Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Angie Lewin: New Watercolours in Edinburgh

Angie Lewin, Spey Still Life & Yellow Book (artist copyright)
Just received some lovely pictures of new Angie Lewin watercolours, ahead of her exhibition in Edinburgh. Is it my imagination, or is there a hint of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in some of these flower paintings? The layering of translucent colours seems to be new, or maybe I'm just looking properly! As ever, the paintings are carefully composed, at once structured and loose, realistic in some ways and stylised in others. Lots of energy too - I love the way the pattern springs away from the Persephone bowl.

Angie Lewin, Calendula Study (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Dice Cup and Feather (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Cone Flower  (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Persephone Bowl (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Wild Garden Seedheads (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Auden Thalictrum (artist copyright)
These and other watercolours will be shown in Angie's exhibition 'A Natural Selection' at The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, during May. Gallery Director Christina Jansen comments:

"We are delighted to present Angie Lewin’s first solo exhibition with The Scottish Gallery. She is best known as a designer and printmaker whose sensitive patterns and motifs are inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement and the work of Bawden and Ravilious. She divides her life between homes in Edinburgh and Speyside and this geographic diversity is reflected in her plant observations and interweaving of the natural and domestic worlds.

"She walks, looks and draws; she collects and assembles and her studio is full of reference material, beautiful in itself witnessing a life lived in art and nature. Her chosen medium for this exhibition is watercolour, that most sensitive and difficult medium and her virtuosity is complete but should be no surprise in the context of her rigorous apprenticeship. The playful title for this show hints at her obsessive observing, refined through the artist’s editorial eye to make order out of chaos."

FFI: The Scottish Gallery

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ravilious in Pictures: Iron Bridge at Ewenbridge

Eric Ravilious, Iron Bridge at Ewenbridge, 1941-2, Fry Art Gallery

Beneath bare winter branches a bridge leads across a stream to open country beyond. For a rural footbridge this is an impressive structure, with iron railings and posts supported by elegant iron hoops, but on closer inspection it appears that the bridge was built not for human traffic but for sheep. The ground in front of the bridge is well worn, the hill beyond ideal for grazing. The name too is suggestive. Charles Strachey recalls that his family always referred to the farm as Ewenbridge and, despite a lack of hard evidence, believes that the site may mark an ancestral crossing place for livestock.

This was one of several watercolours Ravilious painted in lieu of rent (to Labour politician and author John Strachey); it is unlikely that we would have any pictures of Ironbridge – or, for that matter, any non-war related paintings from this period – if the arrangement had not been in place. And this is an exquisite piece, one that celebrates good, everyday design and workmanship while inviting an imaginative response. A fairytale troll might live beneath this bridge; a pilgrim might cross to the other side. The elegant ironwork suggests a faith in the power of good design to carry us safely into the future.

In September 1942, only months after completing this painting, Ravilious was reported missing off the coast of Iceland. Still weak from surgery, Tirzah now found the government reluctant to pay either her late husband’s outstanding salary or her widow’s pension. She was forced to argue her case repeatedly, until she finally received the money owed to her a year later and was able to concentrate on the business of living. She began painting in oils, and in 1946 married BBC man Henry Swanzy. However, her cancer returned and she died in March 1951, with Anne not quite 10 years old.

Here the story takes a twist in keeping with Ravilious’s optimistic nature. With the upheavals of the war, their old Hedingham friend Kay Goodden had parted from her first husband Robert, and by coincidence married Henry Swanzy’s brother John. On Tirzah’s death Kay and John took the Ravilious children in, and gave them a stable and happy home.

This future lay ahead, unseen, as Ravilious sketched the bridge. He was at Ironbridge on and off during the summer, as the farm became idyllic once again. In June he reported, ‘The river here looks lovely and I bathed today. The old man Brown who keeps the boats wears a battered old Panama and stinging vermilion football jersey in these grey green willows.’

