Tuesday, 17 March 2015

New Exhibitions: Pallant House, Fry, RWA, Ashmolean & Dulwich

Leon Underwood, The Matchbox, 1930 (private collection)
April may be the cruellest month to a poet of melancholy disposition, but for art lovers it brings treats a-plenty, this year more than most. I was selling my wares at the Nadfas Directory Day yesterday and someone mentioned the exhibition of Great British Drawings which is about to open at the Ashmolean. Having visited the print room a few times I am looking forward to this survey of the collection very much. We tend to see only the oil paintings held by museums, but in many cases the drawings, watercolours and other works on paper are as good, if not better.

Visiting a print room is particularly fun, because as you gently lift each carefully conserved drawing out of a box you have no idea what you will find underneath. One Cotman watercolour of the interior of Norwich Cathedral was particularly striking, the bold colour testament to the quality of the care lavished on the painting over the years.

Like a music festival, the exhibition has some big names topping the bill; we are promised Turner, Hockney, Rossetti, Ravilious, Gainsborough and more. I'm sure Ravilious would be amused (and impressed) to find himself sandwiched between Rossetti and Gainsborough.

Whether by chance or by design, drawing is also the theme of a major spring exhibition at RWA Bristol, where fifty-five works on paper from the Ingram Collection are going on show alongside the annual open exhibition, Drawn. The Ingram Collection has a vast holding of Modern British Art, and this selection, dubbed Drawing On, promises work by Edward Burra, John Nash, Barbara Hepworth and sundry other stars of the period.

Weirdly, there's a Ravilious connection with our next exhibition, Leon Underwood at Pallant House Gallery, since Underwood was teaching at the Royal College when Rav was studying there. Apparently, Underwood liked to invite the most promising students for evening get-togethers, and the Boy was one of those so invited, along with Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Underwood is one of those figures whose influence was probably far greater than we realise. A multi-talented artist and inspiring teacher, he explored wood engraving, sculpture and painting, creating memorable, innovative work in each medium. Travels to Mexico gave him a global perspective that was relatively rare among British artists of the time.

Kenneth Rowntree, Coronation lithograph, 1953
If Underwood exerted an influence on Ravilious, Kenneth Rowntree worked (at first) in a clear-sighted way similar to Rav and Bawden. Twelve years their junior he was fortunate to grow up during a golden age of British landscape painting, but less fortunate to see its glory fade after World War II. I can't help but see the giant, decorative ER he lithographed for the Coronation in 1953 as a tribute to Eric, but perhaps I'm being fanciful.

The centenary exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery is a collaboration with Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, a gallery that has done more than most to promote 20th century British art. If you haven't done so before, you should have a look at their website, which offers an ever-changing array of paintings, drawings and prints by artists familiar and obscure.

Kenneth Rowntree, Toy Boat at Selsey, 1956 (Fry Art Gallery, Artfunded)
Rowntree has his fans but deserves wider recognition for his upbeat but strangely haunting paintings of landscapes, buildings, boats and interiors. I have a copy of the King Penguin book, 'A Prospect of Wales', and his illustrations are a treat.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country... We're hanging the Ravilious show at Dulwich next week and the excitement levels are mounting. The catalogue is back from the printers and looking great - you can pre-order from Philip Wilson Publishers or from good bookshops like Much Ado Books, Hatchards or Toppings...

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Eric Ravilious Rediscovered: Type Tuesday at St Brides

Eric Ravilious, Alphabet design, c1937
A while ago John Walters of Eye magazine asked me if I would give a talk on the resurgence of interest in all things Ravilious. Given that the Dulwich show is about to open it's a great opportunity to explore a fascinating subject - why is Ravilious so much more popular now than he was in his lifetime? In the 1980s it was possible for a major survey of 20th century British art to leave him out completely, yet now he is viewed as an important mid-century artist. Why is this?

