This post, the first in a series of bite-size introductions to arts organisations in modern Britain, explores the ground-breaking work of the Arts League of Service, 1919-1937.
Formed in the wake of the First World War, the ALS aimed to ‘bring the Arts into Everyday Life’.[i] They sought to improve the lives both of rural communities, especially men returning from active service, and artists struggling with soaring rents, unemployment and economic depression. The organisation was split into two sections: the Drama Section, headed by dance teacher Eleanor Elder, and the Arts Section, headed by South American art enthusiast Ana M. Berry. The ALS Travelling Theatre, headed by Elder, gave thousands of performances of one-act plays, ballets, mimes and songs in village halls across the UK and Ireland. The Arts Section organised public lectures by leading figures such as Wyndham Lewis, Margaret Morris and T. S. Eliot; adult education lectures on the understanding of art at schools, colleges, hospitals and societies; exhibitions of painting, pottery, sculpture, posters and ‘practical arts’; and a Travelling Portfolio of Pictures that members could borrow to exhibit or purchase. The Arts Section’s activities petered out after Berry’s return to Argentina in late 1931; the Travelling Theatre continued until 1937, when financial difficulties and competition from local theatrical groups caused its demise.
Elsewhere on the blog, ‘Pioneering Women #1: Eleanor Elder’ explores the life and work of the ALS co-founder. A blog on Elder’s co-founder Ana M. Berry is coming soon.
- Emma West, ‘“within the reach of all”: Bringing Art to the People in Interwar Britain’, Modernist Cultures (forthcoming 2020)
- Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players: The Story of the Arts League of Service (London: Frederick Muller, 1939)
- Grace Brockington, ‘Beyond London & the War’, British Art Studies, 11 (2019)
- James Fox, ‘Art and Society After the War’, in British Art and the First World War, 1914-1924 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 149-51
- Martin Hopkinson, ‘The Arts League of Service in London, 1919-28’, Print Quarterly, 30.2 (2013), 179-82
- Helen Southworth, Fresca: A Life in the Making. A Biographer’s Quest for a Forgotten Bloomsbury Polymath (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2017), pp. 95-103, 119-20.
[i] The Arts League of Service Annual 1921-1922 (London: Pelican Press, 1922), p. 1.