Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Eric Ravilious: Downland Man - opens 25 Sept!!

Front cover, catalogue of Eric Ravilious: Downland Man exhibition
 

Almost a decade after Wiltshire Museum director David Dawson suggested the idea, Eric Ravilious: Downland Man is set to open at said venue on 25 September. Having been forced to delay the exhibition by a year because of Covid I'm excited to be hanging the show this month, especially as there are one or two works I haven't seen for a very long time. 

The catalogue has been sent to the printers by designer Lucy Morton of Illuminati Books, who designed the 2015 Dulwich catalogue and has created another gem for this show. It will be available in the museum shop and on their website. My essay explores the artist's relationship with the chalk hills of southern England, putting his passion for the landscape in historical context. The 1920s and 1930s saw  a great upsurge of interest in the Downs and their history, encouraged by archaeological discoveries at Stonehenge, Avebury and Maiden Castle, where Mortimer Wheeler's excavations were funded by public subscription.  

Downland Man is the title of a 1926 book by philosophically-minded countryside writer HJ Massingham. It was also a title mooted by publisher Noel Carrington for the Puffin Picture Book of chalk figures and other monuments that Ravilious planned to create; the dummy for this book was won at auction by David Dawson in 2012 (on behalf of the museum). It is from the acquisition of this humble but emotionally-charged object that the exhibition grew.

Of course Ravilious had a personal relationship with the chalk hills that began with his boyhood move from London to Eastbourne, and was still going strong when he explored coastal defences at Dover the year before he died in 1942. It was, in his interpretation, a human landscape, scarred and furrowed, and lived-in.

Eric Ravilious: Downland Man opens on 25 September 2021 at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. Please book via the website before you go.

I'm giving a lecture on 5 October for the Friends of the South Downs exploring the themes of the exhibition with a particular focus on the region of the national park, entitled Eric Ravilious and the South Downs. It will be via Zoom and booking is open now on the Friends' website.


Friday, 16 July 2021

Seaside Modern Lecture

Eric Ravilious, Mackerel Sky, 1938, watercolour

 

LINK FOR TICKETS: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/seaside-modern-art-and-life-on-the-beach-tickets-163634325673

Whether you've been to Seaside Modern at Hastings Contemporary, are planning to go or wish you could go but can't, you might enjoy my online lecture on 22 July. It includes many of the artworks in the show along with works that were either unavailable or couldn't be squeezed in, and there are more archive photos and that kind of thing.

When I was putting the exhibition together I realised that there were two stories to be told, neither of which I'd considered before; two interwoven stories. The first is about people in Britain and their relationship with the beach, which changed from being predominantly a working environment in the early 19th century to being a place to relax. The numbers of people who were able to enjoy a day or more at the beach every year went up and up and up until the 1970s, when we started jetting to the Med instead. Women were liberated from the bathing machine...

Artists too joined the rush to the coast, not only the more conventional painters of views but some of the most adventurous modern artists of the day. Paul Nash enjoyed two periods of intense creativity by the sea. Ravilious made his name with some stunning work on the coast. Moore and Hepworth were inspired by the erosion of stones. 

Henry and Irina Moore, Ben Nicholson, Mary Jenkins,
Happisburgh 1931

I put together this lecture in part because it allows me to explore these themes in different ways, and to show works and archive material that were unavailable or just didn't fit. I hope you'll join me!

 Seaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach - online lecture, 7.30pm, 22 July (recording available for ticket holders), tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/seaside-modern-art-and-life-on-the-beach-tickets-163634325673


Sunday, 11 July 2021

Seaside Modern: Walkies

Pat Faulkener, Heather Odd, Michele Morize, Barbara Hunt and Wendy Spenceley, Ramsgate, 1959.
© SEAS Photography / Wendy Arnhiem.

Life on the beach has been documented by photographers for over a century. Early on, only the wealthiest beach-goers could afford to take pictures (or shoot cine film) themselves, or to have them taken, but by the late 1930s beach photographers had become a feature of seaside life.
At Margate, Kent, the Sunbeam Photographic Agency documented seaside life on a huge scale, its photographers taking casual snaps - known as Walkies - of holidaymakers, who then had the opportunity to buy the pictures for a small fee. 

Wendy Hollet (nee Marsh) on a Sunbeam donkey
SEAS Photography / Vincent Marsh

Often photographers used props, particularly models of animals, on the backs of which children would perch. The resulting pictures are as strange as anything dreamt up by a Surrealist, and also warm-hearted, as these beach photographs generally are. There is nothing exploitative nor overtly staged about them. They are simply pictures of ordinary people enjoying their day on the beach: leisure that was theirs to enjoy by right. 

 

Promenade Group, © SEAS Photography / Paul Godfrey.

The beaches of Britain were the setting and inspiration for remarkable developments in modern art, and architectural gems dot the coast, from the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea to the Midland Hotel, Morecambe. Yet in a way what made the 20th century British seaside truly modern were the social and political advances that enabled so many to enjoy a day at the beach.

