‘That unfinished Adoration’: the influence of Piero della Francesca on British Art of the Twentieth Century


Susanna Avery-Quash (National Gallery, London) and Sacha Llewellyn

Various links between early Italian art and later English artists are well known, such as the nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in art before the time of Raphael and John Ruskin’s simultaneous influence over Victorian perceptions of Italian culture in relation to early Florentine art as well as sixteenth-century Venetian painting. Thinking about twentieth-century British artistic responses to early Italian art, some recent exhibitions and publications have highlighted individual debts, including Dulwich Picture Gallery’s 2016 exhibition on Winifred Knights, curated by Sacha Llewellyn, and Caroline Elam’s 2019 monograph on Roger Fry and Italian Art.

The talk aims to explore an important catalyst that helped to motivate the production of the paintings of the first generation of Rome Scholars in Decorative Painting: the work of Piero della Francesca. These scholars, including Colin Gill, Winifred Knights, Thomas Monnington, Edward Halliday, Reginald Brill, AK Lawrence and Alan Sorrell, all encountered and became indebted in various ways to Piero in a two-pronged international artistic exchange. They first came face to face and formed their lifelong attachment with Piero’s work on home turf, at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, while art students in London. Indeed, Monnington later declared that it was seeing Piero della Francesca’s Nativity when he was fifteen that inspired him to become an artist. Students also encountered Piero’s work in black and white reproductions as slides in lantern lectures, where art teachers promoted Piero’s qualities of pictorial design for contemporary art. A second encounter took place during their scholarships in Rome where they could travel to see Piero’s frescoes in situ in Italian churches.

As a starting point we will take artist Cecil French’s remark in 1930: ‘That unfinished Adoration in the National Gallery has produced many descendants in our times!’, which also found an echo in one of the previous year by the Observer’s critic P.G. Konody – that Piero’s ‘stirring example is an inspiring force in our own days’. As a prelude, we will briefly trace some earlier iterations of the connection between Piero and English art students. We will note Augustus John’s passing interest in early Italian art, the so-called Coster Group of Slade School students who had a Neo-Primitive phase and group-member Stanley Spencer’s abiding and faithful love of early Italian art. Our focus will be on the Rome Scholars who went further through seeking out Piero’s works in numerous locations across Italy. We will seek to answer the following questions: Why was there this particular fascination with early Italian art at this point? Was there anything distinctive about each consecutive person/group’s response to Piero? What did the love of Piero achieve artistically? And what was its legacy?