He came and went, returning for the last time in August to find the children waiting. ‘The Baffy (James) and Anne were at Overall’s corner when I returned…’ he wrote, ‘James chasing a cat and Anne laughing with joy to see her Father.’

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', published by The Mainstone Press.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Introducing 'Ravilious in Pictures'

In a recent post about the catalogue for 'Ravilious' at Dulwich, a reviewer noted that there were perhaps some opportunities missed to discuss locations and other details relevant to particular paintings. This criticism may be valid but if you're looking for more in-depth discussion of individual Ravilious watercolours, don't despair!

Much of what I know about this elusive artist and his deceptively simple watercolours I learnt during the four years I spent working on the series 'Ravilious in Pictures' for the Mainstone Press. Actually there was never supposed to be a series. One book simply led to another, until we ended up with a trilogy of four books. Each is a kind of exhibition in book form, featuring twenty watercolours with accompanying essays, and a couple of other paintings for good measure.

The aim was to talk about Ravilious's work in ways suggested by the watercolours themselves, looking at social history and biography rather than art history per se. You can see a couple of sample essays here, and here.

When it came to writing the 'Ravilious' catalogue I naturally had different things to say, but the four books are well worth looking at if you've fallen under the spell of this alluring artist and want to know more about particular aspects of his work. All four books draw inspiration both from the paintings and from the artist's marvellous letters, as edited by his daughter Anne Ullmann, and published by the Fleece Press. The volumes and the paintings included are as follows:

Sussex and the Downs (a study of Ravilious's downland paintings, with reference to interwar social/landscape history, and some amusing interludes):
Firle Beacon, Furlongs, Interior at Furlongs, Waterwheel, Downs in Winter, Cement Works 2, Caravans, Chalk Paths, Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes, Mount Caburn, Wiltshire Landscape, Beachy Head, Cuckmere Haven, Tea at Furlongs, The Wilmington Giant, The Westbury Horse, Train Landscape, Vale of the White Horse, Chalk Figure near Weymouth, The Cerne Giant.

The War Paintings (focusing on his wartime career, and the places and people he encountered - some proper history in here!):
Observation Post, Warship in Dry Dock, Ship's Screw on a Railway Truck, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, Barrage Balloons Outside a British Port, Norway 1940, HMS Glorious in the Arctic, Ark Royal in Action, Ward Room No1, Coastal Defences, Coastal Defences (2), No1 Map Corridor, Bombing the Channel Ports, Convoy Passing an Island, Morning on the Tarmac, RNAS Sick Bay Dundee, Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, Corporal Stediford's Pigeon Loft, Runway Perspective, Hurricanes in Flight.

A Country Life (the most domestic of the books, exploring Eric and Tirzah's life in Essex):
Prospect from an Attic, Two Women in a Garden, The Attic Bedroom, Tractor, Garden Path, No.29 Bus, Back Gardens, Friesian Bull, The Brickyard, Hull's Mill, Butcher's Shop, Train Going Over a Bridge at Night, Halstead Road in Snow, Vicarage, Village Street, Salt Marsh, Late August Beach, Ironbridge Interior, Tree Trunk and Wheelbarrow, Ironbridge at Ewenbridge.

A Travelling Artist (following Rav's travels around Britain and beyond, in search of 'a good place'):
November 5th, Strawberry Nets, River Thames, Buoys and Grappling Hook, Channel Steamer Leaving Harbour, Newhaven Harbour, Greenwich Observatory, Wet Afternoon, Waterwheel, The Duke of Hereford's Knob, Geraniums and Carnations, Buscot Park, Room at the William the Conqueror, Lifeboat, Dungeness, Bristol Quay, Belle Tout Interior, Pilot Boat, Leaving Scapa Flow.

If you'd like to know more about any of the books, or their availability (I believe they're all in print as I write this), please get in touch via the email address on my Profile page, or visit The Mainstone Press. Thanks!

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!