Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ravilious, Nash, Piper: Newhaven, Eastbourne, Rye

Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, 1936
Last Sunday I managed to see the John Piper show at Towner, just a couple of hours before it closed. An interesting experience: as anticipated there was some fabulous work from the 1930s, especially those collaged visions of Newhaven and other places on the south coast. Some of the later work was less fun, but all in all a lovely exhibition that confirmed my view that you often have to travel out of London to see the best work by British artists. Can we have Paul Nash in Kent and Sussex next?

I was in the happy position of having a couple of days to charge around the region, taking pictures for forthcoming talks about Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. It's possible to get a bit obsessed about finding the settings for particular paintings, but it is interesting to see how an artist redesigns reality for a particular composition. Perhaps more important, though, is seeing what it is about a place that attracts artists - feeling the atmosphere and getting a sense of the light.

Closed for the duration... West Pier, Newhaven
Take Newhaven, a port that might seem rather humdrum in comparison to Lewes and Eastbourne. Ravilious,  Edward Bawden and Piper all loved the place, but why? I went there first, having left Bristol early in the morning, and parked on the West Quay. I set off walking towards the sea, past wooden piers piled with fishing stuff, through a new marina development and on, and on - I'd mistakenly parked miles from the sea. Here was Newhaven Fort on the right, finally, and some boats perched in a yard, and then the sea came into view, between a lowly breakwater to the east and the magnificent curving arm of the West Pier or, as Tirzah Ravilious called it, 'the mole'.

Giorgio de Chirico, Ariadne, 1913

The sense of space was breathtaking and the light pearly - I could imagine that at dawn, with the sun rising over the sea and the cliffs of Beachy Head, Rav for one would have been in his element. The breakwater with its arches borrowed from a de Chirico painting has evidently been closed for some time, so one can't walk to the lighthouse at the end as Ravilious did in a storm in September 1935 (the night an old man was swept off the same pier to his death).


However the Hope Inn, where he and Bawden stayed several times, is going strong. I was wondering when it was transformed from traditional old pub into its groovy modern form, and a letter from EB to ER seems to pinpoint the date to 1936/7. With his usual waspish humour Bawden points out that the improvements are both to the layout of the pub, with a balcony now running in front of the bedrooms, and to the food: ‘Meals and service have brightened; gone are those soft, stale oyster-eyed eggs and there is is less water and more gravy with the meat’.

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939
From Newhaven, I drove through Seaford and on towards Beachy Head, only belatedly realising that the road crossed the top of Cuckmere Haven - a glimpse of water in fat sunlit coils almost sent me into the hedge then it was gone, as sights always vanish when you're in a car, and it was on to the next place. I'd been wanting to visit Belle Tout Lighthouse since I'd found out about it being a hotel, and overcame what I think is a perfectly sensible horror of cliffs to have a look at the place.

Beachy Head... not for the faint-hearted

It reminded me that, years ago, I visited Beachy Head with a friend who stood with his feet STICKING OUT over the edge of the cliff, while I cowered on all fours. There's something particularly daunting about those chalk cliffs, but what is it? The curving green hills that are cut off so abruptly? The stark white of the chalk? The sheer drop? Those white cliffs are scarier than the black granite of Pembrokeshire.

Belle Tout... the moving lighthouse, now a hotel
On then to Eastbourne and the Piper show, before heading for Rye. Quite what was going to happen in Rye I wasn't sure, but the idea was to camp... somewhere. And see the landscape and coast that inspired all three of these artists along with countless others...

To be continued

1 comment:

  1. Great Post. Particularly enjoyed the Bawden quote... Were you inspired to try Sunday roast at The Hope?!

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