Monday, 22 June 2015

Summer at the RWA, feat. James Ravilious

James Ravilious, Archie Parkhouse & his dog Sally, copyright Beaford Arts
Exhibition launches at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol are always fun, partly because the building is so impressive and the staff so cheerful, but mostly because the work on display is so varied. This time around there are three exhibitions, linked by a broad theme but otherwise remarkably diverse.

This being Bristol's year of being European Green Capital the three exhibitions are united by the artists' shared interest in nature and our relationship with the natural world.

In the main room, with its wonderful high ceiling and natural light, are gigantic works on paper by Peter Randall-Page RWA and (as of last week) RA, across which flow great tributaries, or family trees, or neural pathways in brown or black ink. Pattern and order on the one hand, freedom on the other, combining to give an impression of organic systems.

One work forms a screen, behind which lurk other, rather different forms. Actually some of these are beautiful, while others recall Surrealist fantasies of creatures alarmingly combined. It would really spoil the surprise if I described them. Suffice to say, Kate MccGwire must spend an awful lot of time collecting feathers, while the installation of her gorgeous-but-monstrous creations is surely a logistical nightmare.

James Ravilious, John Bennett, traveller, copyright Beaford Arts
In a way the world of James Ravilious is equally strange. No fantasy here, mind you. His photographs, taken in the last quarter of the last century, represent real places and real people, all (as far as I remember) in rural North Devon. The strangeness is found partly in the subject matter, a hands-on country life far removed from modern urban existence, and partly in the photography itself.

Although he chose photography over drawing or painting, James shared important qualities with his father Eric (who died, it should be noted, when he was only three), such as clarity of focus, a powerful sense of structure and a willingness to work with the sun in his eyes. Here and there one can see the influence of Edwin Smith, whom James got to know through Peggy Angus, but most of the work is unmistakeably, charismatically his.

One of Eric's less well known skills lay in making friends with people - the owners of greenhouses or abandoned lighthouses, patrons, etc - and in his decades taking photographs for the Beaford Archive James demonstrated an even greater sociability. Rather than snap people anonymously he got to know them, often very well, so that they trusted him and were themselves in front of his camera. Go and have a look, and if you know anyone who is studying photography tell them they HAVE to go.

Laura Knight, Spring, 1916-20, Tate
Finally, through the heavy door and into the climate-controlled rooms, where paintings from (or loosely associated with) the Newlyn School are on display. Instead of fishing boats and bays here are fields, farms and working people, the same kind of people portrayed by James Ravilious but romanticised somewhat. The colours throughout are fresh, the mood generally light, with the freshest, lightest painting of all being Laura Knight's effervescent 'Spring'.




 






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