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Reference group
Seven & Five Society (act. 1919–1935) began as a group of eighteen artists who came together in 1919 and held their first exhibition at Walker's Gallery in New Bond Street, London, in April 1920. The society showed in West End galleries annually to 1935, except for 1925 and 1930; over the sixteen-year period it comprised fifty-six members, and a further thirty-one non-members also exhibited with the society (Harrison, 346–7).

Until its later years the spirit of the Seven & Five was that of a stable, middle of the road modernism defined in opposition to the frenetic, cutting-edge programmes of the pre-war vorticism of Wyndham Lewis [see Vorticists] and the continental modern movements. Seven & Five members typically acknowledged Cézanne and post-impressionism, accommodating them to what were felt to be English traditions of poetic landscape and still life. The Westminster Gazette, reviewing the group's first exhibition, described the exhibitors as Mensheviks as against the Bolsheviks of Group X, Lewis's attempt to effect a vorticist revival. Lewis was scathing about the Seven & Five, but Group X collapsed after a single show at Heal's Mansard Gallery in March 1920, while the Seven & Five, with its more moderate programme and objectives, extended its membership. The society's durability reflected the character of British art at least to the end of the 1920s, and especially the desire for a recall to order after the horrors of war. Even so, it was within the Seven & Five that the ground was also laid for British abstract art of the 1930s and the centrality of London to the European art world in the years before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The life of the Seven & Five Society can broadly be divided into three phases. The five-year period to 1924 may be defined as a search for stable ground in the English traditions of landscape and still life with modernism acknowledged but treated with caution if not suspicion. The second phase started with the election of Ben Nicholson to the society in 1924, his assumption of leadership (he became chairman two years later), and the reshaping of the Seven & Five through new members, many of them Nicholson's friends. For a time the shift was gradual but from the beginning of the 1930s a new and, as it turned out, final phase was initiated with a more calculated attempt on Nicholson's part to introduce experimental artists and ultimately to overturn the society's original aims entirely and to transform it into a forum for non-figurative art.

In its first catalogue (April 1920) the Seven & Five published a statement of intention that was mild mannered by the standards of pre-war art manifestos. It expressed the feeling that:
the gladiators of the present warring sects are often concerned more with the incidental politics and temporary eddies of art than with its essential realities. A periodic explosion is essential in Art … to blow away the crust of dead matter that time inevitably accumulates. The ‘SEVEN & FIVE’ are grateful to the pioneers, but feel that there has been of late too much pioneering along too many lines in altogether too much of a hurry … The object of the ‘SEVEN & FIVE’ is merely to express what they feel in terms that shall be intelligible, and not demonstrate a theory or attack a tradition. Individual members have their own theories of Art, but as a group the ‘SEVEN & FIVE’ has none. (Harrison, 164)
Read now, the statement may seem somewhat complacent given the failure to define its own ‘essential realities’ and the extent to which artistic modernism subsequently became so firmly established. None the less, the strength of the post-war desire to recover a traditionalist and rural-based national identity should also not be forgotten, however much it was a flight from reality.

The society (initially styled ‘VII and V’, later changed to ‘Seven & Five’, and finally, on Nicholson's initiative, presented as ‘7 & 5’ was originally intended to have seven painters and five sculptors, with members elected for three years and able to offer themselves for re-election. The balance never worked out in this way as sculptors were hard to recruit. In any case non-members were able to show alongside members and at its height the society showed more than fifty artists. Early members included Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978), the future director of Chelsea School of Art, and Percy Hague Jowett (1882–1955), who was to become director of the Royal College of Art. Williamson had been a student at the Royal Academy Schools with Ivon Hitchens, whom he nominated for membership in 1921. Hitchens, who joined the society in the following year, was the only artist to take part in every exhibition, and it was he who nominated Nicholson in 1924. A landscapist and still-life painter, but with a feeling for rhythm and form that owed something to futurism, Hitchens was a key figure in the history of the Seven & Five. He was friendly with Claude Flight who, among the early members, was closest to the pre-war movements. Reviewing the 1922 exhibition, the Christian Science Monitor's critic wrote that
apart from the very able painting along traditional lines … there are to be seen several “advanced” paintings of singular interest. They are works of Mr Claude Flight and Mr S. I. Hitchens … who bring an entirely new and entirely alluring aspect of landscape painting before us.
The 1922 exhibition also included work by five French painters, including André Lhote (1885–1962) and Roger Bissière (1888–1965).

