Monday, 27 June 2011

David Inshaw, Alfred Wallis, Bloomsbury: 'Hidden Paintings' on the BBC

Curtis Dowling: are these worth £60k or nothing?
 Last night's 'Hidden Paintings' was an intriguing phenomenon - a series shown not in the same place at different times but at the same time but in different places. If that doesn't make sense, have a look here, and all will be clear...

Although each part was only broadcast in its particular region we now have, thanks to the BBC's iPlayer, seven days to watch the whole series. I've only managed a few so far, but have been treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of Charleston Farmhouse, a fascinating essay on fame with respect to David Inshaw and a Fake-or-Fortune quest featuring two paintings by Alfred Wallis - or should that be 'Alfred Wallis'? You'll have to watch to find out...

David Inshaw, Window, 1969
What the programmes have in common is less the 'hidden paintings' of the title than the impression - that I was left with at any rate - of artists and artworks bobbing about on the sea of fashion, either riding high on a wavetop or plunged into a trough. Fashion is cruel, inconstant and unpredictable. David Inshaw, for example, must have been thrilled to learn that he would be featured in the series - only to discover, as soon as filming began, that his painting 'Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers' had been taken off the wall at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol after being on show more or less constantly for decades.

A curator at the museum pointed out that the painting had been taken down to make way for a newer acquisition. This is fair enough, and no doubt pleased both the artist concerned and his or her fans, but presumably there was choice involved. A decision was taken to remove this painting and leave that one, to hang this new artist but not this one. In the case of the City Museum and Art Gallery the phenomenal success of the 2009 Banksy takeover has perhaps influenced curatorial thinking, and it would be hard to think of two more different artists than Inshaw and Banksy.

When I was at school my experience of The Winter's Tale - a play with a preposterous plot and wooden characters - was enlivened by the Inshaw painting on the cover of the Arden paperback. His is a very particular vision - of strong, beautiful women and trees with dense foliage, of Silbury Hill and lightning and crows. I happen to think Inshaw is a very fine painter and a victim - presently - of the art world's continuing love affair with The New. In a few years' time he'll be rediscovered, as Piper, Nash and Ravilious are being rediscovered at the moment, and people will think it extraordinary that his paintings have languished in storage so long...

Charleston Farmhouse
On which subject, a highlight of the Hidden Paintings programme on the Bloomsbury group was the sight of volunteers preparing Charleston Farmhouse for the public after the winter closure. As people pulled bags off decorated jugs and whisked away curtains of plastic to reveal paintings, the bizarre decorated world of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and co came gaudily to life. The presenter - rather admirably, I thought - revealed the equally colourful love life of the group in a similar series of unmaskings, and the shots of Bewick Church were fantastic.

It may be quite hard to recall actual paintings by Grant and Bell, but in applying paint to just about everything in their house they gave their reputations immunity from changing curatorial fashions. This rather reinforces the point I made in the last post - and which Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen also made in relation to Devizes Museum - that artists are best served by small institutions which adopt them. I used to visit Kettle's Yard in Cambridge years ago, to have a look at Alfred Wallis and others.

Charleston: garden deco
Wallis's story was also about changing fortunes, as we learned how popular an artist has to be to attract the attention of forgers... It was also about different kinds of expertise and different kinds of knowledge, giving us the fascinating scenario of two well respected experts each absolutely sure that the two pictures shown to them were, or were not, by Alfred Wallis. In the end scientific analysis had the last say, but why would someone bother spending a fortune on a study of paint? Because an original Wallis is a valuable commodity just now - though whether it will be in twenty, or fifty years' time is anyone's guess.

Friday, 24 June 2011

'The Badminton Game': David Inshaw's Hidden Masterpiece

David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972-3
Poor old Tate Britain. Barely weeks after one TV channel exposed the absence from its walls of paintings by LS Lowry, the BBC is about to broadcast a programme dedicated to another artist whose work is languishing in Tate Storage. In fact it focuses on one particular painting, David Inshaw's 'The Badminton Game'. Would it, I wonder, be all that hard for someone to rush off this afternoon to Tate Storage, retrieve the picture and hang it BEFORE the Beeb's presenter starts complaining about its concealment from the poor, overtaxed public?

I used to sell art at a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in my pomp I could rehang a room in minutes. Does it really take longer to pull a painting out of storage than it does to make a TV programme? Might it be sensible, in the age of instant media, to reserve one room for pop-up exhibitions, allowing TB to respond swiftly to public interest in a particular work or artist (and make TV pundits look silly to boot)?

David Inshaw, Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers, 1971/2
Often, the best place to see work by a favourite painter is in one of our many brilliant regional galleries and museums. The last time I went to Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery they were showing another exquisite painting of Inshaw's, 'Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers', which had been painted in 1971/2 for an exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery.  The title, Inshaw has explained, "comes from Thomas Hardy's poem, 'After a Journey', about a dead lover whose spirit lives on in the sights and sounds of nature."

