Damaged artworks, uncertain resources, poor curation and the government’s refusal of support made this the most troubled decade in the British Pavilion's history. However, more British women featured in the Pavilion exhibitions and on the committee than ever before.
1920 saw the first Biennale since the First World War, but Britain did not take part. There was controversy and friction because the British artworks shown in the 1914 Venice Biennale had still not been returned to the UK.
When the First World War had broken out in 1914, the British art works had remained in Venice until they were later moved to Rome for their safety. When they finally returned to Britain in 1920, some works had been damaged so Britain made their disapproval clear by not participating in the 1920 Biennale.
The Treasurer of the British Committee suggested that the Pavilion should revert back to its original use as a restaurant in that year. In the end, however, it was taken over by the American Pavilion for the duration of the exhibition.
The British Committee was struggling with funding and after the Americans occupied the Pavilion in 1920, they nearly lost its lease to Spain. In the summer of 1921, the art critic P.G. Konody (who had been on the Committee since the pre-war biennales) approached the British Government in order that they pay £1,000 to buy the Pavilion. Unfortunately his proposal was rejected because of Italy's poor economic situation and the unfavourable exchange rate. Fearful of losing the Pavilion, Konody went as far as to ask the Biennale authorities whether they could buy back the Pavilion lease at a discount, but this request was also declined.
Konody ultimately had to let the Venetians organise the exhibition and they invited British artist Frank Brangwyn to act as commissioner. Brangwyn was a well-known face to the Biennale having participated in pre-war Biennales as an artist, Commissioner and part of the Artistic Sub-committee, and having won gold medals for his designs of the English Room and the British Pavilion.
Brangwyn´s idea was "to have a fine display of decorative art, to make each room complete with furniture, carpets and wall decoration, a music room, a dining room, etc."* However, his selection of works were considered weak, due to a lack of time. Konody was asked to look over the selection and claimed to save the British exhibition from disaster: "At the eleventh hour I stepped in and secured some 30 or 49 pictures... which saved the British section from the being a complete fiasco and added to it just a note of distinction." He added works by Augustus John, William Nicholson, John Nash, Walter Sickert and others.**
In 1924 the British Committee was re-formed, and the British section of the Bienale was organised through the Faculty of Arts, a federation of creatives who aimed to promote public interest in the arts, that was financed by its President, Lord Leverhulme.
For the very first time women were involved in organising and choosing the works for the Pavilion. Patron of the artists and socialite Lady Cunard joined the British Committee and Laura Knight, an artist known for her realist, figurative painting, was also part of the selection committee.
Once again, a petition for the British Government to purchase the Pavilion was rejected.
Artists Charles Sims and Kennedy North joined Laura Knight on the artistic committee and they chose 127 British artists to display, including British sculptor Jacob Epstein, British surrealist painter Paul Nash and Duncan Grant, who was a key member of the Bloomsbury Group.
The commissioners of the British Pavilion in 1926 were P. G. Konody and Frank Dobson, a British artist and sculptor who was then President of the London Group, a collective that held annual exhibitions embraced all styles of modern art.
Konody and Dobson organised the exhibition, with Dobson also accompanying the King of Italy around the British Pavilion at the official opening.
Among the 109 British artists on display were Bloomsbury Group members Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell, English artist Edward Wadsworth, known for his Vorticist style, and English sculptor, typeface designer, stonecutter and printmaker Eric Gill, who is famous for creating the font Gill Sans.
In 1927, the Committee continued to campaign for the British Government to support the British Pavilion. Their resources had been drained when another request for Government support earlier in the year had been rejected so, they wrote a letter to The Times on 31 December 1927 appealing to the public for £6,000 of funding. “To deny [British artists’] works a place in the biennial exhibitions at Venice would be a national blunder,” wrote the British Committee.
Further pressure came in March 1928 when a group of significant British artists, writers and architects sent a letter urging the British Government to take over the pavilion. The letter was signed by Sir George Clausen, Sir John Lavery, Augustus John, Roger Fry, Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, George Bernard Shaw and many other distinguished cultural figures.
Finally the government took this request seriously, but progress was slow. So in 1928 Sir Joseph Duveen stepped in to help financially. Duveen was a highly influential art dealer and philanthropist, who supported the creation of new galleries in the British Museum and Tate Britain around that time. Not only did Duveen support the Pavilion for this year, but he continued to donate £150 gifts over the next six years.
The 1928 Biennale took place and the artistic committee expanded from three artists to include Sir William Orpen (President), Charles H Collins Baker, Gerald Brockhurst, Philip Connard, William Reid Dick, Jacob Epstein, Roger Fry, Augustus John, Randolph Schwabe and Adrian Stokes.
Cecil Beaton, then at the early stages of his career as a fashion photographer and working at Vogue, as well as celebrated painter Stanley Spencer were among over 130 British artists on view at this Biennale.
You can read Britain at the Venice Biennale 1895-1995. Published by the British Council, 1995. Edited by Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot.
If you would like a list of British artists who took part in the Venice Biennale, please contact us.
* Letter to Romolo Bazzoni, 3 November 1921 (Fondo Storicio ASAC, Serie Scatole Nere Padiglioni: Gran Bretagna, busta n.9, "XIII Biennale 1922")
** Letter to Domenico Varagnolo, 15 April 1923 (Fondo Storico ASAC, Serie Scatole Nere Padiglioni: Gran Bretagna, busta n.8).