Friday, 19 May 2017

Secret Postcard Auction at RWA Bristol

RWA Secret Postcard Auction 2017

Yes is that's time of year again. The RWA's ever popular Secret Postcard Auction is next Thursday (25 May). They're not really postcards, since each work is more like A5 size, but the identity of each artist IS a closely-guarded secret. Well I certainly spotted a few pieces made by a familiar hand - artists whose larger paintings sell for thousands - so if you're in Bristol this weekend go along and make a bid. I think it's £40 minimum, and the proceeds go to supporting the wonderful Royal West of England Academy.

The image above should turn into a slide show if you click on it. If it doesn't work, you can find the slideshow on the RWA website - happy bidding!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Room and Book: Mark Hearld's Lumber Room

The Lumber Room, York Art Gallery, photo by Jonty Wilde from Random Spectacular website
Some time last year I was up North and went to have a look at the revamped York Art Gallery. I hadn't visited the city since 1980-something and my abiding memories are of wet cobblestones and of climbing up a drainpipe to visit a friend who was incarcerated in a boarding school. Who? Where? Why? All gone...

Anyway, the main purpose of my detour was to see Mark Hearld's Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures, a curatorial adventure inspired by Saki's short story of the same name. I was curious to see what an artist with such a powerful sense of design and pronounced magpie tendencies would make of the gallery's collection of - not to put too fine a point on it - old stuff. Not long before I'd been bowled over by the new displays at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which somehow managed to show exactly the same material but in such a way that it became magically fascinating.

Mark did not disappoint. Here were all the usual oddities you'd find in any good provincial museum, from military uniforms and stuffed fish in tanks to Staffordshire pottery and portraits of long-dead ladies. In a traditional museum setting these might have been presented in rows and blocks, with a display of porcelain here and a group of paintings there. According to this model, each artefact is a self-contained unit that relates to similar works placed nearby; our experience is linear, like reading a book.

The Lumber Room was not like this, but was instead a kind of collage, only in three dimensions. Things related to other things in ways that you wouldn't normally consider, based not on what they were or when they were made, but on colour, texture, form. When you looked across the room, from any point, you saw layers of shape and colour that shifted with your vantage point. Yes, there were some Hearld pictures and ceramics to liven things up a bit, but they weren't really necessary. The room quivered with the life of objects placed in aesthetically stimulating relationship to one another.

I tried to take some photos but soon gave up. To me, at any rate, this was an experience you could only enjoy by being there, in the room. It was an exhibition all budding curators should have been forced to attend, repeatedly and for long periods, because it demonstrated that the strength of an art exhibition lies less on the quality/value/notoriety of the works on display but in their arrangement. An interesting combination of pictures and objects will bring each one, however humdrum, to life.

I can't remember whether 'the book of the show' was being advertised there, but I do remember wondering how you could capture the experience of The Lumber Room in book form. In fact I didn't think it could be done. Exhibition catalogues rarely convey the real spirit of a show, but tend rather to serve as a reminder and a record. This being said, there are things you can do in a catalogue that you can't do in an exhibition, such as show multiple pages of books.

Now The Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures has been published by Random Spectacular, the St Jude's imprint. It is not a catalogue, nor is it really a record of Mark's exuberant intervention. There are a few photos of the exhibition, which serve as a kind of reminder, but Emily Sutton's drawings convey the eclectic pleasures of the room better. Otherwise Mark has taken the exhibition as a starting point and set about creating a book that stands on it own and which offers an experience complementary to that enjoyed by visitors to York Art Gallery. There are drawings by other artists of artefacts, pages from Mark's Regency scrapbooks (a particular highlight) and a photo essay about the making of ceramic horses.

Guess the artist!

Instructions for assembling your own horse...

Hearld plus horse

Emily Sutton's drawing of the exhibition

I want one!! From Mark's Regency scrapbooks

Readers of previous Random Spectacular titles will recognise that adventurous, slightly chaotic Saturday Book style. It isn't an easy book to navigate, but then it isn't the kind of book you start at the beginning and end at the end. The Lumber Room is, like the exhibition, a three-dimensional experience.

The Lumber Room: Unimagined Treasures is published by Random Spectacular - info here. Thanks to Simon Lewin for sending me a copy.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Secret Artist

Roger Cecil, Untitled 1 (MOMA Machynlleth, copyright artist estate)
One of my great pleasures is to find an artist I know nothing about. Come to think of it, I also enjoy helping other people discover artists they might not otherwise know. Once I was at Bristol Central Library, home of one of the country's best (and probably least used) non-university art libraries, and asked to see all the books they had on Ben and Winifred Nicholson. The Bens came out on a trolley, a great stack of massive, scholarly tomes. On top was one slim volume devoted to his first wife and lifelong correspondent. You can probably imagine which book I seized first, and not only because the Bens weighed twenty pounds each.

Under-appreciation attracted me to Ravilious, to Peggy Angus and to other artists I've written and lectured about. It's partly perversity, partly curiosity. There's pleasure to be had in finding a new angle on a well-known story, but to me you can't beat a new(ish) story: the drawings pulled out of a folder that has languished for years in an attic; the archive boxes stuffed with previously unseen treasures; the watercolour on the landing that was shown in 19-something and has not been seen since. The signature. The date. The faded label on the back.

