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.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Laura Knight painting Eileen Mayo (1927)

This film of Laura Knight painting model Eileen Mayo was made by British Pathe in 1927, not long after Knight had been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. I love how the charcoal drawing transforms miraculously into the almost-finished oil. Another painting of Mayo hangs on the wall among numerous other portraits. 

Mayo posed for other artists, notably Dod Procter, and was also an artist in her own right. Sadly for art lovers in the UK, she moved to Australia after World War II.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Eric Ravilious: Newt Pond

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In the papers this weekend... Eric Ravilious, ‘Newt Pond’ 1932 - I wrote a note on this watercolour for @christiesinc: This beautifully preserved watercolour was one of those shown by Eric Ravilious in November 1933, in his inaugural one-man exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery on Charing Cross Road, London. Listed as number eight in the catalogue, it is dated ‘June 32’, making it one of the earliest works in the show. At the time Ravilious was working feverishly alongside his friend and fellow artist Edward Bawden, as the pair strove to fulfil their shared ambition of reinventing the English watercolour tradition. When not teaching in London they retreated with their wives, Tirzah and Charlotte, to the Bawdens’ house in Great Bardfield, Essex. This was a particularly happy time for the two couples, as - so far unencumbered by children - they enjoyed the space and freedom of country living. Ravilious wrote very few letters, suggesting that his attention was focused fully on the here and now, and in particular on the tricky business of painting watercolours. That he experimented widely is clear from the pictures displayed at Zwemmer, which vary in technique from subtle tinted drawings to works painted freely in a bold palette, and in subject from sunlit landscapes to abandoned vehicles. Here we see the distinctive half-hipped barn which stands beside the orchard at Beslyns, a secluded, picturesque settlement close to Great Bardfield where Bawden also liked to work. Ravilious has taken the scene before him and reconfigured it to create a witty design that balances reality and reflection, with a tall tree on the left creating a good vertical anchor and foliage represented in a variety of ways. Particularly delightful are the billows of young leaves bursting from the branches of apple trees. Like the garden trees in Prospect from an Attic (Scarborough Museums Trust), an important work from the same year, these are so full of life they seem to be dancing. Happy days, indeed. . #ericravilious #ravilious #edwardbawden #greatbardfield #essex #pond #newtpond #art #watercolor #watercolour #modernbritishart #countryside #1930s
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