This is an edited excerpt from my catalogue essay for Seaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach, which runs until October at Hastings Contemporary. I am grateful to the South East Archive of Seaside Photography for lending us a selection of wonderful Walkies!


Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Mackerel Sky: a Ravilious Rediscovered

 

Eric Ravilious, Mackerel Sky, 1938, private collection

This radiant watercolour was for many years thought to be missing, when it was in fact hanging quietly in a collector’s home. Like many of his contemporaries Ravilious was intrigued by ‘nautical style’, as John Piper put it, and often turned his gaze to lighthouses, boats and bathing machines. Here he contrasts the familiar shapes of fishing vessels with softly undulating mud. Hawsers and stays snake in and out of the picture, framing a distant wreck. Is this a reminder of mortality, or simply an interesting object that caught his eye?  

Mackerel Sky will be on show for the first time since 1939 at Hastings Contemporary, May 27 to Oct 30 2021, as part of my wide-ranging exhibition Seaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach


Friday, 14 May 2021

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace

 

John Nash, The Cornfield, 1918 (Tate)

Few paintings express a soldier’s joy in returning safely home as beautifully as The Cornfield, John Nash’s gilded vision of corn stooks dancing a jig (or so it seems) on a Buckinghamshire hillside. In the summer of 1918 the war was still raging, but he had been plucked from his foxhole in the Flanders mud to work as a war artist alongside his brother Paul. Their days were spent in a former herb-drying shed, working for the Ministry of War on paintings that would serve as a memorial to the conflict. While Paul recreated the phantasmagoric landscapes he had witnessed as an observer in the autumn of 1917, John worked from his firsthand experience of battle to produce first Over The Top, a painting that simply and hauntingly portrays the human cost of war, then Oppy Wood, in which the ghastly trench landscape is shown beneath a sky of blue. The battle was dreadful, the painting seems to say, but it is over.

Think of John Nash and it is probably one of these three oil paintings that will spring to mind. The long and productive career that followed Nash’s brief sojourn as a war artist has largely been forgotten. Indeed, Andrew Lambirth’s elegant 2019 monograph is the first major book on the artist ever published, and The Landscape of Love and Solace, accompanying the new book of the same title by Andy Friend, is the first large-scale exhibition since Nash’s 1967 retrospective at the Royal Academy. Without a strident champion many artists fade from public view after death, and only the best have a chance of being resurrected years later. In Nash’s case such a revival has been on the cards for a while, but the timing of this joyful, sensitive exhibition could not be better. After a year of gallery deprivation visitors to Towner are in for a treat.

Although he lacked formal art school training Nash was from an early age both a gifted draughtsman and acute observer of nature. His love of plants evolved into a passion for gardening, and with a large swathe of the British public sharing this enthusiasm, magazine and book publishers commissioned him to make exquisite botanical illustrations in a variety of media. His line drawings are sensational but Nash was also, lest we forget, one of the pioneers of modern wood engraving. His wicked, wonderful 1927 book Poisonous Plants is a treasure that reveals both his skill as an engraver and the complex chiaroscuro of his personality. Nash experienced more than his share of heartbreak and suffered lifelong from periods of depression. But he retained a delicious sense of humour and a passion for the countryside, the latter inspiring the oil paintings and watercolours of hills and farms, woods and ponds that are his true legacy. There is no overt symbolism or overpowering design in paintings like The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall. The composition is subtle, the tones carefully balanced and the brushwork delicate. These paintings need to be savoured. Like the hidden places Nash sought out, they reveal their secrets slowly. 

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace is at Towner, Eastbourne. I wrote this preview for the May 2021 issue of World of Interiors. 

Sunday, 24 January 2021

A Brighter February with Eric Ravilious!

Greetings! With everything being so grim at the moment I thought I would put together a short series of lectures on Eric Ravilious. These will take the form of three live webinars, which will then be available as recordings to ticket holders who can't make the actual event. 

I gave my first lecture on Ravilious in 2008 to coincide with the publication of  The Story of High Street (Mainstone Press). Since then I have written the four books in the Ravilious in Pictures trilogy (yes, really), curated the 2015 Ravilious exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery and lectured on this fascinating artist to audiences across the country. I love the fact that his watercolours and designs are both enjoyable and serious, light-hearted yet powerful, dream-like but rooted in reality.

 

Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, watercolour, 1934

First up, on February 9, is Eric Ravilious: Art and Life - a colourful introduction to the life and work of the celebrated artist and designer:

Eric Ravilious was only 39 when he died on active service as a war artist in 1942, yet he had already achieved amazing things. A brilliant wood engraver and designer, he is best known today for his haunting watercolours in which lighthouses, white horses, empty rooms and downland paths become marvels. This entertaining illustrated talk illuminates the life and work of a playful, enigmatic artist. 


Eric Ravilious, Letter Maker from 'High Street', lithograph, 1938

On February 16 we turn our attention to Eric Ravilious: Design - a lively survey of a scinitillating career, exploring wood engravings, book illustrations and designs for Wedgwood:

During his short life Eric Ravilious (1903-42) was acknowledged as a brilliant wood engraver, lithographer and creator of ceramic designs for Wedgwood. This lecture follows the trajectory of a sparkling career, offering insights into his influences and technique while celebrating his greatest achievements. Look out for familiar favourites, from the wood engraving used on the cover of ‘Wisden’ to the lithographs featured in ‘High Street’, his 1938 book of shops, and the Alphabet design Ravilious created for Wedgwood.