Unfortunately, 20th century British painters like David Inshaw are insufficiently represented at major London museums, which have far more art than space to show it. Happily, regional museums can and do support the legacy of particular artists - the Fry Art Gallery's devotion to Eric Ravilious and the Great Bardfield artists is a case in point - and now art lovers can travel around the country armed with Christopher Lloyd's comprehensive guide, 'In Search of a Masterpiece'.

Yet even regional museums lack the wall space to hang more than a small proportion of their holdings, and this situation can only worsen as time passes. At the same time, the costs of insurance and transport can make the sharing of art works between institutions prohibitive; from talking to gallery people one gets the impression that some think it safer and therefore more desirable to keep a picture in storage rather than share it with another institution. Of course there are many exceptions, but I think there is a genuine dilemma.

If people want to see publicly owned art, shouldn't every effort be made to help them do so? Taking digital pictures is one possibility, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem. The artworks themselves, as objects, are treated as valuable pieces of property, to be preserved in the best possible condition. This is as it should be, but only up to a point. After all, a painting is only really worth as much as the pleasure it gives, and a painting stuck in a basement for decades is giving pleasure to nobody.

PS The Bristol Evening Post have an interview with BBC presenter Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen here.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Olivia Laing's 'To The River': Woolf, Asham, Ravilious

River Ouse, Mount Caburn in background
Have just finished reading Olivia Laing's account of a midsummer ramble from the source of the River Ouse to the sea, a book I would thoroughly recommend to all thoughtful or imaginative walkers. Everywhere we go in this densely populated old country many others have been before, and traces of their existence remain in often unexpected places.

History is not the preserve of academics and experts. History is all around us and inside us, and Laing demonstrates ably and entertainingly how the knowledge of history that she carries inside her enriches her life and experience. She doesn't seem quite so sure of the present, perhaps because its ugliness has not been filtered or refined by the passage of time, but as a conjuror of ghosts - from Gideon Mantell (discoverer of the iguanodon) and Simon de Montfort (13th century rebel) to Virginia and Leonard Woolf - she rivals WG Sebald, whose 'Rings of Saturn' (1999) displays a similar fascination for the dead.

Eric Ravilious, Cement Works No.2, 1934
I have spent time in and around Lewes, researching 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs' and collecting material for subsequent talks, and had the strange, slightly voyeuristic pleasure of walking with the author (in my imagination) through Woolf country. I walked one midsummer day from Beddingham Hill across the river to Rodmell and back, and shared Laing's experience of being caught in the open by a torrential shower; I spent half an hour under a farm trailer that had been left, conveniently, out in the fields.

People sometimes ask me whether there was any connection between the Bloomsbury contingent based at Charleston Farmhouse and Rodmell and the artists - notably Eric Ravilious - and writers who gathered at Furlongs, the cottage where Peggy Angus lived and entertained. The answer seems to be 'no'*, but one can easily imagine Virginia Woolf, the inveterate walker of the Downs, and Ravilious, the seeker of interesting scenes and subjects, passing on a hilltop path - she heading for Charleston, he making for his favourite location, the Asham Cement Works...

(*During the war Peggy became friends with Quentin Bell and shared with him her experience and ideas about art teaching)

The mining and processing of chalk had begun at Asham in the 1920s, close to the house where the Woolfs had lived when they were first married and during World War One, and where Virginia wrote 'The Voyage Out'. This house had been built in a downland valley by a lawyer from Lewes in the 19th century, and was discovered by the couple in 1912. As Leonard described in his autobiography:

Asham House
When I was staying in her Firle villa, we walked over the downs one day to the Ouse Valley, and in one of those lovely folds or hollows in the downs, we came upon an extraordinarily romantic-looking house. It was upon the Lewes-Seaford road but a great field, full of sheep, lay between it and the road. It was due west, and from its windows and terrace in front of the house you looked across the great field and the Ouse valley to the line of downs in the west of the river…

Asham was a strange house. The country people on the farm were convinced that it was haunted, that there was treasure buried in the cellar, and no one would spend the night in it. It is true that at night one often heard extraordinary noises both in the cellars and in the attic. It sounded as if two people were walking from room, opening and shutting doors, sighing, whispering…I have never known a house which had such a strong character, personality of its own – romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely...

Asham Cement Works
The Woolfs were happy at Asham but, when their landlord refused to renew their lease, moved across the river to Monks House, Rodmell. From the windows of the summerhouse where Virginia like to write you could see the exposed chalk of the cement works, which expanded around the abandoned house during the 1930s. When Ravilious visited Peggy Angus in 1934, he walked over Beddingham Hill and saw the chalkpit and the works below him.

