Thursday, 28 March 2013

An Outbreak of Talent at the Fry Art Gallery

Edward Bawden, Costume Design for The Tempest, 1933, Fry Art Gallery
If we could hitch a ride in the Tardis back to the 1930s we would return with a rather different view of the decade's art and culture. Not that too many people have much of a view at all, so brainwashed are we into believing that British art snoozed through a long period of under-achievement that began with the death of Turner and ended with the post-war success of Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney.

It is true that interwar British art was for the most part a modest business, unsurprisingly perhaps given the economic vagaries of the time. Artists painted the artwork for posters or beavered away in other areas of industrial design. They produced murals (now mostly vanished) and wood engravings (now mostly hidden in old books and obscure archives) and worked in the under-appreciated medium of watercolour.

Edward Burra, Hop Pickers Who Have Lost Their Mothers, 1924, Fry Art Gallery
Few achieved international recognition at the time. The movers and shakers of the art world were continental Europeans, whose aggressive modernism mirrored political upheavals. In Britain, the well-meaning socialists of the Artists International instead pioneered auto-lithography as a means of sharing art with the masses, and bought ambulances for Republican soldiers in Spain.

One British artist who won international respect - Magritte named him 'master of the object' - was Paul Nash, and his influence on the period, and on British art more generally, is highlighted in an exhibition that opens at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden this weekend.

Paul Nash, Poster for British Industries Fair, 1935, London Transport Museum
'An Outbreak of Talent' was the expression used by Nash to describe the remarkable collection of artists who studied at the Royal College of Art in 1923/4, when he was employed there as a part-time tutor in the Design School. Much later, in 1935, he wrote in the magazine 'Signature':

Ten years ago I was teaching at the Royal College of Art. I was fortunate in being there during an outbreak of talent, and can remember at least eight men and women who have made names for themselves since then in a variety of different directions; in Painting, Edward Burra; Applied Design, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, and Eric Ravilious; Textiles, Enid Marx; Pottery, Bradon (sic), also William Chappel in Stage Design and Barbara Ker-Seymer in Photography. 

Why he failed to 'remember' the two biggest stars of the RCA firmament, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, is unclear, but it may have had something to do with the battle then raging between abstract and non-abstract artists. Ravilious and co. were very much in awe of the Yorkshire contingent, whose table in the RCA refectory was - to use an expression from another time and place - where it was at.

Edward Bawden, The Three Graces, 1928, Fry Art Gallery
Anyway, what the Fry has done - and being the Fry, no doubt done with wonderful attention to detail - is to gather together paintings, drawings and other works by the artists named, all of which were created before 1935. In other words, Nash might have seen them before passing judgment, and they may have helped him form his opinion; the inclusion of his own work will perhaps enable visitors to see paths of influence or matrices of interest.

Knowing the Fry, you can expect some lovely things by Bawden and Ravilious in particular, but I'm hoping to see work by Barnett Freedman and Enid Marx, two excellent artists we should know better. As for Nash himself, I'm always on the look-out for pictures I haven't seen before. He could turn a shopping list into a thing of mystery and elegance. As far as I'm concerned, he was the grand-daddy of the YBAs, an artist way ahead of his time. But that's another story...

FFI: Fry Art Gallery - NB always check opening times before travelling!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Three Dates for April

By a strange quirk of planning I'm doing talks on three consecutive Thursdays next month, each one rather different from the rest.

I'm delighted to be speaking at Bankside Gallery in London on April 11, at the invitation of the Royal Watercolour Society, on the subject of Eric Ravilious: Travelling Artist. This is the theme of the fourth book in the Ravilious in Pictures series (which was supposed to be a trilogy) and it's great fun to talk about. Rav was a talented letter writer with a wonderful sense of humour, so there's plenty of opportunity to go behind the scenes of his pictures and find out what he was up to, and with whom.

This talk has SOLD OUT, so apologies if you've missed out this time.

All change the following week, when (on April 18) I'm travelling to Chichester to give a talk on Paul Nash at the Pallant House Gallery. I'm excited about this one too, partly because Pallant is such a fabulous institutions and partly because my lecture coincides with an exhibition of Paul Nash prints, photographs, collage and books from a collection that once belonged to his great patron and friend Clare Neilson. It sounds as though there's some fabulous stuff in the collection, which was donated by Clare's godson Jeremy Greenwood and Alan Swerdlow, through the Art Fund, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

My talk will be based on 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', but will focus particularly on Nash's long friendship with Clare Neilson.

