Thursday, 31 March 2011

Favourite Blogs: from Post-War London to Knitting with Ravilious

One of the pleasures of modern life is the discovery of an interesting blog. It's a cross between making a new friend and finding a quirky shop or a cafe, or a garden hidden away in a corner of the city. I'm very bad at keeping lists and find that I rarely use them anyway, following the path of a particular moment's inclination from one website to the next, but here are a few favourites.

Tirzah Garwood, The Dog Show, 1929
For a fascinating exploration of fine art printmaking you can't beat Adventures in the Print Trade, author  and print dealer Neil Philip's long-running blog. Neil is as knowledgeable as he is enthusiastic, and as a writer he achieves the difficult feat of combining technical know-how with a breezy style. His 2010 post on Tirzah Garwood (Eric Ravilious's wife) is typically thorough and serves as a perfect introduction to the work of a talented wood engraver who gave up a promising career to raise her children.

Another long-standing blog is All Things Considered, which is maintained by Angie and Simon Lewin of St Jude's Gallery in Norfolk. Like Neil, they are driven by a desire to share their enthusiasm, in their case for British culture past and present. Yes, there's a promotional angle too, but a great deal of the material posted on the site seems to be put there simply for the pleasure of sharing it. I'm particularly enjoying the ongoing series of posts devoted to the 'About Britain' series published in 1951 for the Festival of Britain.

It's great that people take the time to post images and information that it would otherwise be impossible to find - I've tried to do the same with the material I've gathered on Eric Ravilious and the Sussex Downs but don't manage to post half as much I'd like to...

Of course there are many other extraordinary art-related blogs out there. Another favourite is Art Inconnu, which features artists both dead and living who are either unknown or underappreciated. Occasionally a reader will protest that a certain artist is neither of the two, but this is rather missing the point of what this kind of blog is about. A blog is subjective, reflecting the passions and tastes not of museums, newspapers or corporations but of individuals. I enjoyed this post on William Victor Higgins, one of the pioneers of the Taos art colony. I'm planning to post some material on the artists of Santa Fe and Taos. In fact it's criminal that I haven't already, since I lived there for five years and visit regularly...

WV Higgins, New Mexico Skies, 1943
Some blogs you visit from time to time, knowing that there will always be something new and startling on offer. How to be a Retronaut is one such, providing regular injections of thought-provoking photographic weirdness. Colour photos from the days before colour photos, carefully chosen bits of archive material, and snippets of old film give one a frisson of what life would be like as a time traveller - interesting, isn't it, how much we associate historical periods with the medium we're using to seeing them in? I like these pictures of London in 1957.

Retronaut: London 1957
Then there are the quirky, personal blogs created and maintained by people who spend their time doing interesting things and enjoy telling the rest of us what they've been up to. Dru Marland has been doing this for ages, and when you visit her blog Upside Down in Cloud you may find her doing urgent Morris Traveller maintenance, painting hares or exploring some glorious, forgotten corner of the country. The Quince Tree, meanwhile, is the creation of a devoted Ravilious fan (among other things), who recently came up with the strange and wonderful idea of knitting in Rav's palette.

The Quince Tree: an unusual knitting pattern...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life

Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life is the third in a series of books celebrating the life and work of Eric Ravilious (1903‐42). In 1932 Ravilious and his wife Tirzah moved to the Essex village of Great Bardfield, and for the remaining decade of his life they lived within an easy cycle ride of the village, first in Castle Hedingham and then at Ironbridge Farm, near Shalford. It was in north-west Essex that his children were born, and it was here that he found the inspiration for a series of watercolours that together form a remarkable portrait of country life in the 1930s.

Ravilious sought out both the beautiful and the unusual, and the twenty-two watercolours in this volume provide a unique record of village life that includes everything from the splendid Georgian architecture of the Castle Hedingham vicarage to abandoned steam engines and other relics of the past. Each picture is accompanied by an essay which explores the places depicted and introduces characters and stories hidden behind the scenes. 

Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life shows a fine English artist at home, among friends and family, enjoying the pleasures and enduring the trials of village life in the 1930s. The book is a companion volume to Sussex and the Downs (2009) and The War Paintings (2010); taken together, the three books form an unusual and compelling biography of Ravilious, drawing on his correspondence, original research and other sources to create an intimate portrait of the artist and his world,

Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life will be published by The Mainstone Press in April 2011.