Some initial thoughts come to mind. Perhaps we citizens of the Facebook Age yearn for a simpler past, and find in those railway compartments and cottage rooms a suitably nostalgic escape. Perhaps - as some people believe, though I'm not one of them - Ravilious epitomises the Englishness some are so fearful of losing. More interestingly, I wonder whether there's a generational thing going on, with the 1930s now possessing some of the allure of the Edwardian or Victorian periods. But that doesn't explain why people love Ravilious and not one or other of his more famous or successful peers.

Indeed, there's no end of nostalgic English art we could all swoon over, but only one Eric Ravilious - it's something about those watercolours and designs in particular that appeals to the 21st century eye. Perhaps the real question we should be asking is why it has taken so long for the art-loving public to discover them. Was there simply a natural hiatus after the artist's premature death in 1942? Or a reaction against the 'Romantic Moderns' of the 1930s?

It's intriguing to note that Ravilious and Bawden began their careers just as several forgotten artists of the previous century were remembered. It was in the aftermath of the Great War that John Sell Cotman, Francis Towne and Samuel Palmer were taken up by a new generation, having been ignored for years. In the 1920s, as now, anxiety about the present fuelled interest in the past - in stone circles and earthworks, the buried treasure of Egypt and Sutton Hoo.

But if this helps us understand Ravilious's choice of medium and subject matter, it still doesn't bring us much closer to answering our question. Designs like the Alphabet (above) were popular enough when they first appeared, but today they have cult status. People take pilgrimages to the sites of Ravilious paintings, whether Cuckmere Haven or Great Bardfield. I meet a lot of fans when I give lectures and sign books, and they tend to be thoughtful, enthusiastic and curious to find out more. Art critics have often described the artist's work as emotionally cool or distant, but both paintings and designs seem to evoke powerful feelings in all kinds of people.

So we can think about changes in fashion, historical cycles, cultural anxieties and so on, but in the end - as with any artist - we come back to the work. There's something about those tiny engraved vignettes, those lighthouses and silent hills - something that pulls us in? But what?

Now there's a question...

I'll be doing my best to address it next Tuesday at St Brides in Fleet Street, and there will be an opportunity afterwards to have your say. Hope to see you there!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Paul Nash: Camera Man

Paul Nash, Ploughed Field and Haystacks, 1937 (copyright Tate)

Paul Nash was a very good photographer. His pictures aren't just studies for paintings, although he certainly did use them in this way. They are fully formed works of art in their own right, mesmerizing studies of objects and places that caught his eye. 

You get the feeling, looking at his canvases, that Nash used paint to say what he needed to say, rather than revelling in the medium. If anything I think he preferred the lightness and immediacy of watercolour to the weight and permanence of oil, but he was too shrewd a customer not to use the more 'serious' medium; even during periods when he was mostly painting in watercolour he would knock out an oil or two, and it is these which have ensured his reputation.

His interest lay less in particular media than in his subjects, which by the 1930s were firmly established as place and object. The mysterious power of inanimate things fascinated him as much as the peculiar qualities of certain places - like the Wittenham Clumps, to take his favourite example. To explore place and object he increasingly used a camera, partly because his poor health made it difficult for him to sketch. 

Previously he had mastered oil painting, watercolour, wood engraving, lithography and sundry other media - he was also a very good writer. In photography he found the most immediate way of communicating his ideas and feelings, and proved himself adept at using the camera's eye as an extension of his own. 

One of Nash's last peacetime projects was 'Monster Field', which grew out of his experience of encountering fallen elms in a Gloucestershire field. He took photographs, painted watercolours and oils, wrote text and eventually produced a book. It's difficult now to see why he put so much effort into this one subject, but I think he was striving to get closer and closer to the initial experience. This was conceptual art born of emotion rather than idea. (Discuss!)

