Although most of the exhibitions during the 1940s were disrupted by the Second World War, but the Pavilion was brought back to life by a triumphant display works by Henry Moore and J.M.W. Turner in 1948.
The Second World War led to Britain's withdrawal from the Venice Biennale in 1940. An exhibition had been organised but it was withdrawn at the last minute, with the British Council showing the works at Hertford House, London (the Wallace Collection) from May-June 1940 instead.
The selected artists were Frank Dobson, A.J. Munnings, the late Glyn Philpot, Edward Wadsworth, Frances Hodgkins and Duncan Grant. A group of wood engravings, which included work by wood engraver, printmaker and sculptor Gertrude Hermes, were also shown.
New additions to the Selection Committee included Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Eric Maclagan, and Clive Bell, an art critic associated with the Bloomsbury Group, the brother in law of Virginia Woolf and the husband of artist Vanessa Bell. Herbert Read, an art historian, poet, literary critic and philosopher who founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, also joined the committee, which was led by Sir Lionel Faudel-Phillips (Chairman), and comprised of Campbell Dodgson, Lawrence Haward, the Earl of Sandwich and Alfred Longden (Secretary).
Due to the Second World War, Britain did not exhibit officially in 1942 and the Venice Biennale was suspended in 1944 and 1946.
The British Pavilion was taken over by the Italian army and it was temporarily renamed the Royal Army Pavilion (Padiglione del Regio Escercito). During this period, there was mural decorating the front of pavilion that included imagery of St George, the patron saint of Venice.
Henry Moore’s 1948 exhibition brought the Pavilion back to its former glory:
The British Council's Fine Art Committee regained control of the Pavilion from the Italian army for the first post-war Venice Biennale in 1948.
One of the Committee, John Rothenstein, the Director of Tate from 1938–64, was appointed Commissioner. He worked together with British Council officers, Francis Watson and Lilian Somerville, to present a retrospective exhibition of the renowned artist and sculptor Henry Moore alongside paintings by 19th century artist J.M.W Turner.
The exhibition was a great success; the ability of Moore’s sculpture to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers (“a common world-language of form” as Venice Selection Committee member Herbert Read called it) contributed to the exhibition's popularity, and Moore went on to win the Biennale’s prestigious International Sculpture Prize.
“For the 1948 Venice Biennale – the first one after the war – the British Council decided to have just my sculpture and Turner paintings, which was a very sensible thing.” Henry Moore
Showing Moore alongside Turner was not just a way of attracting large audiences. Moore had great respect for the Turner, commenting that the painter focused on “the glories of nature and of life”.
Moore considered this 1948 exhibition to have laid “the foundation” of his international career. The British Council continued to work closely with him throughout his working life; Moore is the most well-represented artist in the British Council Collection, with over 400 works. He told the BBC's Barry Penrose in 1976 that “the British Council did more for me as an artist than any dealer”.
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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