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The art and design of jazz-age Britain

The art and design of jazz-age Britain

An exhibition in London shows the impact of jazz on British culture between the two world wars

An exhibition in London shows the impact of jazz on British culture between the two world wars

Ella Hill | February 2nd 2018

In 1919 two American jazz bands landed on British shores. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra had arrived in a country that was teetering on the edge of a new age – euphoric with victory yet reeling from the losses of the first world war. They caused a sensation, touring London’s music halls and even playing at Buckingham Palace. A craze for dance and all things American consumed the capital, and a host of nightclubs opened in Soho. Jazz spread to dance halls and revue shows all over Britain, becoming the soundtrack to an era of great social change.

“Jazz was established as pop music rather than art music,” explains Catherine Tackley, the curator of “Rhythm & Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain”, a small but ambitious exhibition at Two Temple Place in London. She has brought together an intriguing selection of paintings, posters, instruments, ceramics and fabrics, which shows the enormous impact of jazz in Britain not only on popular entertainment, but on art and design. The exhibition also engages with the more troubling aspects of Britain’s relationship with jazz. A musical form rooted in African-American culture, jazz was welcomed more enthusiastically by some than by others.

 

Bar shoes (1920-1925)

These fabulous dancing shoes in gold and green leather are certainly fit for a party. Dancing, a popular pastime in interwar Britain, was key to the spread of jazz – it was often in dance halls that jazz was first heard and enjoyed. New frocks and shoes were essential for the Bright Young Things who attended these parties, and the free movement of jazz dances required a new wardrobe. The iconic “flapper” dress rose to prominence in the 1920s as women, liberated by their increased agency in the war years and the extension of suffrage in 1918, loosed themselves from the restrictions of their corsets and ankle-length dresses. As skirts became shorter, shoes suddenly became visible and having an eye-catching pair was a priority for stylish young women.

Egg-laying novelty drum (c.1935)

In the hallowed halls of today’s jazz clubs, you would be unlikely to see such a gimmick as an egg-laying drum, but in the interwar era, jazz had a better sense of humour. This chicken drum belonged to Joe Daniels, one of the most skilled jazz percussionists of the time, whose virtuosic “drumnastics” often stole the show.

Edward Burra, “The Band” (1934)

Many British people were first introduced to black musicians through minstrel shows, which exaggerated and derided black culture, presenting it as unrefined and primitive. As jazz spread and black jazz stars toured Britain – Duke Ellington first visited in 1933 – ideas about race gradually shifted. Edward Burra, a British artist, was fascinated by African-American culture and visited jazz clubs in Harlem, New York. This vibrant painting revels in the vivacity of jazz and celebrates its origins in black culture.

Other artists were less positive about jazz, seeing it as a threat to the status quo. Another painting in the exhibition, “The Breakdown”, by a Scottish painter, John Bulloch Souter, pictures a black saxophonist sitting on a broken classical statue while a nude white woman dances riotously to his music. Souter appears to be suggesting that the rise of jazz portended the end of Western civilisation.

William Patrick Roberts, “The Dance Club” or “The Jazz Party” (1923)

This painting of an underground dance party shows us one reason why jazz was so divisive. For some, this scene would have been one of excitement. The room vibrates with energy and sound as the horn of the gramophone juts out into the midst of the dancers. For others, the jazz scene represented immorality, with jazz clubs painted in the media as dens of drugs and vice. By giving in to the wild music, these dancers were exposing themselves to other temptations – in the corner, a couple engage in a frenzied embrace, while on the dance floor a dress strap slips suggestively. 

Ceramic vase, designed by Enoch Boulton for Carlton Ware (1930s)

The rhythms of jazz seized the imagination of designers. This vase by Enoch Boulton, a ceramic artist, explodes with life and colour. Like a jazz tune, the designer riffs on patterns, with clever modulations in each repetition. Here, a chevron motif bursts forth in different colours and directions, first blue and then green, while bold stripes of colour criss-cross between their arcs. These designs couldn’t be further from the chintz and pastels of the Edwardian era, showing us just how much influence jazz had over British life. Like the other objects in this exhibition, it takes us back to a time when jazz was new, experimental and even revolutionary.

Rhythm and Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain Two Temple Place until April 22nd 2018