Anyway, a selection of his photos is on display this week at the Art Workers' Guild, together with work by Edward Bawden, Ian Beck, Glynn Boyd Harte and Alan Powers, courtesy of Neil Jennings Fine Art. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Ravilious and Bawden: An Artistic Friendship

Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden Working in his Studio, tempera on board, 1930 (Royal College of Art)

In the autumn of 1922 a group of new students arrived for their first day at the Design School of the Royal College of Art, next door to the V&A. Among them were two young men from the provinces, neither yet twenty, both from chapel-going, shopkeeping families. In some ways they were very different. Famously, Edward Bawden was so shy he preferred to walk around London rather than board a bus, whereas Eric Ravilious leapt straight into the social whirl of college life. 

But as well as their background they also shared a love of the incongruous and the antique. Together with another new arrival, Douglas Percy Bliss, they became firm friends. 

A talented writer, Bliss later wrote a warm, perceptive book on Bawden, in which he described the young Edward as 'a little outside life'. He went on:

But we knew him for a genius, Eric and I. We did not laugh at him but with him. And what laughter we had! He had such odd habits. If a stranger approached him he got into reverse gear and backed away to the wall. His extraordinary innocence and ignorance of what John Bull cares about, his complete indifference to Everyman's interests, Sport, Politics, Ballet, Music, etc, all this puzzled and delighted us. It was like having a foreigner in our midst. Moreover his sense of humour transfigured every object in our daily lives.

Ravilious was also described by contemporaries throughout his life as being 'slightly somewhere else', but he shared many of 'Everyman's interests', from tennis and cricket to fancy dress parties and dances. He worked hard but had a reputation for being carefree, earning the nickname 'the Boy' for his youthful insouciance. Bawden worked constantly and didn't care who knew it. By the time they left the Royal College he was becoming established as a commercial illustrator, then came the mural commission that brought the pair to public attention for the first time.

At Morley College, across the river from Westminster, Ravilious and Bawden worked on different walls of the canteen to create an exuberant celebration of Elizabethan theatre, which was opened to widespread acclaim by Stanley Baldwin early in 1930. Not long afterwards, Bawden asked Rav to paint this portrait of him at work.

This is what I wrote about it for the Dulwich catalogue (currently at the printers):

This delightful painting is a rarity for Ravilious: a portrait painted in tempera. As a watercolourist he was just beginning to find his way at this stage in his career, and it is unclear why he abandoned a medium that he used here to such good effect. In this highly finished painting we have his close friend Edward Bawden, working on a painting of Clacton Pier in his back room in Redcliffe Road, Chelsea; the rolls of paper in the corner are studies for the Morley College murals, testament to the amount of work the artists put into the project. 

While certainly a portrait, this is a painting as much of Bawden’s aesthetic world as it is of him in person. Though excessively hard-working and painfully shy, the boy from Braintree was a trendsetter, particularly in his admiration for Victoriana – note the rococo mirror and easel, and the bust of Queen Alexandra on the mantelpiece. The guardsman’s jacket on the floor could have been carelessly dropped by a visiting Beatle; we might remember that Bawden was an influential teacher at the RCA when Peter Blake and his contemporaries studied there after World War II. 

There is something curiously animated about the jacket, and with the curtained corner and the tailor’s bust the overall picture has an understated strangeness that presages the mood of Ravilious’s later watercolours.

It was in 1930, in fact, that the two friends went in search of a weekend retreat in order to paint watercolours, discovering Brick House in the Essex village of Great Bardfield. There they worked, often literally side by side, producing during the decade that followed a startling body of paintings.
Of these, Ravilious's share is becoming well known, with many of his best watercolours about to be shown at Dulwich. Bawden's contribution is currently less visible, because the detective work needed to find work bought at exhibition in the 1930s is only now being done, but be prepared: there are some exciting paintings out there. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

No Hope for the Last Ravilious Mural?

I was alerted to a recent article by Nick Booth in The Times about the Ravilious mural on the pier at Colwyn Bay. The mural was only rediscovered a couple of years ago, and there were hopes - which I described at the time - that it might be saved. Now the situation is apparently looking rather less hopeful, though whether the mural is, as reported, 'too far gone' to be saved, or whether it just doesn't fit into the proposed redevelopment plans, I don't know.

If anyone has further news, do leave a comment below.