Friday, 29 April 2011

Eric Ravilious: A Life in Pictures

I've put together an illustrated talk based on the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series; you can hear/see it at the Yellow-Lighted Book Festival in Nailsworth, Glos on Friday 10 June or in Saffron Walden on 13 July. This date is being arranged by the Fry Art Gallery, venue TBC.

I'll also be signing copies of 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', volume 3 in the series, at Ben Pentreath's shop in Bloomsbury, on May 11 at 5.30pm.

This is a follow-up to illustrated talks I've given at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne and the St Bride Library in London, and it should be a lot of fun. What I do is select some particularly interesting Ravilious watercolours and go behind the scenes, exploring places, investigating mysteries, telling stories and introducing characters that are relevant to a particular picture.

The aim is to paint a portrait of the artist in words and pictures, and if you've enjoyed any of the books in the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series I think you'll find the talk entertaining and thought-provoking.

I'm planning to take 'Eric Ravilious: A Life in Pictures' to more venues, and will be sending out a brochure in due course. In the meantime, if you'd like to book the talk for a venue or arts group, please get in touch via the Comments, our Facebook page or Twitter.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

David Hepher at Kings Place

David Hepher, La Francaise, 1985

Eric Ravilious, Vicarage, 1935
The view today
Artists leave a legacy beyond the inventory of their work and the story of their lives. The influence of artists who have been dead a half-century or more can still be seen in the work of living painters and sculptors - and not just in the work. As David Hepher explained in Saffron Walden the other day: in his case it was probably the fact that he knew Eric Ravilious that made him become a painter at all.

Since Ravilious died almost seventy years ago there aren't too many people left who knew him. David was asked to share a few thoughts and memories at the launch of the show 'Ravilious in Essex', which is currently running at the Fry Art Gallery, and he began by admitting that his memories were few; he was only a child when Ravilious died.
The Old Vicarage (note Wellingtonia)

They knew one another because Guy Hepher was vicar of St Nicholas church in Castle Hedingham when the Ravilious family lived in the village. They had one of those rare family friendships where each member is friends with their opposite number - Eric with Guy, Tirzah with Evelyn, and David with John, who was his age - and during the very cold winters of the late 1930s Eric and family took refuge at the vicarage - where David remembered them all sweeping snow off the roof of the enormous house (today, the 'Old Vicarage').
St Nicholas, Castle Hedingham

Guy Hepher's Plan of St Nicholas, 1937
David's father was evidently both cultured and curious. The vicar explored his church and its records, and one winter's day Ravilious found him at work - as the artist wrote in a letter at the time - 'drawing out a plan of the church in seven colours – for each period – and cheered him on and offered him stick ink to pull it all together.’ The plan is there today, on the wall of St Nicholas, behind the main door as you go in.
David Hepher, Study for the Wandsworth Road Estate III, 2007
That plan was made in 1937. Over seventy years later David Hepher is a respected artist and teacher of artists, best known for his paintings of tower blocks and other architecturally-inspired urban scenes. His work is detailed, atmospheric and idiosyncratic, the canvases covered in graffiti like the walls of the buildings he represents. But he has for many years, on holidays spent in France, also been painting pastoral landscapes, and these are about to be shown for the first time alongside his urban pictures at the Kings Place gallery in Kings Cross. Entitled 'A Song of the Earth and the Cry of Concrete', the show opens on 6 May. Meanwhile, an hour or so up the M11, Ravilious's paintings of David's childhood home are hanging on the walls of the Fry Art Gallery. Together these two exhibitions tell a fascinating story of tradition, influence and change. FFI: Kings Place Gallery
Fry Art Gallery

Monday, 25 April 2011

Lowry's Milkman

Ian McKellen: Lowry fan
Last night's ITV special about the artist LS Lowry had some genuinely interesting things to say, not just about the man himself, but also about the gulf dividing public taste from that of curators. Lowry must rank among the most popular British painters of the 20th century yet, last year or whenever the programme was made, Tate Britain had none of his work on display.

The gallery's Head of Displays, Chris Stephens, made an interesting point when he explained that it was difficult to fit Lowry into a wider narrative. He wasn't a follower of any particular movement, nor did he belong to any school. Rather he pursued his own interests and explored his own vision of the world, using his position on the margins of the art world to good effect. He was an outsider, both in the way he chose to live and in terms of where he lived - in the provinces.

LS Lowry, Street Scene, 1935
Of course the same is true of countless artists and writers. What is perhaps unusual about Lowry is that he refused to conform in any sense. He didn't go to London to seek his fortune. He didn't affiliate himself to any group. Think of Paul Nash, his near-contemporary, who constantly approached and then distanced himself from groups and movements. Nash was an individualist, but he knew how to play the game; he not only associated himself with Surrealism and other modern movements but also talked about his own work in a wonderfully obscure way that helped cultivate his reputation as a 'serious' artist.

