Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Ravilious Rediscovered

Eric Ravilious, Aldeburgh Bathing Machines, 1938 (photo JS Auctions)

Until this year only the owner of ‘Aldeburgh Bathing Machines’ knew of its existence. This scintillating watercolour was bought from the artist’s exhibition at Tooth’s in May 1939, and since then the title has been attributed to a different painting, also of bathing huts. As far as anyone other than the owner knew, the picture featured here had never existed, so that to Ravilious’s descendants, collectors and fans ‘Aldeburgh Bathing Machines’ is not a lost painting returned, but a new and exciting discovery.

Eric Ravilious was in the middle of a prolific period when he visited Aldeburgh late in August 1938. Galvanised by the prospect of the Tooth’s exhibition he had travelled around the country, seeking out inspiring subjects. His letters are generally a good source of information about his activities, yet we know almost nothing about his visit to Aldeburgh; he left no clue as to why he was so intrigued by bathing machines.

There were, however, similar devices on the beach at Eastbourne when he was a boy. Ravilious was born in London, but at the age of eight moved to the Sussex seaside town, where his father ran an antiques shop. A scholarship took him to the Royal College of Art in 1922, and from there his career as a designer and artist blossomed alongside that of his friend and fellow student Edward Bawden. Ravilious retained a lifelong fascination for unusual and old-fashioned objects, particularly wheeled vehicles.

He also liked to work in series, so we should not be surprised that he painted three watercolours of these delightful blue-and-white-striped bathing machines. In this case the composition is centred on the parking sign and its shadow, around which the other objects (and the attendant) are carefully arranged so that the eye keeps moving from one to the next as if around a dial. The objects themselves are intriguing even by Ravilious’s high standards of oddity: the chicken appears in another painting and must have had some purpose, but we don’t yet know what it was. Having no doubt seen his friend John Piper’s illustrated essay on ‘Nautical Style’ in Architectural Review a few months earlier, Ravilious may have included the fowl as an amusing addendum.

However, the most striking feature of this beautiful painting is the quality of the light. Dawn was this artist’s preferred time for outdoor work, and in many watercolours it is the radiant early morning light that seems his true subject. The striated iridescent sky would become a feature of Ravilious’s finest wartime paintings, but this is peacetime, and the scene is set for a holiday.

'Aldeburgh Bathing Machines' is going under the hammer at JS Auctions on Sept 27. I wrote the text above for the catalogue.

In other news, Towner will be opening its Ravilious room on Sept 12. This will be a resource room for fans of the artist, with an evolving display of work, plus books, documents, etc. Obviously I haven't seen it yet, so do contact the museum if you want to know more.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Random Spectacular #2

Cover of Random Spectacular #2 by Jonny Hannah

Amazingly, almost four years have passed since St Judes published Random Spectacular, a delightfully eclectic collection of words and pictures that reminded me of the old Saturday Books. The edition sold out so quickly that everyone was taken by surprise, not least editor Simon Lewin, and some St Judes devotees were unable to get hold of a copy.

This time around, Simon is taking the unusual step of basing the edition size on the apparent demand. Anyone interested in buying a copy should trot along to the St Judes website and enter their email address. NB this doesn't mean they're guaranteed a copy, but they will be sent payment information by email when Random Spectacular #2 is published in August 2014.

There are some treats in store for fans of Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton, Angie Lewin and numerous other artists, and the whole book is beautifully designed. I was delighted when Simon asked me to write something on Eric Ravilious's submarine lithographs: look out for some gorgeous full page reproductions.

FFI: St Judes


Monday, 21 July 2014

A Modern British Summer!

Paul & John Nash reunited at RWA Bristol
For a long time the auction houses and dealers have been enjoying a boom in Mod Brit, as 20th century British art is known in the trade. Or rather, as 20th century British painting, sculpture and artist-made design is known.

