Leslie Hurry was a neo-Romantic, whose fantasies were first expressed in unique illustrated books. His linear style, non-naturalistic colours and etiolated figures were well suited to the creation of a haunting, almost macabre vision that seems to derive from an inner world of the imagination. He first came to public attention during the Second World War with designs for the sets and costumes of Hamlet (1942), Robert Helpmann’s dramatic ballet that sought to express the final thoughts of the dying Prince through dance. Helpmann (1909–86), a dancer himself, wanted the action to take place in a decadent palace that would dwarf the actors on stage: Hurry’s elaborate and powerful backdrop anticipates 1945: This Extraordinary Year in its rich and fiery colours, claustrophobic space, and sense of contained energy that emanates from a surface filled with incident and densely-packed figures.
Indeed the scene of tumbling humanity is reminiscent of religious paintings, particularly those of apocalypse and the Last Judgment. In 1945: This Extraordinary Year Hurry was no longer using his idiosyncratic style to express a personal mythology but to convey a political message, and he would subsequently create many paintings on the theme of war using a Christian narrative or religious symbolism. He was a confirmed Pacifist and in 1944 had been one of twelve artists invited to submit a work to the annual exhibition organized by members of the Artists’ International Association at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. A large canvas was provided, and this encouraged Hurry to produce his biggest painting to date, its title echoing that of the exhibition itself, This Extraordinary Year, staged to commemorate the defeat of Fascism abroad and the election of a Labour government in Britain. Hurry painted on a sheet of paper and then fixed the paper to the canvas from which it was later removed.
He has drawn on two key images from Romantic art: the composition is based on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People 1830 (Louvre, Paris), but the central figure derives from one of the most important creations in the cosmos of William Blake (1757–1827), Albion Rose or Glad Day c.1796 (British Museum, London). Both have a place in the iconography of revolution and renewal, whether national or spiritual, and both are based on sympathy with working people and belief in the potential of a new order. Blake identified Albion with the personality and people of England, as Delacroix (1798–1863) equated Liberty with the people of France, and Hurry too demonstrates that he is in sympathy with the leftwards move in British politics. Anticipation of a better future was often articulated in terms of ‘the New Jerusalem’, the Jerusalem imagined by Blake rising from the ashes of the ‘dark, satanic mills’ in Britain’s industrial heartland.
Across Hurry’s canvas a tightly-grouped crowd of figures, some naked and some, such as a churchman being dragged away by a nude woman, still wearing his vestments, swarm forward, trampling over their fellow men and women, while behind them smaller figures carry little children or desperately embrace. Where Delacroix’s Liberty was a semi-naked woman brandishing a bayonet in one hand and a red flag in the other, Hurry’s central figure, like Blake’s Albion, is completely naked and has passed the red flag to another, her left hand grasping not a weapon, but a thin candle. As in Glad Day she seems to dance, or float above the mêlée, but where Blake gave his ecstatic figure a halo of dawn light, Hurry suggests flight from the flames of apocalypse, the kind of sight familiar to those who had experienced air-raids during the War. Blake had extemporized on his theme and made a related engraving of the same title in which Albion stands with his left foot on a great worm, symbol of materialism, a compositional device re-invented by Hurry to show his central figure treading on the arm of a fallen human figure.
This is a painting in which Hurry captures both the horrors of war and, at its end, a sense of hope for a new beginning.
Jack Lindsay, Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry, London 1950.
David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: the Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935–1955, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, reproduced p.83.