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Book review: Humphrey Spender’s Humanist Landscapes

Title: Humphrey Spender’s Humanist Landscapes
Author: Deborah Frizzell
ISBN: 0-300-07334-8
Softcover: 70 pages of introduction plus 100 plates
Images: 100
Publisher: Yale centre for British art
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 28 x 1 x 23 cm Landscape format.

As a precursor to Spenders images Frizzell, the author, discusses where the images sit in the panoply of images of the time and of the era in which they were made, providing, as she does, social and historic reference for the works.  Some 70 excellent  pages are taken up with this explanation.

To set the scene: Spenders images span the decade 1932 – 1942. He came from a a middle class family in fashionable Kensington. His father, Harold was a Journalist and his mother Violet Schuster was a painter and poet. His brother Stephen, later to become Sir Stephen Spender, became a poet and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work. Stephen Spender was close friends with many famous literary figures from the time i.e. WH Auden. Clearly the sensibilities  of his family and friends influenced Humphrey’s work.

The age in which he worked was also remarkable for the documentary style of film and photography which started in this decade. For example, in 1938 Picture Post was first published. it fast became the most popular weekly illustrated magazine soon achieving a circulation of  over 1 million. Humphrey joined Picture post at it’s birth in October 1938 together with other like minded and talented photographers, Bill Brandt being just one.

The second half of this book contains 100 plates, all in black and white of course, showing Spender’s pictures from around the country and all taken in the decade 1932 – 1942

The pictures contain a heavy dose of nostalgia, at least for me. Being born in the late 40’s I remember much of the what I see in this book. Yes there were stylistic changes but the ‘feel’ of the country remained the same. And of course being from Birmingham I love image number 79 of Navigation St Birmingham. I have strong recollections of it being just so.

This book has the ability to plunge me, and I suspect other readers, into a very personal past but, that is not it’s only charm. The pictures are strong, well composed depictions of a past now gone. Of course they are viewed through the eyes of a person largely outside of the social classes which the pictures depict. But, in saying that, they are not cruel. The working people are pictured with sensitivity.

This book is well worth a place on any photographers bookshelf.

I’d like to thank David Barrett for the loan of this book. Much appreciated. I thought it so  good I sought out my own copy from America.

David’s own excellent web site is here.


  1. A fine review Peter, I’m pleased you got so much from the work, Spender went on to become a influential fabric designer, retro examples of his cushion covers etc turn up on ebay now and then. I first discovered Spender via his iconic Tyne Bridge image but my pick from this book is the “haircut” picture, I’m almost certain that TRJ was influenced by Spender but i can find no evidence or acknowledgement !

    Liked by 1 person

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