For those baffled by artspeak, there's a world of difference between 'modern', which now refers to a period from about 1910 to the beginning of the Saatchi era, and 'contemporary', which refers to art being made now - or some of it, at least. For art to be 'contemporary' it generally needs to be non-traditional, as 'modern' art used to be. Nowadays Edward Seago is 'modern', and you don't get much more traditional than him.

JD Fergusson, Bathers: Noon, 1937, (c) The Fergusson Gallery
Of course some Mod Brit artists really were modern. Take JD Fergusson, the Scottish painter who immersed himself in the vibrant visual culture of early 20th century Paris and brought home a wild palette and a boundless zest for life. One of the world's great colourists, he has remained popular since his death in 1963 - but neglected south of the border. Now, however, Pallant House is offering English fans an opportunity to revisit Fergusson's work, as curator Simon Martin explained to me recently.

'Over the past few years,' he told me, 'Pallant House Gallery has carved a niche in presenting reappraisals of overlooked British artists and themes.

'The JD Fergusson exhibition has come to us from the Scottish National Galleries and is very timely as it the first solo museum show of this Scottish Colourist in England for over forty years, and demonstrates the important point that British artists were not working in a vacuum, but working in continental Europe as part of the international avant-garde.'

Great exhibition, great catalogue...
Simon made a name for himself a few years ago with a brilliant exhibition devoted to another overlooked British artist, Edward Burra - a painter of extraordinary originality and verve - and since then Pallant House has become one of several out-of-London museums catering to the renewed interest in all things Modern and British.

Dulwich is only just out of London, but the need for visitors to leave the West End and venture onto the rail network does make Dulwich Picture Gallery a not-quite-London venue. Famous for its gorgeous permanent collection, DPG has also embraced Mod Brit following the startling success in 2010 of 'Paul Nash: The Elements', David Fraser Jenkins' memorable exhibition.


Until 21 September you can enjoy 'Art and Life', a delightful exhibition devoted to the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and others, in an environment ideally suited to the pictures. These artists, like many of their generation, painted on a relatively modest scale, and the work feels at home in the intimate exhibition gallery at Dulwich. I enjoyed seeing the exhibition at Kettle's Yard, but the paintings come to life in a different way in their current home - worth taking the ten-minute train ride from Victoria to see them again!

Closer to home (for me, at any rate), and close to my heart, is the new RWA exhibition devoted to the careers of Paul and John Nash. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years writing about, thinking about, and generally going on about Paul Nash, and I wish there weren't so many books about him so I could write another one. Oh well.

Paul Nash, Dymchurch, c1922-4, Dudley Museums Service, (c) Tate
A few years ago I had the idea of celebrating the centenary of the Nash brothers' first (and only) joint exhibition, which took place in 1913. I approached the RWA, with whom I had worked on an exhibition of Ravilious watercolours, and they decided to include 'Brothers in Art' as part of their impressive Great War centenary programme. I've been too busy elsewhere to get involved, but curator Gemma Brace has put together a mouth-watering selection of pictures by both artists, including one of the nation's favourite paintings, John's 'Cornfield'.

Like many smaller institutions the RWA is handicapped by the prohibitive charges levied by larger museums and estates for reproduction rights, making it very difficult for them to promote the exhibition nationally, but I hope that word spreads around the grapevine. There are pre-Great War paintings by both artists that have rarely, if ever, been shown publicly before, along with later pictures that are justly celebrated. From Paul a lovely oil of Dymchurch and 'Eclipse of the Sunflower', from John languid views of Bath and the eye-of-God vision of 'Gloucestershire Landscape'.

Almost my favourite picture on public display anywhere in Britain right now is Paul Nash's early watercolour of elm trees in the blue summer dusk, which is featured in the exhibition.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country... we have Towner's wonderful Peggy Angus show, which is full of surprises. When Sara Cooper and I were planning the exhibition we faced a particular challenge in the varied nature of Peggy's career. On the surface, at least, her paintings are very different from her tile designs, and what about her long and distinguished teaching career? How on earth do you represent years in the classroom in a museum show?

