers were a vigorous influence on the international literary scene. Using a variety of experimental and direct styles, they responded dramatically to the extraordinary events of their time. In fact, this generation brought English literature into closer contact with social and political upheaval than it had been since the French Revolution fired the imagination of the Romantic poets.

Young Writers of the Thirties attempts to capture some of the spirit of this important decade. It deals with issues that aroused the new generation of writers; it looks at the style of their response as well as the nature of their involvement. The exhibition focuses attention on five writers, each important in his own right and all linked by common elements in their writing: W.H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender.

The exhibition includes some 300 items. Among them many unpublished letters which illustrate each writer’s reactions to political and literary events, and some manuscript drafts of both published and unfinished work. The bulk of the display consists of photographs of the period used to illustrate themes rather than simply as anecdote; the emphasis is definitely literary. Some of the photographs are blow ups of background scenery. Much of the photographic material is by Humphrey Spender, brother of Stephen, an important photographer of the time.

The photographic exhibits are connected by a written commentary, but the general aim is to let the writers speak for themselves.

Handlist

(Please note: sitters’ biographical dates have been updated from the original hand list. Updated December 2012). 

1. Cecil Day Lewis (1904-1972) aged 2, c.1906
Poet, critic and novelist
Collection: Mrs C Day Lewis
(RN: 25717)

2. Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) aged 11, c.1918/19, in the garden of his father’s rectory at Carrickfergus
Writer broadcaster and university teacher
Collection: Lady Nicholson
(RN: 25718)

3. Louis MacNeice, aged 11, c.1918/19, in the garden of his father’s rectory at Carrickfergus
Collection: Lady Nicholson
(RN 25723)

4. W.H. Auden (1907-1973), c.1911 in Monmouth
Poet, playwright and critic, with his brother John Bicknell Auden, geologist and mountaineer
Collection: John Bicknell Auden

5. Stephen Spender (1909-1995) as a baby
Poet, critic, translator and university teacher
Collection: S or H Spender.

6. W.H. Auden with his mother Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden (1870-1941), c.1907 in York
Collection: J.B. Auden

7. Christine, Humphrey, Michael and Stephen Spender, c.1916
Collection: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25430)

8. George Augustus Auden (1872-1957), physician, classicist and antiquarian, with his sons, Wystan, Bernard, John and his wife Constance Auden, on holiday, c. summer 1917
Collection: John Bicknell Auden
(RN25716)

9. W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), novelist, biographer and university teacher, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x541

10. Stephen Spender
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25719)

11. Louis MacNeice as a graduate at Oxford, c.1926.
Collection: King’s College, Cambridge
(RN: 25720)

12. Cecil Day Lewis
Photograph: Mrs Charles Fenby
(RN: 25721, 25746)

13. Louis MacNeice with his first wife Mary in Birmingham
Collection: Lady Nicholson
(RN: 25722)

14. Christopher Isherwood in Berlin
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
Collection: NPG
P41

15. Christopher Isherwood with his friend Heinz and Humphrey Spender, Rügen Island, Germany
Photograph: Stephen Spender

16. Christopher Isherwood, 1928
Photograph: Edward Upward
(RN: 25724)

17. Christopher Isherwood holding his first novel All the Conspirators on the day of publication in 1928
Photograph: Edward Upward

18. Christopher Isherwood and a friend (Heniz) in Berlin
Photograph: Stephen Spender
(RN: 25448)

19. Christopher Isherwood
Photograph: Stephen Spender

20. Christopher Isherwood with Heinz, Rügen Island, Germany
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

21. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Poet, playwright and critic
Collection: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library
(RN: 25423)

22. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), poet and novelist, with the painter Stephen Tennant (1906-1987)
Collection: Rosamond Lehmann
(RN: 25695)

23. Leonard Sidney Woolf (1880-1969)
Political theorist, publisher and author
Photograph: Stephen Spender

24. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Novelist, essayist and critic
Collection: Central Press Photographs Ltd.
Photograph: Lenare

25. Men picking out coal from a slag heap in Tyneside, late 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender, for Mass Observation
(RN: 25699)

26. Scene at Cambridge during May Week, mid 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

27. Scene at Cambridge during May Week, mid 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

28. Scene at Cambridge during May Week, mid 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

29. Scene at Cambridge during May Week, mid 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

30. Unemployed men, Tyneside, late 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender, for Mass Observation

31. Unemployed men, Tyneside, late 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender, for Mass Observation

32. Unemployed men,
Newcastle Bridge, Tyneside, late 1930s
Photograph: Humphrey Spender, for Mass Observation

33. Christopher Isherwood, E.M. Forster (1879-1970), novelist, and William Plomer (1903-1973), author and editor, at Aldeburgh, c.1938
Photograph: William Caskey
Collection: Kings College, Cambridge
(RN: 25691)