When Nicholson joined the Seven & Five in 1924 he was an artist with an expanding reputation with two one-man shows in London behind him. Both he and his wife, Winifred Nicholson, who first showed with the group in 1926, painted landscapes and still lifes that marked them out from the run of the membership through their concern with surface and texture and an unusual delicacy of colour (in Winifred's case especially), matching greys and off-whites with accents of stronger colour. With the arrival of Nicholson the Seven & Five acquired a stronger continental orientation, further strengthened by Christopher (Kit) Wood and Cedric Morris, who both joined in 1927. Wood had spent the final part of 1926 with the Nicholsons at St Ives, Cornwall, and at his first exhibition for the Seven & Five in the following year he exhibited three pictures from this period. David Jones, a former protégé of Eric Gill and painter of Arthurian and ancient myth and legend, joined in 1928, and the New Zealand-born Frances Hodgkins, from an older generation, became a member in 1929. In 1928 Nicholson and Wood discovered the art of the former seaman and ‘primitive’ painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) on a visit to St Ives, and Nicholson persuaded Wallis to let him hang two of his paintings in the 1929 exhibition. Primitivism, with varying gradations of meaning in the work of different artists, had become a mark of the Seven & Five. By that time Nicholson's imprint was firmly on the society and many earlier members ceased showing. It was now becoming clear that the original statement of intent which had promoted individuality over common cause no longer held sway. At this point, however, Nicholson did not force the society into one specific channel. The election in 1928 of another New Zealander, Leonard Lye (1901–1980), an abstract film-maker and draughtsman of semi-abstract amoebic forms, demonstrates how the Seven & Five remained open to a wide range of talent. As with any such group, the society's identity can also be defined in part by those who were not invited to join. Nicholson, for example, was determined to maintain an identity apart from Bloomsbury. Some explanation needs to be given as to why Paul Nash never joined, despite being a personal friend of Nicholson from their student days at the Slade School of Fine Art. Part of the answer lies in the fact that all Seven & Five members, including Nicholson, had post-war reputations while Nash and others had established themselves through work done as war artists.

In 1931 Nicholson effected a change in the society's regulations that required Seven & Five members to be re-elected annually, opening up the possibility of more rapid turnover. The remaining early members either—like Percy Jowett in 1933—resigned or, in the rare case of Ivon Hitchens, were stimulated to move towards non-figuration. In 1932 the sculpture section was much reinforced by the election of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and John Skeaping, and it was now clear that the possibility existed to gather the British avant-garde within one exhibiting group. In the event, though, it was Nash's successful launch of Unit One in 1933 (with Nicholson, Moore, Hepworth and, at first, Hodgkins from the Seven & Five, alongside himself and seven others), that effected the unification of the British avant-garde. Though Nicholson was willing to let Nash take the lead in 1933, by the end of the following year—when Unit One was evidently collapsing, not least because of strains between the abstract and surrealist sympathizers within the group—he consolidated his own leadership by turning the Seven & Five into an exclusively non-figurative exhibiting society, now renamed the Seven & Five Abstract Group. The membership of ten—Hepworth, Hitchens, Jones, Moore, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, along with Francis Butterfield (1905–1968), Jack Hepworth (1911–2003), Barbara's cousin who worked under the pseudonym Arthur Jackson, John Piper (who joined in 1934), and William Staite Murray—was small and only one, final, exhibition took place under the new non-figurative rubric at the Zwemmer Gallery, London, in October 1935.

But far from being a mark of failure, the disbandment of the society demonstrated that, at least for the moment, there was a safely established abstract group in England. The exhibition Abstract and Concrete at the Lefèvre Gallery (and regional tour) in 1936, and the establishment of the Circle group of abstract painters and sculptors with modernist architects in the 1937, carried on the work that Nicholson's ‘7 & 5’ group had initiated. Nicholson may, of course, be accused of subverting the original intentions of the society. But in practical terms the initial spirit of withdrawal that characterized the Seven & Five's objectives in 1920 had long been out of date; moreover the initiatives of Nicholson and his friends within the society from the mid-twenties onwards played a major part in laying the foundations for subsequent achievements in British art.

Other members of the society included John Aldridge; Edward Bawden; Richard Perry Bedford; Jessica [Jessie] Stewart Dismorr [see under Vorticists]; Eva [Evie] Hone; Maurice Prosper Lambert; Norah McGuinness; Marian [Mary] Potter; (George Claude) Leon Underwood. Those who exhibited with but were not members of the society included (Charles) Robert Owen Medley; Sir Roland Algernon Penrose; (John) Cecil Stephenson.

Andrew Causey

Sources  

M. Glazebrook, introduction, The Seven and Five Society, 1920–35 [exh. cat., Parkin Gallery, London, 9 January – 10 February 1980 and regional tour, 1979–80] · C. Harrison, English art and modernism, 1900–1939 (1981) · A. Bowness, ed., Ivon Hitchens (1973) · J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson (1993) [exh. ca., Tate Gallery, London, 13 Oct – 9 Jan 1994]