After decades of campaigning, the British Government and the then newly founded British Council finally took over the British Pavilion. However, sparked by Mussolini’s decision to invade Abyssinia, tensions between Italy and Britain were mounting by the mid-1930s.
Having argued that Britain’s absence would be interpreted as a "sign of national indifference to art", the British Ambassador to Italy, Sir Ronald Graham, was an influential figure in persuading the British Government to take responsibility for the British Pavilion's building and exhibitions. He set out the political and commercial reasons to the Labour Government, and after two decades of campaigning, it was finally agreed.
P.G. Konody, who had campaigned tirelessly through the 1920s, was still part of of the Pavilion organising committee, alongside other ongoing members Lady Cunard and Sir Joseph Duveen, and several others.
Painter Allan Gwynne-Jones, artist J.B. Manson, who went on to be Director at Tate from 1930–1938, and painter and sculptor Glyn Philpot were members of the British jury.
Sculptor Henry Moore, painter David Bomberg and Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, known for his painted portraits of society figures such as Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor, were among the 97 artists on view the Pavilion in that year.
In the run up to the 1932 Biennale, the British Committee (who had financed and organised the exhibitions at the Pavilion since 1895) handed over their ownership to the Government; P.G. Konody's 20-year involvement in the Biennale came to an end.
Now under the British Government's charge, a new selection committee was formed which was made up of some familiar faces; Sir Charles Holmes as Chairman, Edward Marsh, J.B. Manson, Alfred A. Longden, art historian and curator Campbell Dodgson and artist Francis Dodd had all been involved in past biennales. The committee also welcomed some new additions: artist and Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the V&A Martin Hardie, C.L. Stocks and W.M. Hill as Secretary.
The Venice Biennale authorities urged the committee to reduce the vast numbers of artists that had usually been exhibited, and so the number fell from 97 in 1930 to 24 artists shown in 1932. These British artists include painter William Roberts, Scottish female artist Ethel Walker and painter and decorative artist Duncan Grant, who presented his vibrant oil painting Dancers (c.1910-11), which is now part of the Tate’s collection.
Take a look at the exhibitions in the 1930s:
In 1934 things did not go as smoothly as planned at the Biennale as Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia caused tension between Italy and Britain.
Although the British Government’s Department of Overseas Trade agreed to transfer organisation of the British exhibition to the newly founded British Council, the transfer was not made in time for the 1934 Biennale. This year was the last time the Department of Overseas Trade organised the Pavilion, with a similar committee as the previous year.
A reduced number of artists, just 26, were on display following the Biennale authorities’ plea. These artists included painter husband and wife Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson, artist Clare Leighton, who was best known for her wood engravings, Welsh painter James Dickson Innes and Christopher R. W. Nevinson, a famous war artist of the First World War.
Hitler and Mussolini met for the first time in Venice in 1934, and Hitler visited the Venice Biennale.
Due to the complexity of transferring the responsibility of the Pavilion to the British Council, Britain did not exhibit officially at the Venice Biennale in 1936. They also declined to participate for underlying political reasons, caused by Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia.
Despite this, 27 British artists were included in the Venice Biennale’s main exhibitions while another exhibition was held in the British Pavilion. Famous artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s work was shown for the first time at the Biennale alongside artists who had previously exhibited in Venice, such as Augustus John, Walter Sickert and Ethel Walker.
The British Council finally took over the British Pavilion in 1937. Within the British Council, the Fine Arts Committee was responsible for the Pavilion. Formed in 1935, they were a team who promoted knowledge and appreciation of British art abroad by organising loan exhibitions of the fine arts.
Their first exhibition opened in 1938. Compared to the 97 shown in 1930, a mere seven artists exhibited. The winner of the International Prize for Engraving at the Venice Biennale was one these British artists, Blair Hughes-Stanton.
The six other artists on view were: engraver Stanley Anderson;
pioneer of modern sculpture Jacob Epstein; war artist and surrealist painter Paul Nash; student of Matisse and painter Matthew Smith; and distinguished painters Stanley Spencer and Christopher Wood.
Sir Lionel Faudel-Phillips, Lieutenant of the City of London and Trustee of a gallery in London called the Wallace Collection, was the Chairman of British Selection Committee. The celebrated art historian and aesthete Kenneth Clark joined Lord Balniel, Campbell Dodgson and Sir Edward Marsh on the committee. The Commissioner was Alfred A. Longden, who was the Art Exhibitions Officer and Secretary of the Fine Art Department at the British Council.
You can read Britain at the Venice Biennale 1895-1995. Published by the British Council, 1995. Edited by Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot.
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