Friday, 13 June 2014

Ravilious and Bawden in Bloomsbury & Bedford

By coincidence I was just telling people about my talk next week at Higgins, Bedford, when I received this flyer from Pentreath and Hall. Both their show and my talk are about Ravilious and Bawden, who were great pals from their first day in the Design School of the Royal College of Art, until the former's death.

Both were gifted illustrators and masters of various media. Rav may have been more at ease in the world than Bawden, who was famously so shy that he would rather walk across London than board a bus, but they shared a waspish sense of humour and a love of the absurd.

They also shared a passion for watercolour, working together so closely that their names were often mentioned in the same breath. Bawden and Ravilious were something of a curiosity to their peers, radical technicians who looked to the past for inspiration, painters who tackled humdrum subjects from unusual angles and, significantly, sold most of the work they exhibited at a handful of pre-war exhibitions.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to exploring this personal and artistic relationship at Bedford next week, so do come along if you can.

PS. Ed Kluz is a worthy companion to the pair, and if you've never been to Pentreath and Hall, it's well worth a visit.

FFI: Higgins, Bedford.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Edward Seago at Portland Gallery

Edward Seago, Low Tide, Strand on the Green, oil on board
When I was approached by the Portland Gallery to write a book about Edward Seago I had little idea of the adventure ahead. Having lived in Norwich for several years I was familiar with his East Anglian landscape paintings, which I associated with those of his predecessors John Sell Cotman and John Crome, but beyond that I was aware only that he had enjoyed a long friendship with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. So not entirely a blank canvas, but close to it.

Over the following two years a portrait of Seago – Ted, as he was always known by friends – gradually took shape, and I realised that this was no ordinary artist. His education, for a start, was far from conventional, since he was confined to bed for much of his childhood by a chronic heart condition. Yet he was impetuous and determined and, having made up his mind at an early age that he could only be an artist, he asked Bertram Priestman RA for technical help and sought patronage from Lady Evelyn Jones, daughter of the 4th Earl Grey.

Edward Seago, After the Ploughing Match, oil on canvas, 1936
With their support the nineteen year-old Seago held his first solo exhibition in London and was an overnight success, although these early paintings of horses and their riders owed rather too much to Alfred Munnings. This didn’t prevent him seeking advice from the great man, who suggested he apply to the RA schools. Instead, after only a term at Norwich School of Art, Seago went off to join a circus as a sort of artist in residence, and for the next three years travelled constantly.

As well as producing a remarkable body of paintings and drawings, Seago found inspiration for a lively autobiographical book, ‘Circus Company’, which he wrote with the help of poet laureate John Masefield. The pair went on to collaborate on several titles, including ‘The Country Scene’ – a sumptuous quarto volume filled with Masefield’s poetry and Seago’s evocative paintings – and ‘Tribute to Ballet’, at which point war intervened.

Edward Seago, Suffolk Village, oil on board

Edward Seago, A Sussex Fishing Village, watercolour
When Seago was commissioned to the Royal Engineers in the autumn of 1939 he took the opportunity provided by his first full time job to take stock of his career, which had so far perhaps given him more success than fulfilment. His first childhood sketches had been of the ever-changing sky, and he now perceived that his true vocation lay here, in the study of light and atmosphere. There would be notable achievements in portraiture, particularly two paintings of Queen Elizabeth II on horseback, but Seago otherwise devoted the second half of his life to landscape painting.

His vision was wide-ranging. Factories and building sites interested him as much as Norfolk beaches; he was inspired equally by sparkling Venetian canals and the dirty skies of a London winter. A great admirer of John Constable’s oil sketches, he painted rapidly, with expressive brushwork that he rarely attempted to conceal, and in later life worked from memory. Having trained his mind to recall the significant details of any scene, he astounded house guests with his ability to paint faraway places in his Norfolk studio. He was, as HRH the Duke of Edinburgh put it, like a conjuror pulling rabbits out of a hat. And, yes, his best work has a touch of magic.

Edward Seago, The Spritsail Barge, oil on board
An exhibition of Edward Seago's paintings, including many that have never been shown before, begins at the Portland Gallery next week. The paintings shown are all included, and each link will take you to the relevant page on the gallery's website. The text above is from the catalogue essay.

My book on Edward Seago is out now from Lund Humphries

The estate of Edward Seago is represented by the Portland Gallery.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Peggy Angus in Selvedge Magazine, July/Aug 2014

The editor of Selvedge kindly allowed me to post this sneak preview of the upcoming issue. To get hold of a copy or find out more, please visit the magazine's website. You should be able to zoom in to the page if you can't read the text.

'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter' is published by Antique Collectors Club this month, and in July the exhibition of the same name opens at Towner, Eastbourne. It should be pretty spectacular!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Eric Ravilious: Wiltshire Landscape

Wiltshire Landscape (1937)

The open road held 1930s Britain in thrall. Though Ravilious never learned to drive, his contemporaries were taking to the road in ever-increasing numbers, encouraged by advertisements and guidebooks that portrayed an idealised vision of the countryside. The Shell Guides, sponsored by the oil company and edited by John Betjeman, were aimed specifically at the new breed of car-driving metropolitan tourist, with highlights including Betjeman’s Devon (1935), Paul Nash’s Dorset (1936) and John Piper’s Oxon (1938). The worse London’s traffic jams became, the greater the appeal of open country.

Ravilious himself produced numerous wood engravings to advertise London Transport and its offshoot Green Line Buses, and in 1936 made engravings for the first two books of Country Walks, which described and mapped forty walks accessible by bus or coach from central London. Not that the artist had an aversion to cars. He once told Helen Binyon, he wished they could drive fifty miles as fast as possible then go dancing afterwards. And in March 1937, shortly before painting ‘Wiltshire Landscape’, he noted that ‘Tirzah is buying a year-old Morris for £70 tomorrow from the local garage, and it seems to my eye to look as good as new. May it start up in cold weather.’

While contemporary guidebooks and advertising focused on sights to be seen along the road, this painting shows the road itself, from an odd, slightly raised perspective. The spring countryside is peripheral, and instead one’s attention focuses on the junction ahead and the red van approaching from the left. In fact Ravilious did not see this vehicle on the road but spotted it in a Post Office magazine when he got home and added it to the composition. Imagine the picture without it and the mood is rather different, the road stretching ahead perhaps less a route to freedom than a journey to be endured; hemmed in by endless green verges, only the turning to the left offers respite.

A similar melancholy pervades ‘The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs’, the other painting from this short trip. As a non-driver Ravilious relied on public transport or the good will of friends, and in April 1937 Helen Binyon was his driver and companion. They stayed near Andover and drove out across Salisbury Plain, but it was not the kind of great adventure they had enjoyed in the past. Binyon was silent and distant, Ravilious said afterwards, which made him uppish and out of hand; only a month later he was to end their affair, though they remained close friends.

But this is still an image of the open road - the kind of byway that city dwellers dreamt (and dream) of. The clouds may be grey and stormy but the road ahead gleams silver.

This is an extract from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by The Mainstone Press. 'Wiltshire Landscape' will be auctioned at Christies on 26 June 2014, alongside work by Lucian Freud, John Craxton, Graham Sutherland and Walter Sickert. I hope it is bought by a public collection...