Modern Nymphs appeared in 1930, in an edition of 150 copies: a hard, brilliant Art Deco gem. It opens with Raymond Mortimer’s essay on the role of clothes in modern life. Mortimer is funny, but not flippant: he treats fashion seriously, not just at the level of couture, but at the level of the street: “Most clothes, like most pictures, are bad. The shop-windows of Oxford Street are as depressing a spectacle as the walls of the Royal Academy.” And yet a few women, mainly French, especially Chanel, manage to express something original and alive in the way they compose themselves: “our feeling for the stream-line seems an indestructible part of the civilisation in which we live. We insist on it in motor-cars, we are beginning to prefer it in architecture and we are unlikely to lose our taste for it in women.”
And what women: Thomas Lowinsky’s full-page illustrations give us the procession of the nymphs, hand-colored en pochoir, each with a classical title and theme. At first glance, they look much like their sleek commercial counterparts, the fashion plates of George Lepape and Paul Iribe. On closer inspection, though, these modern nymphs are far stranger. Aphrodite, in evening gown and cocktail rings, slinks past ruins and skyscrapers, while Prosperine scowls across a field of smokestacks. A smartly suited Danae, looking much like “the inspired, the imperial Chanel,” waits for the weather report on the wireless. (Showers, with a chance of Zeus.) Clyte turns from Apollo, and bravely exposes her torso to the sunlamp. The Harpies in their modish hats perch in an empty landscape out of De Chirico. Tiny airplanes and zeppelins dot the horizon. A speedboat zips past. The tableaux are composed, elegant, exact and surreal: as pointed and satiric an invocation of the classical sources as James Joyce’s in Ulysses. As Mortimer observes in his introduction: “We live on our ancestors, degenerate and devitalised . . . were it not that machines and clothes still develop new and auspicious forms.”
Certainly, everyone involved in the production of Modern Nymphs had high modernist sympathies. Mortimer was an art critic, later editor at The New Statesman; his friends included Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, and Louis Aragon. Lowinsky, a book artist of independent means and obsessive perfectionism, produced plates for a number of fine and private presses, including Nonesuch, Curwen, Shakespeare Head, and here Haslewood. Publisher Frederick Etchells, associated in turn with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists, would go on to become Le Corbusier’s English translator. All three had close ties to the Bloomsbury group, and it’s not hard to imagine a reader like Virginia Woolf delighting in the pensive Circe, cocktail shaker at hand, preparing for her party with the naval officers.
In his closing, Mortimer tells the future: “Towards the spring of 1933 it will become inconceivable that Jove could ever have had traffic with ladies as frumpish as the Nymphs in this book. And for twenty-five years or more you will look at these drawings only to be reminded how grotesque clothes once were. Then one of your cleverer children will pick the book up, and discover a quaint charm in these old fashions. Someone will give a party in which everyone has to appear in the clothes of 1930. . . . ‘Could anything be more delightfully George the Fifth!’ the young people will exclaim. ‘Look at Helen’s hats! And Daphne! I’m sure our clothes will never look so amusing and old-fashioned.’”