IN THE MIDDLE of the last century, with fascism and all its dark portents defeated, a mood of confidence and optimism swept over the west. In social science we began to work out how best to live in a free world. Consideration had to be given not only to what constitutes a human life but also to the ways in which that life might best be prosecuted. These were strong currents in which a modern woman, a strong-minded modern artist, might find herself swimming. In this book I would like to look at three aspects of the interwoven work and life of Olga Davenport.

Olga Davenport belongs to a period of Modernism by dint of the paintings she has made over a number of years spanning more than half a century; and also by dint of the period in modern history to which her personal development belongs. In the first chapter I would like to introduce the reader to the woman; and the times through which she developed as a strong individual, emerging from, or in spite of, the conventions within which women were expected to deport themselves. The friends she made through her work sustained her in her creative endeavours; and these affiliates form a vital counterpart to the social milieu into which she was bound by her second marriage. Nicholas Davenport writes,

Olga’s introduction to some of my more conservative neighbours in north-west Berkshire proved dramatic. ‘But I hate the common people don’t you?’ said a local baronet at a Hinton lunch party. ‘I am afraid I cannot remain in the room with anyone who makes a remark like that,’ she replied and rose from the table. She became known as my ‘bolshie’ chatelaine.

Notwithstanding the place occupied by Nicholas Davenport as a radical economist, Hinton was a place of political thinking that required a relatively conservative diplomacy. Olga had a studio in the South of France until she was summoned home by her husband to preside over his dinner parties.

The young Olga Davenport was a woman of many parts – quite literally in the case of her acting career, pursued under her maiden name, Olga Edwardes. What I would like to advert to is that in her many faceted life she was a complicated woman – a complex person. She was interested in the political climate and the intellectual landscape in which her second husband was established. She was also capable of her own perspicacious insights into that social arena. At a dinner party given by Alexander Korda in his penthouse suite at Claridges she was in conversation with Harold Wilson. Other guests included Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier. On the journey home she said to her husband,

Tell me about Harold Wilson. He says he is the youngest minister since Pitt. He seems full of Yorkshire confidence. I have a hunch he will be Prime Minister one day.

Nicholas Davenport ‘pooh-poohed the fanciful suggestion.’

In chapter three, we rehearse a philosophical argument in favour of one version of the ‘twofold thesis’. The twofold thesis states that the rewarding experience to be sought from our looking at paintings is located in our appreciation of the fact that an artist has prepared a flat surface such that we can see representational content in it. It is a thesis that sets out to give account of the complex experience we have when looking at pictures. That single complex experience has two folds. The one is of the flat coloured surface; the other is as of the pictorial content. The thesis is a response to, and a rebuttal of, two widely held views. These are: (i) that looking at representations is illusionistic - the spectator undergoes an illusion as of seeing the content face to face; and (ii) that what we see, when we look at a picture, is the depicted scene (and hence not merely an illusion). As such the philosophical work fits well with the intuitions voiced by the artists of Davenport’s generation and inclination, for whom the matter of representation was of the utmost importance. This chapter prepares the ground in order to illuminate the final chapter, which proceeds to discuss the paintings of Olga Davenport.

In this last and principal chapter of the book we turn our attention to the paintings, not only to critically engage with selected instances, but also to give an account of their place in the history of modern art. We situate them. The paintings belong to a time when artists thought it both proper and dignified to struggle with the work in the hope of shaping ideas and of embedding the optimistic values of a democratic and humanistic culture. It cannot be denied that Marcel Duchamp had exhibited his readymade, Fountain, in New York in 1917; but the anti-aesthetic of Dada was still seen as a peripheral and largely theoretical challenge, rather than as a genuine avenue down which art might properly be pursued. In the fifties, sixties and seventies there was still a form of optimistic modern art that was largely able to ignore the curiosities brought to us by Duchamp and his followers. It remained true to an ideal of beauty as one of the verities. Olga Davenport read avidly; and she was particularly keen on the French painters who were seen as developing Modernism. Cézanne and Matisse were particularly important to her; and it is proper to see her work in the European – rather than the American – tradition of Modernism. It is within such a conception of the tradition of Modernism that I feel sure we might best consider the works of Olga Davenport.