Against this are opposed a few artists anxious to go forward from the point they have reached instead of turning with the tide … The formation of Unit One is a method of concentrating certain individual forces: a hard defence, a compact wall against the tide, behind which development can proceed and experiment continue.In addition to the group there was a book entitled Unit One. Subtitled ‘the modern movement in English painting, sculpture, and architecture’, it was introduced by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, and comprised short contributions by all but one of the participants alongside reproductions of their work (that for Edward Burra was supplied by Douglas Cooper). The book was published in April 1934 by Cassell (whose chairman, Desmond Flower, was a friend of Nash) to coincide with the Unit One exhibition held that month at the Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, London. After London, the show toured to local authority art galleries in Liverpool, Manchester, Hanley, Derby, Swansea, and Belfast, where it closed in April 1935. This proved to be the sum of the group's activity, though it was not formally disbanded. Though short-lived, Unit One was very influential in establishing modernist art and architecture in Britain, and led directly to further initiatives that established London for a brief period in the 1930s as the leading European centre for modernist, especially abstract, art.
In his letter to The Times Nash stressed that the group's participants were artists with established reputations who worked as individuals rather than subscribers to a fixed programme: ‘the peculiar distinction of Unit One is that it is not composed of, let us say, three individuals and eight imitators, but of 11 imitators’. None the less Nash did identify ‘a quality of mind, of spirit, perhaps, which united the work of these artists’, and which he described as ‘truly contemporary’. It was Nash's belief that ‘English art has always suffered from one crippling weakness—the lack of structural purpose. With few exceptions our artists have painted “by the light of nature”.’ Nature, he added, ‘we need not deny. But art, we are inclined to feel should control’ (The Times, 12 June 1934).
Unit One marked the first appreciation, since the end of the First World War, of the need for a distinctively modern art that was not just reserved to abstraction. Thus the group's strong attachment to non-figuration, Nash's ‘structural purpose’, was also compatible with the new imaginative or metaphysical strain which marked the first tentative British address to surrealism. In their own ways several of the painters in the group reflected this position in their work. Nash himself—as well as Armstrong, Bigge, and Hillier—leaned towards an emergent surrealism, while Nicholson and Wadsworth, by contrast, produced completely non-figurative works. Burra was a protégé of Nash who played little personal role in the group, and his work, though familiar with aspects of surrealism, was closer to illustration and hard to classify in terms of the modern movement. Frances Hodgkins was considerably older than the group's other founding members, and was a painter of poetic landscapes and still lifes. Though aware of the modern movement, and respected by artists more experimental than herself, she may have dropped out because she regarded Unit One's agenda as too radical. The group's two sculptors tended both towards the organic and the abstract, a position Moore upheld throughout the 1930s, while Hepworth was shortly to shift to complete abstraction.
Introducing the group's book, Herbert Read declared that ‘the formation of Unit One appears to me to have more importance than any event that has happened in the history of English art for many years’. Read took a practical view of the artists' situation in which the economic depression had severely reduced the already modest income that most achieved from sales of their work. The need for collective activity in the face of dire economic conditions was stressed by Nash's friend, the critic Anthony Bertram (1897–1978), who lectured on Unit One when its exhibition went on tour. The group's formation was, therefore, a marketing strategy as well as an attempt to establish ‘difficult’ art with the British public.
The wider context for the creation of Unit One was a growing recognition—based on exhibitions from the late 1920s, notably at London's Leicester Galleries, Arthur Tooth & Sons, and the Lefevre Gallery—of significant artistic innovations and the establishment of British ties with Parisian art circles. Nash was roused to action by ‘Recent developments in British painting’, a show at Tooth & Sons in October 1931 in which (from the future group) he, along with Armstrong, Bigge, Burra, and Wadsworth, were represented. A more immediate spur was the reopening in spring 1933 of the Mayor Gallery with a major show of British and continental avant-garde art, ‘Recent paintings by English, French and German artists’. Timed to coincide with the publication of Herbert Read's polemical Art Now, the exhibition was the most ambitious assembly of international modern art in London since Roger Fry's Second Post-impressionist Exhibition in 1912. The Mayor Gallery was also the venue for the planning meetings that led to the formation of Unit One, with the young art historian Douglas Cooper, who worked at the gallery, acting as its secretary.
Like Read's Art Now, the group's book, Unit One, was uncompromisingly modern in its design as well as its content. Both works registered a determination to promote new art in London based on the tenets of international modernism and to avoid accusations of ‘Englishness’. Read's Art and Industry, also published in 1934, was influenced in both content and design by the Bauhaus, the design of whose publications also left its mark on Unit One. One purpose of the latter book was to promote experimental British art in Paris, where Nicholson was the only Unit One member to have had a major exhibition (with Christopher Wood at the Georges Bernheim Gallery in 1930) and where he and Hepworth were associated with the non-figurative artists who, in 1931, formed the group Abstraction-Création. Of the future Unit One members Wadsworth was the first to be elected to Abstraction-Création, in 1932, with Nicholson and Hepworth becoming members in the following year.
