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Breitfurt, West Yorkshire

December 14, 2009

A former mentor of mine, who is operating under the nom de plume Friedrich Strasse and lives and works in West Yorkshire, has been putting together a brilliant home-made magazine called German Bite. The magazine is focused on culture that is German, or German by association; the first issue is full of enthusiasm for (among other things) Kraftwerk, Fassbinder, Fad Gadget, Oskar Schlemmer, Princess Julia. As a true Mute Records aficionado, Friedrich Strasse has a keen sense of the connections between the industrial towns of Germany and of northern England.

This had me thinking about my home in Bradford and how I’ve often imagined a parallel West Yorkshire whose German-ness was fully pronounced, rather than quietly echoed. Some memories from my childhood are populated with Schmidts and Hamms. Bradford has its Little Germany, which was formerly a quarter for the textile industry and is now mostly a set of flats for people who commute to Leeds.

Bradford’s growth as a Victorian industrial centre attracted German-Jewish immigrants who were industrialists and merchants. However, my German-Bradford – call it Breitfurt, can we? – really dates to the beginning of the twentieth century, an age that was really the troubled culmination of this period of industrial growth. By this point, the children of the merchant immigrants have become artists and labour reformers. Their aesthetic and political thought cross-pollinates with that of native Yorkshire artists (also, commonly, the offspring of industrialists). Barnsley-born Michael Sadler tantalisingly characterises the spiritual make-up of northerners around this time as “animism plus methodism”. The political mood is socialist; a conference in Bradford in 1893 had resulted in the foundation of (the throwing of) the Independent Labour Party.

Now, in Germany the succession of movements at the forefront of modernist art and design is readily apparent: Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter, the Bauhaus. The extent of northern England’s modernist advances is not as often recognised, but there are some art-historical facts that linger, waiting to be re-processed as outrageous fantasy.

This is from a book by Michael T Saler, concerned chiefly with Northern Modernism (though he calls it “Medieval Modernism”, tracing its attachment to medieval craft guilds as a preferable ethical and aesthetic model):

one of the best known clubs in Bradford was the Schillerverein… Bradford was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfurt and Leipzig.

Some notable Northern Modernists: William Rothenstein, the German-Jewish Bradfordian; Edward Wadsworth, Cleckheaton’s only Vorticist; Frederick Etchells of Newcastle, contributor to BLAST and translator of Le Corbusier. These artists worked in pursuit of the industrial sublime. The Leeds Art Club had been founded in 1903 by Alfred Richard Orage, a Yorkshireman interested “in Platonism, spiritualism, medievalism, the arts and crafts, guild socialism, and questions concerning the social and political function of art, particularly abstract art.” The cities of Bradford and Hull formed their own branches of the club.

When the Blue Rider advances on the West Riding, I’ll see you at the Schillerverein!

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