Reviews for Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs

‘Beautiful’ (Stella magazine, Sunday Telegraph, Dec 2009)
‘Ravilious’s watercolour landscapes of the South Downs … are beautifully reproduced here alongside insightful essays…’ (London Review of Books, Jan 2010)
‘The next volume from Mainstone Press is eagerly awaited.’ (Sarah Drury, The Art Book, Aug 2010)
‘James Russell’s writing has the clarity and concision of the paintings, and is both properly informative and enjoyably readable... Glorious.’ (Andrew Lambirth, The Art Newspaper, Sept 2010)

Reviews for Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings
‘A vivid portrait of the artist’ (Country Life magazine, Dec 2010)
‘A lovely and melancholy new volume’ (Ian Collins, Eastern Daily Press, Dec 2010)
‘Fantastic’ (Emily Rhodes, The Spectator Arts Blog, Dec 2010)

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Watercolour at Tate Britain: Highlights

I wasn't sure what to expect from Tate Britain's current exhibition, 'Watercolour'. Reviews were mixed, as was the feedback garnered by the museum from visitors. But though the show has some flaws, it also has quite dazzling highlights.

John Dunstall: 'A Pollard Oak near West Hampnett Place, Chichester', c 1660
In the first room visitors are treated to John Dunstall's tiny but intensely animated drawing of a pollard oak, which is balanced by a giant parish map on which can be seen sometimes unfinished sketches of people and creatures. Critics have complained that the maps and the equally gorgeous illuminated books do not really count as watercolours, but I'm not sure it matters.

The curators of the show have evidently decided to broaden its scope and appeal as far as possible. Yes, you can argue that this policy results in a lack of focus - a lack of art historical narrative - but most visitors to art galleries are not art historians. What we ordinary punters want is something wonderful, or moving, or even disturbing, to remove us for a while from the humdrum of everyday life.

Mark Catesby: 'A blue grosbeak 
(Passerina caerulea) and sweet bay 
(Magnolia virginiana)', c.1728-9
The botanical and natural history paintings in the next room fascinated me. As a terrible draughtsman who can barely write a legible shopping list I was struck by the precision of drawings that were designed to act as scientific record rather than work of art. I was particularly interested to discover a drawing by Mark Catesby, one of whose ancestors had been involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby was raised in Castle Hedingham, Essex, almost 300 years before Eric Ravilious moved there, and it rather appealed to me that their work should appear almost side by side in this extraordinary retrospective of British art.

In fact you'll find the sole Rav on offer - 'The Vale of the White Horse' (1939) in the next room, surrounded by other landscapes including Edward Burra's lovely 'Valley and River, Northumberland' (1972). If I'm tempted to carp about missed opportunities it's perhaps here, because the curators ought to have given us rather more to enjoy. The Ravilious is excellent, but why not include another piece by way of a contrast - the vibrant 'Lifeboat' of 1938, perhaps?

 The Vale of the White Horse (1939), conjured entirely out of cross-hatchings, strokes, dabs and striations of faint colour, frail contour against pale line, with the white page breathing airily in between, is almost nothing, a see-through dream. But it is uniquely strange, starting in reality and ending in its own radiant elsewhere. Laura Cumming, The Observer

Eric Ravilious: 'The Vale of the White Horse' (1939)  
Ravilious would no doubt have been pleased to see his painting in the same room as Francis Towne's 'The Source of the Aveiron' (1781), a watercolour that inspired him, but again we have to wonder why such an influential painter was given so little space. Ditto John Sell Cotman and... well, everyone will have their own list.

Still, if you're going to have one painting by an artist at least make it a good one, and while Cotman's painting of Norwich market isn't quite up there with the work he did in Yorkshire it is a wonderful, strangely modern piece. The same applies to Turner, whose painting 'The Blue Rigi' (1841-2) has to represent him pretty much solo. Perhaps the curators felt we'd all seen quite enough Turners...

Francis Towne: The Source of the Aveiron (1828)
I did enjoy seeing all the watercolour sets and so forth, particularly Paul Nash's sombre kit - fitting for a man who painted in the trenches of Flanders and a good introduction to the room devoted to war art. This mini-exhibition had some peculiar gaps (Ardizzone for one) but - and I think this is more important - did provide some thought-provoking images. The juxtaposition of Paul Nash's darkly exuberant 'Wire' (1918-19) and the frank, intimate watercolours of wounded men was particularly effective.

Samuel Palmer: 'A Hilly Scene', c1828
The remaining sections of the exhibition were marred slightly by the scale of the room, which is much larger than the previous ones. It was hard to focus on a small painting like 'A Hilly Scene' (1828), Samuel Palmer's pastoral treat, and all but impossible to concentrate on the modern work, which seemed (in memory) to involve large expanses of white paper with not much on it.

Again, I don't blame the curators for trying. These days museums and galleries have to get as many people as possible through the turnstiles, and if that means including some famous names then so be it (although you'd think that David Hockney would have lured in a few punters, especially since he curated an exhibition of Turner watercolours at the same museum in 2007...). Better a couple of dubious choices than no show at all.

Patrick Heron: 'January 9:1983:II'
And besides, if you look at what's there, rather than what isn't, you'll be in for a treat. Incidentally, if you're visiting the shop at the entrance to the exhibition, do look out for 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', and 'The War Paintings'...

Coming soon: NOT the Tate Britain Watercolour Show...