It's back to Ravilious, then, for the final leg, and for me an opportunity to talk about my new book, 'Ravilious: Submarine', at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (free, but you need to book). I wanted to do this partly because NMM staff were so helpful when we were putting the book together, plus I used to live in Greenwich and walk past the Museum every day, so there's a bit of nostalgia involved! I'll be talking about both the making of the Submarine Series and about life aboard a Royal Navy submarine during World War II, so it should be fun.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A Lost Ravilious Mural

Eric Ravilious, Life in a Boarding House, from 'Ravilious: Submarine'
Given the ongoing interest in 20th century British murals I thought it would be fun to post a rare image of one of the lost murals of the period. This was one of a series of pictures painted by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden in the refectory at Morley College for Working Men and Women, a centre for adult education across the river from Westminster. The murals were designed to offer things 'interesting to look at and intriguing to unravel for people sitting scattered about the room'.

The college, which had been founded in the previous century, had close links with the the Old Vic Theatre, so the murals had for the most part a theatrical theme. Bawden painted scenes from 'King Lear', 'The Tempest', 'As You Like It' and 'Romeo and Juliet', while Ravilious contributed scenes from Marlowe's 'Tragedy of Dr Faustus', with the Seven Sins floating down from the beams. There were pictures from Miracle Plays and obscure Elizabethan drama, interspersed with figures and symbols: a quartet of winds, a group of Harlequin figures and so on. His chief model was his former student, soon-to-be wife and future collaborator, Tirzah Garwood.

Ravilious and Bawden pose for the cameras
In February 1930 (after two years' work) the murals were officially opened by former (and future) Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. He was evidently impressed, observing that 'the one thing he felt was that the works were conceived in happiness and in joy, and the execution gave real pleasure to the artists. It was only in that spirit that any creative work could be done that was going to give pleasure to other people.'

Morley College is still going strong more than 80 years later, but the murals were destroyed when the refectory was hit by a bomb during the Blitz. Bawden subsequently returned to paint a new set of pictures, and these can be seen today.

'Life in a Boarding House' is one of many rare and unusual images featured in 'Ravilious: Submarine', published by The Mainstone Press.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Wanted: Good Home for John Piper Mural

John Piper, An Englishman's Home (section), 1951 (Liss Fine Art) 
Before street art there were murals, and in 20th century Britain numerous public and corporate buildings were decorated inside and out. From Rex Whistler's wall paintings in the dining room at Tate Britain to the Gordon Cullen mural at Greenside Primary School in Hammersmith, murals were a significant feature of our everyday cultural life; there's an evocative piece by Ben Pentreath on the subject here.

At the more humdrum end of the scale we have a mural at the end of our road in Bristol, a massive picture of a balloon floating over the landscape; it's painted on the side of a pub overlooking a green and, like murals everywhere, it is gradually fading. The Twentieth Century Society is currently campaigning to preserve what it can of the thousand-plus murals painted in the decades after World War Two.

An Englishman's Home fills one wall of the gallery at 22 Old Bond St
Given our climate and the upheavals of the past century it isn't surprising that so many murals have disappeared, but some have survived. Among the stunning pictures on show at the Fine Art Society are several large works commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain and painted on panels rather than directly onto walls. There were no doubt good practical reasons for this, but one perhaps unforeseen result is that the murals have been preserved.

There are dramatic pieces by Peter Lanyon, Edward Bawden, Barbara Jones and Alan Sorrell, but the mural that really steals the show is John Piper's epic architectural painting, 'An Englishman's Home'. As you can see from my rather poor photos, this is a fabulously huge picture, painted in oils on 42 panels. Exhibited in 1951 it subsequently languished in an Essex barn for years before being displayed for the Festival of Britain anniversary in 2011.

Right hand end with Brighton-Aquatints-style rooftops, chair included for scale
As the archetypal Romantic Modern, Piper has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity in recent years. But although good paintings from the first half of his career are hard to come by and expensive, no institution has yet come forward to buy 'An Englishman's Home'. This seems rather odd to me. Given the quality of the mural, its historical significance, its beauty and the standing of the artist who made it, I'd have imagined that art museums would be desperate to get their hands on those 42 panels.

Why has nobody come running, chequebook in hand? And how, if no major institution gets behind modern British murals, are the rest of us to be persuaded that it's worth preserving those pictures that still adorn the walls of schools, hospitals, restaurants and village halls around the country?

FFI: Fine Art Society
Twentieth Century Society