Saturday, 10 July 2010
Ravilious & the Sussex Downs, part 2
The cycle of the seasons recurs frequently as a theme in Ravilious’s work, and while staying at Furlongs he portrayed harvest and seedtime, ripening corn and the bare fields of winter. This is winter at a northern latitude, winter as the still point between one year and the next.
But though Beddingham Hill seems ancient and unchanging, this country was constantly evolving, alternately grazed and ploughed as the agricultural economy fluctuated. And while the roller in the foreground may look like an antique, it was used everyday by the long-suffering ploughman.
‘You can hardly see country at all from the windows,’ Ravilious wrote during one horrendous winter storm. ‘Barnes can just be seen with the roller – he has sacks tied round with string so looks much larger than usual. He looks pretty miserable.’
Though Ravilious’s paintings are often empty of people, he frequently had company on painting expeditions. In this case maybe Peggy Angus, since she painted a winter scene from more or less the same spot, only facing east rather than south. On other occasions Ravilious painted lanes and paths with great relish, but here he was drawn to the austere expanse of the ploughed fields – a landscape at once old and, in painterly terms, novel.
There’s something similar in his approach to the interior of the cottage, which he chose as a subject around the same time. Again this is rather a haunting image, with the coat behind the door adding a frisson of mystery.
But what was Furlongs really like?
Well, life was certainly simple in a shepherd’s cottage on the South Downs. There was no hot water, no running water for that matter, no electricity… mod cons consisted of a coal fire, calor stove, kitchen sink and outhouse. When Peggy evacuated her two young children to Furlongs during the war she used to bath them in an enamel tub in front of the fire.
On the walls there were paintings, of course – how could there not be? – but the cottage was also decorated with Peggy’s marvellous wallpapers – you can see an example here in this photo by Edwin Smith.
Peggy became well known after the war as a designer of wallpaper and tiles, and some of her designs are still available. Earlier, in 1934, Tirzah Ravilious had brought her marbling equipment to Furlongs, and set about decorating the kitchen. So the interior of the cottage must have been a treat P, full of bright colours; in the evening, in the light of the fire and an oil lamp of ruby glass that was another present of Eric’s, guests sang Elizabethan rounds and Scots folk songs, with Percy Horton playing the fiddle… you have to wonder what the ploughman and his family made of it all.
But, as the open door in his painting suggests, Ravilious was most inspired by the country surroundings Furlongs, which offered not only the wide skies and sculpted valleys of the Downs – shown here in the painting Chalk Paths, but also more unusual subjects.
Walking on Beddingham Hill in the spring of 1934, Ravilious looked down to see the exposed chalk face of the Asham Cement Works. Back in Essex he had painted a series of idiosyncratic paintings showing abandoned machinery in rural settings and now, approaching the works, he was excited by the strangeness of chalk-whitened buildings, dolly engines and a landscape dusted with fine white powder.
He went with Peggy to see Mr Wilson, the manager of the works, who was surprised but pleased to meet artists who could see beauty in an industrial operation that others tended – understandably - to regard as a blot on the landscape. They returned together many times to sketch and paint the chalk pits and works, the chimneys, sheds and railway lines.
In Cement Works no.2, the contrast between pristine buildings and damaged trees suggests some sympathy between the artist and conservationists who had opposed the opening of the cement works in the mid-20s. Though forgotten now, the battle over the works was a cause célèbre at the time, not least because the new venture engulfed Asham House, where Virginia Woolf had lived between 1912 and 1919 - she wrote The Voyage Out at Asham – before her move across the River Ouse to Rodmell.
Amazingly, the house endured until it was demolished in 1994, by which time the cement works was closed and the chalk pits put to new use as a landfill site; P today the landfill site has also closed and is being capped with chalk, bringing the history of this particular place full circle.
Then one day, walking back from the Cement Works along the Newhaven Road, Ravilious and Peggy spotted two strange-looking vehicles almost concealed among the dust-whitened vegetation of an overgrown lane. Curious, they crawled in closer, finding bunk beds in one van but no clue as to where the vehicles had come from. So they asked Mr Wilson, who explained that these were fever wagons, used thirty years earlier in the Boer War - or perhaps as long ago as the Crimean War - and then shipped back to Newhaven. They had been brought up to the cement works when it was first being prospected, he thought, to provide accommodation.
Mr Wilson was happy to sell the caravans to Ravilious for fifteen shillings each, then the artist hired a breakdown lorry from Lewes to tow them up the lane to Furlongs, concealing them in the bushes to appease Mr Freeman and avoid upsetting the Glynde Estate.
Tirzah painstakingly decorated the caravans, one of which became their bedroom. The other Ravilious converted into a studio, with a skylight and large window looking over Mount Caburn, and a worktable beneath the window. Here the caravans remained, gradually falling into the derelict condition in which they were photographed by Edwin Smith after the war.