Of all the infrastructural developments in Britain between the wars, it was the appearance across the country of the National Grid’s electrical transmission towers, or pylons, that caught the imagination of poets and painters.
It did not take long for critics to start talking about Auden and his friends as the ‘Pylon Poets’, and the name stuck. More diverse in style and attitude, British visual artists could hardly be described as a school of ‘pylon painters’, but the pylon quite literally looms over some of the most interesting landscapes exhibited in Britain between the First and Second World Wars.
In time, pylons have become familiar; like windmills and canals before them, they have modified our prejudices about what landscapes ought to contain. In the early 1930s, however, pylons were potent. Carrying the industrial magic of electricity they became charged objects, conductors of meaning requiring comment. More often than not, the comment was negative. (For a time in the late 1920s the letters columns of The Times became the site of a running battle between pro-pylon and anti-pylon factions.)
But there were those who understood the fascination of these new interlopers. As early as 1937 the architect John Leslie Martin could be found arguing in Circle, the avant-garde casebook he edited with Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, that the ‘new aesthetic’ which would provide the subjects to match new developments of modern form and technique in the visual and plastic arts was to be sought ‘in the motor-car and the aeroplane, in the steel bridge and the line of electric pylons.