The Roaring Twenties: Art, Design and High Society

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Joanna Banham

Jo Banham is a freelance curator, lecturer and writer. From 2006-2016 she was Head of Adult Learning at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and before that Head of Learning and Access at the National Portrait Gallery, and Head of Public Programmes at Tate Britain. She has also been Curator of Leighton House and Assistant Keeper at the Whitworth Art Gallery. She has published on many aspects of Victorian and early 20th century decoration and interiors. She is currently curating an exhibition on William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement for the Juan March Fundacion in Madrid and the Museu Nacional d’Art Catalunya in Barcelona. She is also Director of the Victorian Society Summer School.

Like its name, the Roaring Twenties was a loud and boisterous decade, marked by novelty, modernity and huge social, technological, and economic change. Following the dark days of the Great War, it spawned a generation of wealthy and privileged Bright Young Things who were determined to shock and who broke with the conventions of the past to pursue a life of hedonism and promiscuity, fuelled by an endless round of champagne, cocaine, parties and jazz.

Women wore fur coats and cloche hats, donned new boyish fashions and had short, cropped hair. Men drove fast cars, mixed cocktails and smoked American cigarettes. Society ate in new restaurants like The Trocadero, danced the Charleston in ballrooms like the Savoy, and drank in clubs like the Embassy and the Café de Paris. Valentino, Tallulah Bankhead, and Noel Coward emerged as major celebrities through the growing popularity of cinema and the stage.

The Roaring Twenties was also a period of enormous vitality in art and design. Fashionable society was immortalised by portraitists like John Lavery and Cecil Beaton who brilliantly captured the glamour of the age. Leisure, pleasure and the excitement of jazz were portrayed in paintings by Burra and Roberts, while the speed of the city and travel were explored in work by McKnight Kauffer and Nevinson.  Furniture and decoration showed the influence of Cubism, Vorticism and other styles associated with the avant-garde, while events like the discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb ushered in an obsession with all things Egyptian and Oriental. This lecture aims to conjure up the energy and originality of the decade and to explore the lives of its leading figures and examples of its most innovative art and design.


The lecture notes leaflet can be downloaded here


Further Reading and Information on Collections

Joanna Banham has very kindly provided a detailed list of suggested books and collections relating to the Roaring Twenties.

Further Reading

The literature on the 1920s is very extensive, ranging from scholarly histories, to coffee table picture books, to memoirs and biographies of important figures. Most of the information on design can be found in books and catalogues on Art Deco, the principal style of the period. The V&A’s 2003 catalogue is still one of the most comprehensive studies and provides the best starting point for exploring the many different aspects of this subject in an international context. Robert Graves Long Weekend is an extremely readable memoir of the period with lots of fascinating details. D. J. Taylor provides the best account of the Lost Generation of party-going Bright Young Things. But for a truly authentic feel for the decade it is best to return to its literature, and especially the works of Evelyn Waugh, D. H. Lawrence, Nancy Mitford, and the forgotten genius of period, Henry Green. The list below reflects my personal choice of books that I have found useful and interesting.

  • Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood, Art Deco, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2003
  • Alan Hodge and Robert Graves, The Long Weekend: A Social History of Britain 1918-1939, London, 1955
  • Mark Grossman, Encyclopaedia of the Inter-War Years 1919-1939, London 2000
  • Sandy Wilson, The Twenties, London
  • Fiona Macdonald, Britain in the 1920s, London 2012
  • Martin Pugh, We Danced all Night, London 2009
  • John Stevenson, British Society 1914-1945,
  • Roy Hattersley, Borrowed Time: Britain Between the Wars, London, 2009
  • Cathy Ross, Twenties London: A City in the Jazz Age, Museum of London, 2003
  • Charlotte Fiell, 1920s Fashion, London, 2015
  • Lesley Jackson, Twentieth Century Pattern, Lund Humphries, 2002
  • Mark Turner, Silver Studio
  • D. J. Taylor, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, London, 2008
  • Linda Simon, Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper, London 2019
  • Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, 1930
  • Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
  • Nancy Mitford, Highland Fling, 1931
  • Henry Green, Loving, Living, Party Going, 1929


The largest collection of material related to Art Deco can be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum which has world renowned holdings of textiles and fashion, furniture and ceramics, and prints and posters. Comparatively little of this material is on view and more extensive displays of high-end fashions and object for the home can be seen in Brighton Museum. The Museum of London has a wonderful collection of images and artefacts associated with London in the 1920s and smaller venues like the Museum of Modern Architecture can provide a good picture of suburbia and more modest homes. The fine art of the period is exhibited at Tate Britain and images of all the principal figures and celebrities are in the National Portrait Gallery. Most medium-sized provincial museums – like Manchester and Leeds – will also include examples of painting and furniture from the 20s and examples of the architecture of the period, like cinemas, shops, and semis, still survives in many towns and seaside resorts. The list below covers the main places with significant collections, and where art and design of the period is on public display.

  • Brighton Museums & Art Galleries
  • Museum of London
  • Guildhall Art Gallery, London
  • Royal Institute of British Architects, London
  • Victoria & Albert Museum, London
  • Tate Britain, London
  • National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
  • Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford
  • Wilson Museum and Art Gallery, Cheltenham


Lecturer Joanna Banham with Chair Pat Corless