As it turned out, her fabulous wallpaper (hand-printed for us by her grand-daughter Emma Gibson) offered a way of pulling the disparate aspects of her career together - as well as causing a lot of jaws to drop. Besides, these different sides of her life were not actually so different. Look for instance at the curving line of the railway in one of her paintings of Asham Cement Works, and then at the undulating design in her Lansbury tile mural, and you can see the same hand behind them. Similarly, the design work she did in the classroom relates closely to her commercial work. Thanks in part to Towner's moveable walls, the exhibition flows nicely, showing us different sides of a single, inspiring, creative mind.

Eric Ravilious, Interior at Furlongs, 1939, Towner

Peggy Angus, The Three Bears, c1945, (c) Estate of Peggy Angus/DACS
We thought a great deal about whether to include Ravilious paintings in the exhibition and decided they were so immediately relevant - given the artists' friendship and shared artistic interests - that it would be crazy not to. Although Ravilious was the superior painter overall, I don't think Peggy's pictures of the cement works, or of Furlongs, suffer by comparison.

Rather, his 'Interior at Furlongs' and her paintings of the same subject complement one another, while the fantastic stage set of the famous table and chairs is a must-see for any true Ravilious devotee. There is even an oil lamp on show that he bought for Peggy from a Lewes junk shop.

In part I think the growing fascination with all things Mod and Brit has a lot to do with our distance from those days, especially the 1930s. You have to be of a fairly decent age now to remember the decade with any clarity, and for those born in wartime or afterwards it has the same air of mystery and nostalgia that the Victorian period had for their parents. For young artists and designers, meanwhile, Peggy Angus must come as something of a revelation - a talented maverick who enjoyed not one but several careers, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work.

FFI:
JD Fergusson at Pallant House
Art and Life at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Brothers in Art: Paul and John Nash at RWA Bristol
Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter at Towner


Also playing:

From David Bomberg to Paula Rego: The London Group in Southampton at Southampton City Art Gallery - a century old this year, having been set up on the eve of the Great War to help artists who were shunned by the Establishment, the London Group is still going strong today. It describes itself as 'a thriving democratic co-operative of artists practicing in all disciplines, from painting and sculpture to moving image and performance, with a full annual events programme in London and beyond.'

Keith Vaughan at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden - an exhibition 'specially devised to reflect the influence of north west Essex on Vaughan by showing 'Essex work'. Vaughan enjoyed relaxing in the Essex countryside where he could explore the constant changes in the natural world and the open sky as a contrast to his life in London. He was also interested in the juxtaposition of geometric shapes provided by vernacular architecture. Many of his later paintings can be traced back to photographs that he took in Essex whilst living at Harrow Hill.'

Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain

Apologies if I've missed out something obvious - please add a comment!









Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Peggy Angus on Film



This film was shot just before the Private View of the Peggy Angus exhibition at Towner last week. You have to wait a while for David Dimbleby, but there are some great pictures of the show. Sara got to stand in front of the Sun and Moon wallpaper, which is most unfair.

The film was made by Bourne Iden TV.

Peggy was also featured in The Observer a couple of weeks ago; you can see the article by Rachel Cooke and accompanying slideshow on the Guardian website.

I'm back in Eastbourne on Saturday (19 July), giving an afternoon talk on Peggy's life and work... The weather forecast isn't very good for Saturday, so why not come and be entertained for an hour! Info here.


Friday, 4 July 2014

What links... Kenneth Clark, British Folk Art & Peggy Angus?

How's that for Folk Art? Lady Godiva Clock, Coventry, with tile mural by Peggy Angus
Hooray for Tate B. Not just one but TWO inspiring exhibitions on at the same time. I thought a show devoted to an art historian and cultural bigwig might be a bit dry, but far from it. Fascinating to see the work Kenneth Clark collected, all those delicate Cezanne drawings for example, and the pictures he was looking at during his formative years.

Here was a portrait of an art lover whose watchwords seemed to be refinement and modesty - a patron whose genteel good taste and position in the art establishment greatly assisted the careers of Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and other artists of equally rare sensibility.