LS Lowry, A Lake, 1947
Lowry, meanwhile, kept on painting, enjoying idiosyncratic personal relationships and expressing himself secretly in a series of unsettling pictures of strangely-dressed ballet girls. It isn't unusual for the private life of an artist to raise eyebrows, but the pictures themselves are not his best.

Perhaps I've become too used to the heavily-populated scenes of urban life, but the paintings I woke up this morning thinking about are the empty, spacious, sometimes brooding pictures - landscapes and street scenes and coastal pictures. These may not belong to a school, but they fit within a tradition. The poetic interpretation of place, whether in words or pictures, is one of the great cultural achievements of this country.

LS Lowry, Derbyshire Landscape, 1954
So Lowry does fit into a wider narrative, but it has nothing to do with any of the Isms that art historians love to talk about. This story is long and continuing, and far from straightforward. It deals not with movements and schools but with individuals - visionaries and wanderers who look with their own unique eye on the world and into their own minds, and report what they find.

Many British artists, poets and writers, who cannot be easily squeezed into any of the available movements, have a place in this sprawling narrative: Emily Bronte and John Fowles, George Borrow and Edward Thomas, Powell and Pressburger, Eric Ravilious, LS Lowry...

This was an inspired programme, led not by an expert but by a fan, and introducing as witnesses Jeffrey Archer and Lowry's milkman. The milkman, who described an incident in which the artist asked him to throw away a milk-splattered canvas, and then lamented the effect of art ownership on the artist's housekeeper, stole the show.

Friday, 22 April 2011

'Ravilious in Essex' at the Fry

Eric Ravilious, 'Village Street', 1936
If you're motoring along the M11 this summer take a detour to Saffron Walden to visit the wonderful Fry Art Gallery, which is holding one the most impressive shows in its twenty-five year history, 'Ravilious in Essex'. You can continue the detour if you feel like it by driving into the lanes of north-west Essex, on a tour of Ravilious country.

Tim Mainstone at the Fry
The Fry is small, elegant and - one would imagine - just the sort of place where Rav would have enjoyed seeing his work. Of the two main rooms, the larger is devoted to the permanent collection, which now includes the fabulous 'Caravans', while the walls of the smaller room are lined with watercolours of Essex subjects painted by Ravilious.

Eric Ravilious, 'Ironbridge at Ewenbridge', 1941/2
You will find no better opportunity to survey his development as a watercolourist, with paintings from his time in Great Bardfield ('Attic Bedroom' and 'Two Women in a Garden'), Castle Hedingham ('Hull's Mill' and 'Village Street' and Ironbridge. In 'Ironbridge at Ewenbridge', which he painted in 1941/2, Ravilious takes a relatively humdrum, if eccentric, subject and makes it an object of wonder. I'd travel to Essex just to see this picture.

Yet the watercolours are only one part of the experience. Back in the main room are display cases filled with the artist's wood engravings, including book covers and other materials that haven't seen the light of day in a half-century. Best of all are the blocks themselves, ink-black still and showing the sureness of touch that Ravilious displayed whatever the medium... Explore the gallery further and you can compare his designs for Wedgwood with the engravings and watercolours.

Falcon Square, Castle Hedingham

Entry to this delightful exhibition is free, but do consult the Fry's website for their opening hours before visiting.

Bank House
If you fancy making a day of it, the villages of Great Bardfield and Castle Hedingham are not far away. I don't think I've ever seen so many fantastic old houses, in such good condition, as you'll find in the villages of north-west Essex, places like Finchingfield and Wethersfield. A walk around Castle Hedingham offers a free lesson in several hundred years of vernacular architecture, with many fine examples of decorative brickwork and plasterwork.

War Memorial, St Nicholas
Bank House has a blue plaque to commemorate the Ravilious family's time there, but the war memorial in St Nicholas' churchyard nearby bears more eloquent testimony. The Bell has a wonderful interior (not that much changed, I suspect, since the 1930s), and good beer. I can't vouch for the food but no doubt it's good too.

Hull's Mill 2011
I definitely can vouch for the loop walk out to Hull's Mill and back, which goes along the bank of the river one way and through ancient woods the other. I've been to quite a few of the locations Ravilious painted and the mill is the place that has struck me the most strongly, I think because of the distinctive sound of rushing water.

He evidently perched on a stool close to the ford to paint the mill, and this close the sound of the water thrumming over the weir is loud but soothing, a kind of white noise.