By the early 1930s modernist architecture, as well as painting and sculpture, was gaining a following in England. The British Broadcasting Corporation, with its new building in Portland Place in central London, was an important client, promoter, and employer of Wells Coates and other modernist designers. Coates and his fellow Unit One exhibitor Colin Lucas also received commissions for residential buildings and while the white-painted, flat-roofed, iron-windowed house was never widely popular with the British public, there was now at least a growing recognition of modernism's potential as a building form. Unit One included illustrations of one of Coates's best-known commissions, the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, London (also known as the Isokon building), close to where Hepworth, Nicholson, and Moore lived in Parkhill Road. In architectural circles, the near equivalent of the Paris-based Abstraction-Création organization was CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne). Through the architectural writer Philip Morton Shand, Coates was approached by members of CIAM to set up a British branch; this led to the formation of the MARS (Modern Architecture Research) group, which was announced in the Architects' Journal in May 1933, a month before Nash's Unit One letter to The Times. Interdisciplinarity was of central importance to the latter project. Significantly, Nash's first approach in the formation of Unit One had been to Henry Moore, to link painting with sculpture and to acknowledge the importance of Moore's pivotal exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1932. His second approach had been to Coates, again to link the disciplines of modern painting and architecture, not least because he recognized the new architecture's growing prestige.
Unit One's success in its aim of improving and extending awareness of the modern movement owed much to the efforts of its members. Nash wrote an article for the BBC journal The Listener (5 July 1933)—then arguably the most important vehicle for educated middle-class values in Britain—in which he cast the group as an attempt to capitalize on a contemporary ‘desire to find again some adventure in art’ (p. 14). In October of that year Herbert Read drew attention to the group's modernism in an issue of the Architectural Review which, with its coverage of the fine and applied arts as well as architecture, had a unique position among publications concerned with British visual culture. Read was uncompromising in his belief that British art needed a new institutional framework, arguing that ‘existing academies in all the arts are disastrously out of touch with the spirit of the age, and the breach is widening. I do not see how it can possibly be made good: the principles involved on both sides are irreconcilable’ (p. 128). These articles were preliminaries to Unit One's own exhibition and drew large crowds to it. According to the Yorkshire Post (28 June 1934), ‘extraordinary interest is being taken in London in the foundation and fortunes of Unit One’ and even the New York Times reported briefly on the group on 19 August. The exhibition was widely reviewed and, in London in particular, there was interest and sympathy, as well as some opposition. A notable critic was Henry Tonks, Nash and Nicholson's former teacher at the Slade School of Fine Art, who voiced the traditionalist position of ‘inspiration from nature alone’ as championed by the now nearly defunct New English Art Club. In the regions the touring exhibition was widely noticed, with local papers covering the arrival of Unit One as a news event if not always with critical reviews. Inevitably there were sneers and incomprehension in some quarters. The group—for which Nash had initially suggested the more anodyne title the English Contemporary Group—was castigated in The Scotsman, for example, as ‘a small but very aggressive body under the captaincy of Paul Nash named “Unit One”, a title with a Soviet-like flavour savouring of mass production, the collective man and the like’.
Though short-lived, Unit One shifted the balance of British art during the 1930s in favour of abstraction. In 1933 Paul Nash, slightly older than most of the other members, and with a reputation based firmly on his drawings and paintings of the western front during the First World War, could claim to be the leading figure in British experimental art. By the time of Unit One's exhibition Ben Nicholson, now making entirely non-figurative reliefs, had grown in confidence, ambition, and standing, and in 1935 moved to convert the Seven & Five Society (founded in 1919, and of which he had been for some time a prime mover), into an entirely non-figurative exhibiting group, renamed the Seven & Five Abstract Group. Henry Moore was likewise growing in assurance and prestige, while Nash never quite achieved the international stature of his fellow Unit members. Nash himself had also changed tack, developing new interests in field archaeology, Druid myths, and the legendary power of standing stones, which began with his discovery of Avebury in summer 1933, and which soon led him towards an individual form of surrealism.
Without the continuing support of Ben Nicholson, who by 1934 had emerged as Britain's leading non-figurative painter, part of the justification for Unit One disappeared. In an attempt to regenerate the group early in 1935, Nash, with the support of Coates, highlighted Unit One's design work with the practical aim of helping to generate income. Nash and Coates contacted the American-born poster designer Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890–1954) and the emigré Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), who had recently arrived in England following the closure of the German Bauhaus School by the Nazi authorities. However, it proved impossible to reach agreement on a revived membership. Even so, Unit One can be seen as the progenitor and, to some extent, the model for later displays of avant-garde contemporary art, in particular the two oppositional London shows of 1936—Nicolete Gray's Abstract and Concrete, the capital's first international exhibition of non-figuration, and the International Surrealist Exhibition. Herbert Read's book Unit One, with its adventurous design and graphics, was followed by Myfanwy Piper's journal Axis (1935–7) and by the 1937 manifesto of abstract painting, sculpture, and architecture Circle, of which Nicholson was one of the editors. As a group, book, and exhibition Unit One therefore gained and retains a special place at the head of one of the most adventurous periods of twentieth-century British art and architecture.