A bit of a shock, then, to go from the world of 'Civilisation' to the multifarious oddities of British Folk Art, an exhibition which is probably more popular than its debonair rival but which must have been fairly nightmarish to curate. I mean where do you begin? What do you include? The curators seem to have taken a similar approach to Barbara Jones in her wonderful book 'The Unsophisticated Arts', in that they have gathered together work that shares certain characteristics but without trying to define it too closely or to include everything.

Buy the new edition from Little Toller!
Like the book, it's an eclectic, individual survey of figureheads and shop signs, textiles and amateur paintings - a display put together (it seems) by enthusiasts with a good eye for an object, rather than academics with a point to make. In the same way some of the artists championed by Kenneth Clark picked up on interesting or quirky objects or designs. Eric Ravilious loved weathervanes, shop emblems and junk of all kinds - you could put together a mini-folk art show from his prints and paintings. Edward Bawden too.

Eric Ravilious, 'Saddler' from High Street
And his model... white horse outside a Sudbury pub
But many of the most passionate artist-enthusiasts of the 20th century were women, notably Barbara Jones, Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx (authors of 'English Popular Art'), Olive Cook and Peggy Angus. Each no doubt had their own reasons for admiring folk art, but Peggy for one saw in it much more than quirky or original design. She believed that the beautifully decorated Romany caravans she saw in her youth represented the most authentic kind of art - art made not by specialists to be enjoyed by others, but by people for whom it was an integral part of life.

A work of art in itself... check out more wonderful illustrations here
Peggy taught art for more than forty years, gradually developing a curriculum that combined art history and practical training in a bewildering range of disciplines, and which took her pupils from the most primitive art forms, via the medieval and Renaissance periods, to the experiments of Modernism. Throughout she stressed the vital importance of patronage (which had been impressed on her when she visited the Hermitage Museum on a 1932 trip to Soviet Russia).

Great art, she would argue, requires both great artists and great patrons - people with taste, vision and money. At different periods and in different places patronage has been provided by monarchs, aristocrats, religious organisations and the state. Kenneth Clark pushed the British government into state patronage of the arts when he set up the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1939; Piper, Moore and Sutherland prospered.

Peggy's tile mural in the foyer of Lansbury Lawrence School, Poplar
These artists were employed for a purpose - to record the war in their own way (and provide propaganda images into the bargain) - and you could argue that the relationship between patron and artist is always like this. The artist has certain skills, and the patron a use for them. Whether we're talking about an anonymous carpenter creating a figurehead for a naval ship, or a famous painter depicting a bombed cathedral - or, as in Peggy's case, a designer creating a tile mural for a new school - this is the very opposite of 'art for art's sake'. 

Paintings & wallpaper by Mark Hearld, hung Peggy Angus-style at Towner
As far as Peggy Angus was concerned, art needed to serve a purpose. If you come along to the exhibition devoted to her life and work, which begins at Towner, Eastbourne, next weekend, you'll see the extraordinary things she achieved in her lifelong desire to be useful, from her unique art curriculum to tile designs for Heathrow Airport... And look out for hand-printed wallpaper, hung floor to ceiling in the gallery - much of it based on folk art designs. For a preview of what to expect, have a look at Rachel Cooke's feature in The Observer.

And when you've had a good look round her exhibition, head downstairs to Nathaniel Hepburn's elegant show 'Designing the Everyday', which brings together the work of numerous talented artist-designers. There are Ravilious ceramics that seem, on first sight, to be hovering against the wall with no visible means of support, some striking Shell posters, and, to bring us up to date, a room devoted to the talented designers of St Judes. Highlights include chairs upholstered in printed fabrics and Mark Hearld's wallpaper - the latter proof that, twenty years after Peggy's death, her spirit permeates British art and design.

FFI: Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter at Towner, Eastbourne, July 12 - Sept 21
'Peggy Angus: Designer Teacher, Painter' by James Russell, Antique Collectors Club.
Designing the Everyday at Towner, until 31 August
Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain, until 10 August
British Folk Art at Tate Britain, until 31 August