Thursday, 27 June 2013

Edward Seago and St Benet's Abbey

Edward Seago, St Benet's Abbey, watercolour
Earlier this week I was in Norfolk, a county I've visited every year or so, I think for ever. As a youngster I remember sitting in lengthy traffic jams on the A47 to Swaffham and this time I spent a long time staring at Thetford Forest as roadbuilding machines came and went. Once the work is finished we'll have dual carriageway all the way from London to Norwich, and then where will we be?

Anyway, I was there partly to visit the painting grounds of Edward Seago, a 20th century British landscape painter who is best known for his association with the Royal family. I'm writing the text for a new book which I hope will both communicate something of Seago's fascinating character and remarkable life, and show the range and beauty of his work.

Edward Seago, St Benet's Marsh, Evening Haze, oil 
An admirer of Constable and Cotman at a time when Picasso and Matisse set the fashion, the maverick traditionalist was never able to convince the RA of his worth, but his best work stays in the mind. He was a skilful oil painter who knew all the tricks of the trade, and a brilliant watercolourist.

John Sell Cotman, St Benet's Abbey
Born in Norwich and raised in the countryside south of the city, Seago travelled widely but lived for the last twenty-five years of his life in Ludham, a village in the Broads but not on a Broad - and so relatively undeveloped. Naturally he painted a great deal in the vicinity, particularly on St Benet's Marsh, an expanse of farmland bordering the River Bure and surrounding the distinctive ruin of St Benet's Abbey.

John Sell Cotman, St Benet's Abbey, oil
This is actually two ruins in one, the first being a medieval monastery and the second an 18th century windmill that incorporates part of the abbey walls. John Sell Cotman drew and painted the site when the windmill was in use, and Seago did the same after its abandonment.

Edward Seago, St Benet's Abbey, oil
Today a programme is underway to improve access to the site, which is still visited by the Bishop of Norwich every year (he travels, fittingly, by wherry). The cattle are the same white or brown animals Seago painted, and the willows and wildflowers and much the same too.

Red sails and white still seem to sail across the fields although, as you approach the river, you see the extraordinary array of craft, from canoes to pleasure cruisers, that ply the Broads today.

Inside, I found lots of names and dates carved into the soft stonework. I suppose these must now be part of the fabric of the Ancient Monument and are, as such, protected from harm.

Edward Seago's paintings remain the copyright of his estate, which is represented by The Portland Gallery.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Win 'Ravilious in Pictures'!

Competition time again! To win all four books in the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series simply name the six watercolours painted by Ravilious that feature chalk hill figures or white horses.... First out of the hat on Tuesday 18 June (9am sharp) wins - providing you got them all right! ... Good luck! Please email: info(at) to enter [changing (at) to @].

And why not have a look at the 'Ravilious in Pictures' Facebook page? Lots of Rav-related stuff but also wonderful pictures by a host of (mostly) 20th century British artists, plus news of events and such-like.

19/6/13 The winner has now been notified - thanks to everyone who entered!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Tate Britain Rehang, feat. Gwen John

Four female subjects; one woman artist
A mad dash around Tate Britain yesterday left me agreeing with the various critics who have come out in support of the new rehang. The building does indeed feel lighter, cleaner and more spacious, and the artworks feel more like national treasures as a result. There's something peculiar going on in the central hall involving rather alarming groaning noises but I'll have to go back and investigate as time was short.

The rehang has been praised as reactionary, but while there is an old-fashioned feel to the whole thing - no info panels, hooray! - I'm not sure this is right. I started off my tour with the spirit of John Berger at my side, lamenting the excessive numbers of rich men in fancy clothes - not to mention that terrible painting of the blushing maid with the melon, surely a candidate for a long spell in Tate Storage.

Things became more interesting as the 19th century opened up. How fun to see such different pictures next to each other; how great to have a Constable oil sketch opposite a finished painting, so you can look back and forth and wonder which gave him greater pleasure or shows his truest feelings. The mid-Victorian room is, as others have pointed out, a bit of a nightmare, with some much-loved pictures hung so high you'd need to hire a cherry picker to look at them properly.

Tate's highly-qualified curatorial team may have got off lightly in terms of label-writing, but they've still given us a carefully edited version of British art history. We're clearly meant to pay more attention to Nevinson and Gertler, for instance, than to some of the Pre-Raphaelites. And we're asked - without actually being asked - to look again at the role of women in art. It's unfortunate that  not all the work is the artist's best, with Frances Hodgkins for one represented by a very odd picture, but there are some lovely moments where the juxtaposition of different pieces encourages a bit of independent thought.

My favourite of these is shown above: three classic visions of women as seen by men, and one self-portrait. We have a lovely girl playing Eve, leaving Eden in disgrace, and a woman sitting meaningfully before a mirror (in which the artist is reflected), and a naked woman looking modest in a black hat - all, incidentally, beautiful and sensitive representations. Above them, gazing out over the gallery, is Gwen John. She isn't symbolising anything. She is neither beautiful nor ashamed. She is a serious person endeavouring perhaps to understand something of her life and condition through self-scrutiny. It isn't at all clear what she has learnt.

Decorative Tiles, Marine House, Beer, Devon

Went to Beer at the weekend and, once again, failed to have a beer. We did have some delicious fish and chips though, and got to watch fishermen winching their boats up the beach with reassuringly little regard for newfangled health-and-safety nonsense. These tiles decorate the outside wall of Marine House, which I imagine used to be either a restaurant or a shop selling fish-related items. It's now a rather nice art gallery...

An athletic skate

I love this one

Not a very happy fish

Perhaps he knows where he's heading...

Info on the gallery and exhibitions here.