So my first feeling when I opened a *surprise package* to find a copy of Peter Wakelin's lovely book 'Roger Cecil: A Secret Artist' was, I'm sorry to admit, jealousy. Damn! Another one found, and not by me!

Roger Cecil, Shaman Secret (MOMA Machynlleth, copyright artist estate)
Then came perplexity. Cecil's is not the kind of painting I immediately respond to, especially in reproduction. Besides, I really had never heard of him. And he hadn't troubled the critics all that much in his lifetime (he died in 2015). But when I sat down one evening and read the book I was fascinated. Cecil was the genuine article, a pure artist if you like. Someone who turned his back on the Royal College of Art and the London art scene of the 1960s so that he could focus on painting his way. An artist so devoted to his craft that he spent his whole life in the same house in Abertillery, a coal-mining town in the Ebbw Fach valley, and simply painted.

Peter's straightforward approach and clear prose are ideally suited to the subject, and he talks as engagingly about specific paintings as he does about the vicissitudes of Cecil's life. Romantic involvements are left to our imagination, perhaps out of respect for those still living, but I loved following the progress of this artist's life, the way he gradually altered his childhood home so that it eventually became mostly studio and only partly house, and the way his work evolved over time in near-isolation.

Not total isolation, though. It emerges in the narrative that Cecil was the subject not just of one, but of two BBC films, the first exploring his decision to turn down an RCA scholarship in 1964. He also showed his paintings regularly and sold a great many of them. Nor was he immune to outside influence. You can see traces of other artists' work, notably (to my mind) Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton, and the paintings are firmly of their time. But so what? They're still interesting and often beautiful, and between now and June you can go and see a good selection of them at MOMA Machynlleth, Wales.

'Roger Cecil: Inside the Studio' is at MOMA Machynlleth until 24 June.
'Roger Cecil: A Secret Artist' is published by Sansom and Co.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Paula Rego in Hastings? It's up to us!

As director of the Jerwood Gallery for its first five years, Liz Gilmore has demonstrated ambition, courage and a refreshing willingness to speak directly to the public. A couple of years ago her 'Bring us your Bratbys' appeal had people queuing up to lend their paintings to an exhibition that was, I suspect, much more popular and widely discussed than anyone imagined beforehand.

It seems criminal that Paula Rego hasn't been the subject of a full exhibition in a decade, but if anyone is going to make such an exhibition happen, it's Liz. Having worked with her on 'Century' last year I have experienced her infectious enthusiasm at first hand, and I'm sure she will get Rego to Hastings.

If you follow this link to the Art Fund website, you can help, but you've only got a few days (until about 25 April, I think).

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Angie Lewin: A Printmaker's Journey

Angie Lewin, Lakeside Teasels (artist copyright)
I feel slightly embarrassed to admit that I have never been to Winchester. But then I suppose there are far more places I haven't been to than places I have. Anyway, I'm hoping to put things right, Winchester-wise, by paying a visit to Angie Lewin's exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre. I've been meaning to go since it opened, but now I've had a look at the catalogue I'm excited.

This is in one sense a continuation of the long and distinguished tradition of St Judes exhibitions. There are pictures on offer by Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton and Ed Kluz, as well as Angie herself, of course. But alongside these is a fascinating selection of work by artists who have inspired or influenced the artist-curator in some way.

Alan Reynolds, Summer: Young September's Cornfield, 1954 (Tate)
I don't know yet how the artworks are hung, but in the catalogue you can see a Gertrude Hermes wood engraving next to a Bawden linocut and note the different ways they interpret plant forms. It's also interesting to see Ravilious mugs alongside Angie Lewin's compositions that include the mugs, sometimes pulling the pattern playfully away from the ceramic and weaving it into her picture.

But the loveliest thing not by Angie (in the catalogue at least) is rather a surprise to me: a 1954 painting by Alan Reynolds which is rich in colour and texture. According Kirsty Nutbeen's Foreword this was Angie's first pick, 'remembered from a school trip as a teenager'. I like the sense of continuity this recollection suggests. Suddenly those mid-century artists seem part of today's world.

There's info about the exhibition here.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Reasons to be cheerful...

Edward Bawden, Gnat and Lion, linocut, 1970 (copyright EB estate)

It's been a long winter. This has never been a particularly personal blog, but there may be people out there wondering why I haven't posted much over the past six months. The main reason (aside from habitual laziness) is that my mother has been struggling with a severe (but curable) mental illness, which has been harrowing for her and scary/exhausting for everyone else. I've just about managed to keep on top of work, but have lacked the necessary zip and zing to write blog posts or keep up with social media. I think she's starting to get better now, which is a relief.

Meanwhile I've been working on two exhibitions, both for summer 2018 and each rather exciting. More about these in due course, but I'm sure it won't hurt to say that Edward Bawden fans may have a reason to be cheerful in these trying times. We all need something to look forward to, don't we?

And I have some new lectures. See here for details...