 

Eric Ravilious, Newt Pond, watercolour, 1932
The third and last lecture on February 23 focuses on Eric Ravilious: Watercolour - exploring the work of an increasingly popular artist, taking a closer look at familiar favourites and discovering hidden treasures:

Over the past decade Eric Ravilious (1903-42) has become recognised as one of the finest artists of his generation, yet he remains an elusive figure who made little if any public comment on his work. Based on years of research, this lecture explores the artists's achievements in depth, looking closely at some famous favourites and revealing hidden treasures. Whether you're a die-hard fan or have recently discovered Ravilious, there's plenty to enjoy.

 


Monday, 4 January 2021

My Emily Sutton interview for Uppercase

UPPERCASE 48 from uppercasemag on Vimeo.

A little while ago I had the great pleasure of interviewing Emily Sutton about the series of Alphabet prints she has been making with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press over the past decade. I'm not sure how Emily manages to work as hard as she does while still retaining her sense of humour and joie de vivre, but every one of the prints - from A is for Accordian to T is for Tree - fizzes with life. 

Emily Sutton, A is for Alphabet (Penfold Press)

‘I’m someone that always needs to be doing,’ she told me, ‘and I feel my most peaceful when absorbed in the creative process. I hope this comes across in my work… '

The video above shows the whole of Uppercase 48. As ever it's a visual treat, but if you want a sneak preview of my article, it starts about 2.06. 

You can find out more about the magazine and where to buy it here

 

Lower Wings of Tyger Moth

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Festive Felicitations!!!

 

Covid Christmas. Hmmm. It doesn’t sound especially jolly, does it? Although, strangely, Christmas Corona almost does. Anyway… at the time of writing nobody has told us just how festive our festive season is going to be this year, but it doesn’t look like too many people will be photocopying their hindquarters at the office party, or bellowing Good King Wenceslas in the street, or sharing a turkey with persons outside their bubble. Or the slightly extended version thereof, which we might call a Christmas bauble. 


Younger parents will have to deal with switched-on tots worrying about Santa, who is surely older (and rather more rotund) than the grandparents they’re not allowed to see, but for the rest of us there may be less to worry about than usual. A lot more cause for concern generally, yes, but not perhaps in terms of the actual ho-ho-ho-down itself. Think for a moment about the causes of Yuletide stress. These will differ from household to household but with marked similarities. How to feed sixteen people when you only have seven forks. How to keep Brexity Uncle Brian and Greenpeace Gran sober and separate. Where to buy ground almonds or lard. What to do when all the Christmas trees have gone and it’s only the 15th for heaven’s sake!


Actually the last one will, if anything, be more of a problem this year, as people seize on the opportunity to brighten up their all-too-familiar front rooms. By the time you read this, in fact, I predict there won’t be a spruce on the loose anywhere in Bristol, and the fairy lights will be long gone. If the proliferation of lockdown rainbows is anything to go by, this Christmas will see the city transformed into a window wonderland of manically decorated, fiercely lit trees.


Most of the other stuff we worry about is, in the end, to do with logistics. And logistics is about people. You’re used to catering for four. Suddenly it’s fourteen. You’re used to the foibles of your nearest and dearest. Bob doesn’t like sprouts. Roberta will only eat sprouts. Bob insists on Christmas music. Roberta can’t hear herself think! So you somehow have to cultivate a sprouty, but non-sprouty, festive but peaceful vibe. Which is fine, only you’ve got your sister’s family coming along, with their teen who believes Christmas is a capitalist plot, and the new puppy who can chew through a Bag for Life in seconds to get at the chocolate hidden within, and is bound to end up being rushed to doggy A&E for charcoal tablets (if you have a pooch you’ll know).


This year there will be other, perhaps more complicated logistics. Instead of trying to fit twenty people in the house at the same time you’ll see them in Covid-safe dribs and drabs, and after one Christmas dinner with this relative and another with that, it may begin to feel a little like Groundhog Day. But for the kind of people who enjoyed the peace and quiet of lockdown, I think this year’s stripped-down festivities will have a kind of appeal. There won’t be the usual pressure to socialise frenetically at a time of year when you may feel more like hibernating. There will be less night life, and perhaps more day life, which is kind of how it’s been all year. 


I don’t know about you, but during 2020 I’ve been acutely aware of the changing seasons, watching buds opening during the first lockdown and leaves falling during the second. We tend to be fairly relaxed about Christmas at but we’re usually still too busy to get outside much at a time of year which is, in its own way, as magical as Midsummer. So I’m determined to see Covid Christmas as an opportunity, a rare chance to enjoy our Twelve Days outdoors, with a thermos of mulled cider and a minced pie or two.  

I wrote this for my column in the December 2020 edition of The Bristol Magazine.