Art, Books & Culture Group (October 2021): some resources for Nancy Cunard – an uncommon viewer…


And what a marvellous meeting of the Group last Saturday for our ‘travels’ with Nancy Cunard through the art worlds of London, Paris and Harlem in the 1920s/30s. Here are a few resources that might be useful as starting points for further research.

Key biographies:

and for her poetry, there is a digital collection from the Bodleian Library online here which includes a fabulous introductory essay, Edith Sitwell’s poetry journal Wheels in which Cunard published is available online c/o the Modernist Journals Project.

The most recently published selection is:

The images on the cover of these books lead us immediately to the portraits of Nancy Cunard, the easiest to access being photographic portraits.

The Curtis Moffat photographs are at the Victoria & Albert Museum – here

Man Ray’s are in the Pompidou Archive – here – and his portraits of Henry Crowder – here

And it is very interesting to explore Barbara Ker-Seymer’s archive at Tate – here which includes photographs of Nancy Cunard, Edward Burra, John Banting and several other ‘personalities’ of the inter-war years.

The portrait paintings are slightly more difficult to track down:

Alvara Guevara’s very fashionable 1919 portrait is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne – here – and the fabulous Eugene McCown is at the The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas archive:

As for Brancusi’s extraordinary sculpture of Nancy Cunard, there is a short essay on the Christie’s website – here.

The John Banting portraits seem only to be available as reproductions in the biographies, this one – from 1931 – is the frontispiece to Hugh Ford’s introduction in the re-published version of Negro Anthology [Continuum, 2002]:

There is much to be said, and more to explore, about Nancy Cunard’s relationship – as muse, patron and associate – with up & coming artists and photographers; as well as the global extent of her image in 1920s & 30s newspaper columns, moving from her status as glamorous debutante and fashion icon through to her trips to Harlem in 1931 and 1932 where racism and sexism are very much part of the ‘tabloid’ news agenda. There is a long and illuminating essay on all this at the Modernism/Modernity site – here.

One photograph by Man Ray [1928; Pompidou archive] that fascinates me is:

Might it have been taken in her Paris flat? Combined with the biographies, I found myself peering closely to see what paintings Nancy Cunard had on her walls. Many were lost and destroyed during WWII, but Anne Chisholm notes:

The only paintings from Nancy’s collection I’ve been able to discover (so far!) are:

“Death Watching his Family” by Yves Tanguy, which is in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the website states:

The information given on the painting’s provenance in the catalogue of the Tanguy exhibition held in Baden-Baden in 1982 stated that the work belonged for a time to Nancy Cunard. If this is true, it must have been acquired during Tanguy’s exhibition in 1927, when the writer, then Louis Aragon’s lover, visited the show.

And the second painting is:

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956): Les bergères / The Shepherdesses [1922; private; c/o Christies]

Moving to a cottage at Reanville, in the Normandy countryside, Nancy Cunard – alongside surrealist poet Louis Aragon at first – set up her Hours Press to publish poetry in limited, and very contemporary, artistic editions which would include, in 1930, music and lyrics by her lover Henry Crowder (the jacket is a collage of photographs by Man Ray).

It was through her relationship with Henry Crowder – both her experience of their relationship, and hearing his stories of being African-American – that Nancy Cunard began her life-long commitment against racism.

One aspect was her support for the Scottsboro Boys, another the publication in 1933 of Negro Anthology which was dedicated to Henry Crowder; in the Foreword, she wrote: “It was necessary to make this book – and I think in this manner, an Anthology of some 150 voices of both races – for recording of the struggles and achievements, the persecutions and the revolts against them, of the Negro people.”

Part of Cunard’s research for the book was to travel to Harlem to meet poets, novelists and political writers to ask them to contribute. On her second trip, Cunard travelled with the surrealist John Banting, despite this I’ve not [yet] found any clues to her meeting with visual artists. However, she must have come across, for example, the illustrations by Aaron Douglas to the poetry of Langston Hughes whose poem “I, Too” led Cunard’s Anthology:

Paintings by Douglas encapsulate the Harlem Renaissance, including:

“Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction” [1934; New York Public Library]

Douglas painted these murals to reflect African and African American history, the African American present, and his vision of a promising future… with graphically incisive motifs and the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms – NYPL.

And other artists might have included:

(Left) Winold Reiss: Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I [c.1920]; (Right) Stephen Longstreet’s sketchbooks [Beinecke Library; Yale]


One aspect of visual art that Nancy Cunard did focus was that made in Africa. In Man Ray’s photographs we see her collection of bracelets, bangles and sculptures:

Some of her collection would be reproduced in Negro Anthology; a section is devoted to the variety of sculptures, masks and decorations from across Africa: Bambara Sculpture from West Africa, masks from Northern Congo and Nigerian bracelets and anklets. Indeed, Jane Marcus writes in the introduction to Nancy Cunard: Perfect Stranger that other “monumentally grand projects” lie in the archives, including: “a precise scholarly art-historical book on African ivories and a collection of notes, photographs and museum postcards from all over the world on the representation of Blacks in Western art.”

I’ve much more reading and research to do, but what is certain is that Nancy Cunard was close to art and artists and thought seriously about visual culture throughout her life.


On my reading list next:

About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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