34. Geoffrey Grigson (1905-1985)
Poet and editor of New Verse
Collection: Geoffrey Grigson
(RN: 25688)

35. Janet Adam Smith (1905-1999) and Michael Roberts (1902-1948), at the Col du Geant hut under Mont Blanc, 1934
Writers and editors
Collection: Janet Adam Smith
(RN: 25706)

36. John Frederick Lehmann (1907-1987)
Writer, publisher and editor of New Writing, c.1937
Collection: John Lehmann
(RN: 25693)

37. Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990), novelist, with her husband Wogan Philipps (1902-1993), painter and farmer, and John Hayward (1905-1965), critic and editor
Collection: Rosamond Lehmann
(RN: 25687)

38. Eric Robertson Dodds (1893-1979)
Classical scholar; Professor of Greek at Birmingham University (1924-1936)
(RN: 25707)

39. The Dodds’ garden at Birmingham when both W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice were frequent visitors
Collection: E.R. Dodds
(RN: 25690)

40. Edward Upward (1903-2009)
Novelist
Collection: Edward Upward
(RN: 25692)

41. W.H. Auden with William Menzies Coldstream (1908-1987), painter and teacher, and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), composer
Collection: NPG
x15191
(RN: 25689)

42. Scene from a Berlin window used in Humphrey Spender’s design for the cover of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

43. Jean Ross (1911-1973)
Cabaret singer
Isherwood based the central figure in one of his most famous Berlin stories, Sally Bowles (1937) on Ross.
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25740)

44. Photo-montage by John Heartfield of a caricature of Goering against the background of the burning Reichstag building, Berlin in 1935.
(RN: 25745)

45. A street cafe in Berlin, with a glass dome for the orchestra
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25686)

46. Bolton roof tops
Photograph: Humphrey Spender, for Mass Observation

47. Scene of pylon and a horse-drawn plough
Collection: John Topham Picture Agency
(RN: 25744)

48. English rural scene
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

49. Scene of bicycles in a street, Bolton
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

50. German soldiers in a town in the Black Forest, Germany, c.1933
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

51. Communist rioters being searched for weapons, Berlin, 11 August 1931
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25701)

52. John Banting (1902-1972) in the Austrian Alps, c.1933
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

53. Police taking possession of the Rohe Fahne building, the centre of the Berlin communist party, after the riots of 10 August 1931
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25702)

54. Barricades erected by rioters, Berlin, 2 May 1932
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25701)

55. Scene in Innsbruck during the Nazi occupation of Austria, 1938
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25704)

56. Members of the staff of the communist party headquarters at the Karl Liebknecht-Haus on Bulowplatz, Berlin, being taken for questioning about the murder of two policemen, 17 August 1931
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25703)

57. Reluctant bystanders give the Nazi salute, Innsbruck, March 1938
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25452, 25743)

58. A small Bavarian village, sign: ‘Juden sind hier nicht erwunscht’ (Jews are not wanted here), 1932
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25673)

59. Members of the Hitler Youth movement, Freiburg, 1932
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25437)

60. Slogans on a pillar in support of Benito Mussolini, ‘Il Duce,’ Italy, c.1930
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

61. Slogans on a church in support of Benito Mussolini, ‘Il Duce,’ Italy, c.1930
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

62. The first press photograph of the Basque town after its devastation, probably by German bombers, on 29 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War (July 1936 – March 1939)
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25705)

63. Christopher Caudwell (1907-1937)
Poet and critic, killed fighting in the International Brigade in Spain
Collection: T. Stanhope Sprigg
(RN: 25684)

64. Julian Bell (1908-1937)
Poet, killed in Spain where he was an ambulance driver, c.1930-32
Collection: John Lehmann
(RN: 25729)

65. John Cornford (1915-1936)
Poet; killed fighting with the International Brigade
Collection: John Lehman
(RN: 25422)

66. A demonstration against Fascist Spain, Trafalgar Square, London
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25685)

67. Poster supporting Benito Mussolini, ‘Il Duce,’ Italy, c.1930
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25742)

68. A rally of the British Union of Fascists at Wood St., Millbank, London
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25680)

69. “Worktown Study”: Bolton, Lancashire
Photograph: Humphrey Spender, for Mass Observation

70. Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), addressing a meeting in Bethnal Green, at Victoria Park Square
Founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25681)

71. Hunger marchers in Trafalgar Square, London, 1934
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25682)

72. Scottish hunger marchers
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

73. A member of the band rests on his way to London on one of the many hunger marches of the unemployed.
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

74. Communist marchers entering Victoria Park, Bethnal Green
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25683)

75. Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x540

76. W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x2949

77. Louis MacNeice, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1624

78. Cecil Day Lewis, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1611

79. Group Theatre production of Trial of a Judge by S. Spender, 1937
Scene outside the Palace of Justice
Produced by Rupert Doone and designed by John Piper
Photograph: Humphrey Spender

80. Group Theatre production of The Dog Beneath the Skin by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, 1935-36
Scene: Members of the chorus
Produced by Rupert Doone, designed by Robert Medley, with music by Herbert Murrill Collection: Robert Medley
(RN: 25713)

81. Rupert Doone (1903-1966)
Dancer, actor, producer and the founder of the Group Theatre in 1932
Collection: Robert Medley
(RN: 25713)

82. Rupert Doone at a Group Theatre Summer School, with Renata Kuh, Diana Murray Hill and Jean Richardson, 1935/36
Collection: Robert Medley
(RN: 25714)

83. Group Theatre production of The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
Scene: Mr and Mrs A at breakfast
Produced by Rupert Doone, designed by Robert Medley with music by Benjamin Britten, 1934
Collection: Robert Medley
(RN: 25715)

84. Group Theatre production of The Agamemnon by Aeschylus, translated by Louis MacNeice, 1936
Introductory scene
Produced by Rupert Doone, designed by Robert Medley and music by Benjamin Britten
Collection: Robert Medley
(RN: 25711)

85. Group Theatre production of Out of the Picture by Louis MacNeice, 1937
Scene: Outside a cinema
Produced by Rupert Doone, designed by Robert Medley and G.N. Monk, and music by Benjamin Britten
Collection: Robert Medley
(RN: 25711)

86. Entry missing

87. Group Theatre production of The Agamemnon by Aeschylus, translated by Louis MacNeice, 1936
Scene showing the transparent masks used for the chorus
Produced by Rupert Doone, designed by Robert Medley and music by Benjamin Britten Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25743)

88. William Empson (1906-1984)
Poet critic and broadcaster
Collection: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library
(RN: 25698)

89. Rex Warner (1905-1986),
Writer and classical scholar, with his wife Frances on a visit to Cecil Day Lewis
Collection: Sean Day Lewis
(RN: 25697)

90. Rosamond Lehmann
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1637

91. George Orwell (1903-1950)
Writer
Collection: Secker and Warburg

92. Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)
Poet
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG

93. Cyril Connolly (1903-1974)
Writer, editor and critic
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1635

94. Benjamin Britten
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1749

95. Victoria Sackville-West (1892-1962)
Novelist, poet and gardener
Photograph: Gisele Freund
P437

96. Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)
Novelist
Photograph: Gisele Freund

97. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
Economist, friend of Bloomsbury Group and patron of the arts
Collection: Ramsay and Muspratt

98. Still from the GPO film Night Mail by W.H. Auden, 1935
Collection: British Film Institute

99. Still from the GPO film Night Mail by W.H. Auden, 1935
Collection: British Film Institute

100. Still from the GPO film Night Mail by W.H. Auden, 1935
Collection: British Film Institute

101. The Prime Minister Arthur Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) about to leave Heston aerodrome for the last of his meetings with Hitler during the Munich crisis, 29 September 1938.
Collection: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library

102. War declared, 3 September 1939
Collection: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library

103. W.H. Auden in old age
Collection: Stephen Spender
(RN: 25678)

104. W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood on Fire Island
Photograph: Lincoln Kerstein
(RN: 25746)

105. W.H. Auden, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x3089

106. W.H. Auden, 1928
Collection: Durham University
(RN: 25676)

107. Stephen Spender at his home, 1966
Photograph: Mark Gerson

108. Stephen Spender
Photograph: Lincoln Kerstein

109. Stephen Spender
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
x14701

110. Stephen Spender
Collection: Stephen Spender

111. Christopher Isherwood in London, 12 May 1967
Photograph: Tony Eyles
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25679)

