Who were the original Independent Group? A very brief history of the radical 1950s movement that challenged the art establishment

A new political group has formed in the House of Commons following the resignation of eight Labour MPs and three Conservatives this week. Calling themselves the Independent Group, the MPs broke away in protest at the direction of the Labour Party under its leader Jeremy Corbyn and are promising to offer a new, centre-ground alternative to “broken” politics. But did you know the original Independent Group was a 1950s art movement designed to challenge the art establishment?

Married architects Alison and Peter Smithson at work, October 1961. The pair were architect members of the Independent Group and had an impact on the British urban scene via what became known as ‘New Brutalism’. (Photo by Davies/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Here, Dr Veronica Davies from the Open University explains who the original Independent Group were and what they became famous for…

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The Independent Group was active in the early 1950s, as an informal discussion group meeting at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. The Group was formed of a number of British artists, architects and writers who would go on to be highly influential in their fields in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. The impetus for the Independent Group came from a desire to challenge the conventions and orthodoxies of the existing art establishment at the time, and to replace these with something visibly new.

A woman looks at 'The Recognition of Philopoemen', c1609 by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens at the Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

Among the group were artists that came to be seen as key figures in British Pop Art, including Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005) and Richard Hamilton (1922–2011), as well as writers such as Lawrence Alloway (1926–90) who, like Hamilton, produced definitive texts on Pop Art and its connections with the popular culture and mass media of the post-Second World War period.

Scottish sculptor and printmaker Eduardo Paolozzi works on his sculpture at an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1950. (Photo © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Scottish sculptor and printmaker Eduardo Paolozzi works on a sculpture at an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1950. (Photo © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Equally, architect Independent Group members Alison and Peter Smithson (1928–93 and 1923–2003 respectively) were to have an impact on the British urban scene via what became known as ‘New Brutalism’ – an approach to architecture that often stressed stark, austere presentation of materials and structure. The Smithsons became known for their design for the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in Norfolk (completed in 1954, now known as Smithdon High School), which is generally recognised as the first example of New Brutalism.

Smithdon High School, Hunstanton, Norfolk, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. (Photo by Sarah Duncan/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
Smithdon High School, Hunstanton, Norfolk, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. (Photo by Sarah Duncan/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

Members of the Independent Group were famously involved in organising and participating in the celebrated ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. The theme was “the ‘modern’ way of living and the exhibition was based on a model of collaborative art practice. The 38 participants formed 12 groups, which worked towards producing one artwork. The outcome transformed the Whitechapel Gallery into a vibrant interactive space of installations.”

Dr Veronica Davies is an art history tutor at the Open University.

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To find out more about the original Independent Group, visit www.independentgroup.org.uk