Approaching closer, he was excited by the strangeness of chalk-whitened buildings, dolly engines and a landscape dusted with fine white powder; with Peggy Angus as his guide he went back at night, when work continued by the light of arc lamps and flares.

The pair went to see Mr Wilson, the manager of the works, who was surprised but pleased to meet artists who could see beauty in an industrial operation that others tended to regard as a blot on the landscape. Given free run of the place, they returned together in all weathers to sketch and paint the chalk pits and works, the chimneys, sheds and railway lines. (from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs')

The extent of the works was considerable, and Olivia Laing recalls in her book that:

Before the cement works closed there used to be an aerial ropeway, dismantled now, that ran down the hill to the water's edge, linking the quarry to a concrete wharf where barges delivered coal and collected cement. It was here that Virginia's body was found, on 18 April 1941, three weeks after she'd walked into the river...

River Ouse, with landfill site, capped in chalk
Six months later Ravilious too was lost when his plane disappeared off the coast of Iceland, and for decades thereafter his reputation languished. By 2003, when the Imperial War Museum held the landmark retrospective that fired public interest in his work, the cement works had closed and the chalk quarry was being filled with rubbish from nearby towns. Now it is full, and has been capped with chalk and, while local binmen search for other places to dump their trash, the hillside has begun its return to the wild.

Friday, 17 June 2011

'Ravilious in Essex': Location Location Location

Eric Ravilious, Village Street (1936)

I'm looking forward to visiting Saffron Walden on 13 July for my 'Ravilious in Essex' talk. I was there for the opening of the show a couple of months ago and took the opportunity to do a little detective work around Castle Hedingham and Great Bardfield.

One can get a bit obsessed with finding the locations of paintings, but I love exploring an area with an artist as a sort of invisible companion. I find I look at everything that much more closely and remember what I've seen, heard, smelt and otherwise noticed that much more clearly. In September 2008 I spent a crazy day racing around London looking for shops, pubs, etc that Rav depicted in 'High Street' and that journey is etched into my memory along with incidents that happened along the way.
Falcon Square, Castle Hedingham, today

Similarly, I can close my eyes and picture the walk up from Glynde station to Bedingham Hill, scene of so many of the pictures in 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'. As the popularity of Radio 4's literary walks show 'Ramblings' demonstrates, there's something tremendously appealing about walking with a cultural goal, or with a writer or artist as a ghostly guide. So often I seem to walk without noticing my surroundings - mind elsewhere, daydreaming or worrying. On a Rav walk I'm focused, alert, looking for clues.

The Hovis Mill
The weekend of the Fry launch I camped near Castle Hedingham and walked (child-free!) for miles, into the village, on to Sible Hedingham and along the river to Hull's Mill. One of the things I love about Ravilious is his fascination for both the conventionally beautiful - fine Georgian architecture, for example - and for places, objects and scenes that other people might dismiss as ugly or inappropriate as a subject for picture-making.

Hull's Mill, 1935
Junkyards were a favourite haunt, and brickworks, and coalyards. He plucked abandoned vehicles from a jumble of rubbish and made them into things of beauty, and preserved for prosperity humdrum industrial scenes that few others thought worthy of notice.

On my rambles I found places that had scarcely changed in the seventy-plus years since Ravilious lived and worked in Essex. Other scenes had disappeared under housing developments or become overgrown, and it was interesting to see just how change had occurred and to compare Rav's vision with reality. I'll be showing some of the pictures I took at the Fry talk - and at future events.

The highlight of the Castle Hedingham walk was reaching Hull's Mill - which you can get to via a circular walk from Sible Hedingham that runs along the river and then back up over the hill and through a glorious old wood. The old Hovis Mill has been a private house for years, but it still looks much the same as it did in 1935. What really struck me, though, was the noise. You can't tell this from Rav's painting, but the stream in the foreground goes over a weir just after it crosses the road and the sound of falling water is almost deafening.

Hull's Mill today
To sit at the water's edge is to be lost in the white noise of falling water, and I wonder if that was why Rav kept going back there in the weeks before and after the birth of his first child...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

'Ravilious in Pictures' - Competition and Talk


The arts website Culture24 has just launched a competition: three sets of the 'Ravilious in Pictures' books are up for grabs, and the question you have to answer if you want to enter is not too tricky...

On the same site there's also an interesting review of 'Ravilious in Essex', the fabulous show which is currently running at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden. Fans of Ravilious will be well aware that you don't often get the chance to enjoy a dozen or more of his watercolours, and there are some gorgeous paintings on display. The Fry also has an unrivalled collection of Rav's woodcuts and blocks.


I'm heading over there on July 13 to give an illustrated talk on the artist and his work. It's at 7.30pm at the Friends Meeting House on the High Street in Saffron Walden and tickets are a very reasonable £6 on the door. I always enjoy getting out and about and showing people pictures I've taken and garnered during the research process, so I'm looking forward to it.