112. Christopher Isherwood
Collection: John Lehmann
(RN: 25677)

113. Christopher Isherwood
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25416)

114. Christopher Isherwood
Collection: Edward Upward

115. Louis MacNeice at a reception given by Faber and Faber Ltd., 1961
Photograph: Mark Gerson

116. Louis MacNeice
Collection: E.R. Dodds
(RN: 25675)

117. Louis MacNeice, c.1937
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x22811

118. Louis MacNeice
Collection: Lady Nicholson
(RN: 25418)

119. Cecil Day Lewis
Collection: Stephen Spender
(RN: 25674)

120. Cecil Day Lewis
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1609

121. Cecil Day Lewis
Photograph: Howard Coster
Collection: NPG
x1608

122. Cecil Day Lewis
Collection: Sean Day Lewis
(RN: 26445)

123. Mary MacNeice (first wife of Louis MacNeice); photograph sent as a Christmas card to Anthony Blunt, 1934.
Collection: King’s College, Cambridge

124. André and Olive Mangeot with both their sons, standing behind Christopher Isherwood’s car
Photograph: copy of original in collection of Sylvain Mangeot
(RN: 25725)

125. André Mangeot taking Sylvain Mangeot back to prep school
Photograph: copy of original in collection of Sylvain Mangeot
(RN: 25726)

126. Robert Medley (1905-1994)
Designer, at work on the Old Vic curtain
Collection: Robert Medley

127. Homer Lane
American psychoanalyst
(RN: 25694)

128. W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood setting off to China, 19 January 1938
Collection: Daily Herald Picture Library
(RN: 25709)

129. German Soldiers
Photograph: Humphrey Spender
(RN: 25708)

130. W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood
Collection: Lockwood Memorial Library, Buffalo, NY
(RN: 25696)

131. Cecil Day Lewis, page from album ‘Little Mead,’ 21 July 1929
Collection: Sean Day Lewis
(RN: 25446)

Additional portraits included in the exhibition:

Drawing of W.H. Auden by Don Bachardy, 1967
NPG 4677

Bust of Cecil Day Lewis by Franta Belsky, 1951
NPG 5068

Photograph of a lost portrait of Christopher Isherwood by William Coldstream, 1937
Louis MacNeice by Nancy Sharp, 1936
Collection: Mrs Michael Spender

Stephen Spender by William Coldstream
Collection: Mrs Stephen Spender

A handlist of other exhibits, such as correspondence, books and anthologies, is included in the exhibition catalogue.

A file of visitor comments and reactions to the exhibition is available to see on request.

Press Reviews

‘It sets out to illustrate the reactions to political and literary events, via the letters and manuscripts of five writers: Auden, Day Lewis, Isherwood, MacNeice and Spender. It assembles in the process a great deal of fascinating unpublished material and produces many interesting connections. The display is cunningly designed, the sense of foreboding conveyed by a gradual darkening as war approaches, and by a sequence of intriguing and unfamiliar photographs – mass observation studies of life in Britain juxtaposed with shattered Guernica and Berlin. Many of the most evocative photographs are by Humphrey Spender.’

‘Forty years back’ in Country Life, 1 July 1976

‘The exhibition Young Writers of the Thirties, selected by Alice Prochaska and designed by my brother Humphrey Spender, centres on W.H. Auden. Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Christopher Isherwood and myself. In doing this, it follows closely the impression that readers of anthologies such as New Signatures and New Country, and the periodical New Verse may have got at the time: that the thirties was a succession of literary events occurring in the biographies of those young writers and ending when war broke out in 1939, soon after Auden and Isherwood had departed for America.

[...] Nearly all the photographs, and some of the documentary material, are fascinating in revealing the style of a period.’

Stephen Spender, ‘Creating in the Mind a Map’ in New Statesman, 2 July 1976

‘Having called this exhibition Young Writers of the Thirties, the National Portrait Gallery has chosen to consider effectively only five writers from that period – Auden, Isherwood, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis. On a thoughtfully provided suggestions list, many visitors have pointed out the incongruity of such a sweeping title and protested at the narrow limits to which the exhibition has been confined.

[...] The five form a very compact and convenient group; they all come from a similar background, at times held similar if not identical political views, and, very consciously, wished to express their ideas in language which, if not ‘non-literary,’ was said to be inspired by unliterary things.’

‘The exhibition is divided into five sections, containing many photographs of the five writers. In these, particularly the posed studio shots by Howard Coster, the young writers gaze at us or one another with varying degrees of intensity, often languorously propped against something. They seem to express their awareness of their own aloofness. This pose would be irritating were it not likely that it was carefully cultivated [...].’

‘Young Writers of the Thirties’ in Connoisseur, September 1976