Eric Ravilious, 'Hull's Mill', 1935

Some interesting Ravilious locations here. When you visit the Fry, look out for 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life.'

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps

Paul Nash, Wittenham (1935)
Tim Mainstone alerted my attention to this phenomenal website, which thrillingly links an artist, the artist's paintings and the place that inspired them. Paul Nash visited and painted the copse-topped hills around Wittenham throughout his career, beginning a century ago in 1911 when, according to his rather imaginative autobiography 'Outline', he slipped away from a hunting party to discover his vocation as a landscape painter.

Modernity has not been particularly kind to Nash's special Places. The magical Iver Heath, where he painted gardens and elm trees, is now a short, fast jaunt from the M25 or the M4, and the ancient landscape surrounding Wittenham is dominated today by the power station at Didcot.

Rather than despair at this evidence of Progress, the website's authors suggest that the surrealist in Nash would have enjoyed the juxtaposition of ancient hillforts and modern chimneys. I'm not sure that I agree. He did after all dedicate his 'Shell Guide to Dorset' to 'All those courageous enemies of development to whom we owe what is left of England', and he was not at all happy when Avebury was spruced up for the tourist industry in the late 1930s.

He would have loathed power stations and motorways and those giant warehouses that nowadays spring up almost overnight close to strategic junctions. Although it isn't manmade structures that now block his long-range view of the Clumps from Boars Hill, but fully-grown trees.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Ravilious in Sussex - the Map

Here's another map of Ravilious-related locations, mostly in Sussex. It should be an interesting companion to 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', though it is very much a work in progress. I will add locations and info as they occur to me...

Thursday, 7 April 2011

No. 29 Bus by Eric Ravilious: as featured in Time Out

'No. 29 Bus' by Eric Ravilious (1934)

            Asked in later years for a biographical sketch, Ravilious noted his ‘tendency to paint in sequences (groups of broken down tractors and old cars and buses in fields, the discarded machinery of Essex)’. Here, an antique double-decker faces the sunlit, open countryside, as if about to drive away, yet it is only the shell or skeleton of a bus, standing not on wheels but on four barrels. With its tapering, top-heavy wooden body it could be an eccentric river boat, awaiting a rising tide. The number ‘29’ has been painted on a folded piece of canvas or cardboard and wedged behind the staircase, perhaps as an aid to identification for potential buyers.
This is probably a view looking away from the ‘repair yard for steam engines’ that Tirzah later recalled, where Ravilious also discovered the subjects for ‘Talbot-Darracq’ and ‘Tractor’. Engineer and blacksmith John Thomas Chapman began repairing steam engines and other agricultural machinery in 1870 at a yard on Bell Lane, [in Great Bardfield, Essex] and the business was still going in the 1930s; the bungalows of Durham Close now occupy the site.
Tirzah noted that some of the engines were in working order, ‘Though the bindweed was climbing over them and there was a hen’s nest in one. The door of the shed where they repaired wheels was splashed with a variety of paints and inside were some lovely red wheels.
‘Eric was very excited with the yard,’ she remarked, ‘And set to work drawing the engines and the car, afterwards tinting in watercolour his very careful drawings.’
But why is this bus here, in a country junkyard? It looks like a city vehicle, a double-decker with the distinctive curved stairway of the B-type London buses built by the London General Omnibus Company in Walthamstow before and during World War I. Hundreds of these vehicles were used as ambulances and troop transports on the Western Front, their bodywork painted khaki and windows replaced by wooden panels. After the war some returned to service in the capital, but were quickly replaced by newer models and dispatched to the provinces, until the passage of time caught up with them even in rural districts. Eventually it became quite common to see a B-type bus dismantled in this way, its cab and chassis perhaps put to use in haulage while the body waits to be transformed into a henhouse, shed or, possibly, somebody’s home.
            Following the move to Castle Hedingham Ravilious soon found a new junkyard, where he made the wood engraving of ‘The Hansom Cab and the Pigeons’(1935): ‘An area wholly mud given up to every sort of junk, beds and bicycles and cartwheels with ducks and hens and black-faced enormous sheep to liven the scene…’
‘These brutes,’ he added, ‘Run about the place jumping pans and corrugated iron with a beautiful agility and a great deal of clatter.’

This is an extract from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', available to order now from The Mainstone Press. You can see B-type buses in slightly better condition at the Imperial War Museum - look out for Old Bill - and at the London Transport Museum.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Ravilious in Essex - the Map

I've started putting together a Google map of interesting locations mentioned in or connected to 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life'. What next - an app?! I thought I might be able to put the map itself here but it's a bit beyond my technical skills, so you can find it here.