‘within the reach of all’: bringing art to the people in interwar Britain

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The years during and after the Great War saw an explosion in arts organisations attempting ‘to bring the Arts into everyday life’. This essay argues that arts organisations should be seen alongside institutions like bookshops, magazines and galleries as key mediating institutions between modernist artists and writers and the general public. Using the Arts League of Service as a case study, I explore whether it was possible for such organisations to be experimental, educational and popular. To what extent could they reconcile their democratic principles with their belief in the transformative power of experimental modern art, design, literature and performance?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)225-252
Number of pages28
JournalModernist Cultures
Issue number2
Early online date31 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research for this article was funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. Many thanks to Dan Moore, John Holmes and my two anonymous readers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. Thanks too to Charlotte Purkis, Chloe Ward and Helen Southworth for useful conversations about the Arts League of Service. Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders and obtain permissions to reproduce this material. Please do get in touch with any enquiries or any information relating to these images or the rights holders. 1. The phrase ‘To bring the Arts into Everyday Life’ was the Arts League of Service’s motto from 1921. See The Arts League of Service Annual 1921–1922 (London: Pelican Press, 1922), p. 1. 2. ‘A Japanese Play at York’, Leeds Mercury, 15 April 1929, p. 7. 3. ‘Modern Strolling Players. Arts League Visit to Sunderland’, Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 28 May 1929, p. 2; ‘All for Your Delight’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 May 1929, p. 8. 4. ‘VERSATILE PLAYERS. Arts League in One-Act Skits’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 28 September 1929, p. 6. 5. A. S. W., ‘THE TRAVELLING THEATRE. Arts League of Service at Milton Hall’, Manchester Guardian, 6 May 1929, p. 13. 6. Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players: The Story of the Arts League of Service (London: Frederick Muller, 1939), p. 166. Elder’s book provides the most complete account of the ALS’s activities over its eighteen-year existence: it will hereafter be cited parenthetically as TP. 7. ‘Modern Strolling Players’, p. 2; ‘ARTS LEAGUE OF SERVICE TRAVELLING THEATRE. Charming Performance in Dundee’, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 November 1929, p. 6. 8. The ALS described itself as an ‘experimental’ company from its inception. See ‘Programme and Policy of the Arts League of Service’, in Bulletin of the Arts League of Service (London: Pelican Press, 1920), 5–7 (p. 6), and TP, pp. 8, 10, 94. 9. See ‘Arts League Productions’, in The Arts League of Service Bulletin: A.L.S. Travelling Theatre Number (London: Arts League of Service, 1936), 18–20 (p. 18). Elder also describes the varied audience responses to the ALS’s programme in TP, pp. 101–102, 145 and 166. 10. In his essay, Daniel Moore explores the 1930s activities of the DIA, CAI, the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) group, and the network around the Isokon building in Hampstead. See ‘“A New Order is Being Created’’: Domestic Modernism in 1930s Britain’, Modernist Cultures, 11.3 (2016), 409–28. 11. ‘Programme and Policy’, p. 6. 12. The ALS are beginning to receive critical attention. See Helen Southworth, Fresca: A Life in the Making. A Biographer’s Quest for a Forgotten Bloomsbury Polymath (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2017), pp. 95–103, 119–20; Grace Brockington, ‘Beyond London & the War’, British Art Studies, 11 (2019), 22–28; James Fox, ‘Art and Society After the War’, in British Art and the First World War, 1914–1924 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 133–56 (pp. 149–51); and Martha Hopkinson, ‘The Arts League of Service in London, 1919–28’, Print Quarterly, 30.2 (2013), 179–82. 13. The Liverpool Post outlined the ALS’s ‘educational mission’ on 23 June 1919: see the ALS’s pamphlet, The Arts League of Service (London: Pelican Press, [n.d.]), p. 7. In its early years, the ALS’s aims were repeatedly framed in terms of bringing

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  • arts organisations
  • institutions
  • Arts League of Service
  • democracy
  • modernism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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