Monday, 19 September 2011

John Piper, Newhaven and the Towner Appeal

The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne has appealed for help in buying two interesting pieces by John Piper, both showing the harbour at Newhaven. Both pictures are currently on show at the gallery, as part of its summer blockbuster, 'John Piper in Kent and Sussex', and they're among the best on display.

Piper is an intriguing figure, not least because his work is so varied and, it has to be said, uneven. Looking through 'Piper's Places',  the book he put together with Richard Ingrams towards the end of his (Piper's) life, I was struck by this. You'd go from a beautifully detailed, atmospheric drawing of a country church to a scribbled sketch of some piece of coastline that had evidently caught his fancy at a particular moment, in a particular light perhaps, or with clouds looming.

Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour (litho), 1937
Of course he went everywhere (in England and Wales, at least), setting the trend for his generation by leaping in his car, at a time when owning one was still a luxury, and buzzing about the countryside, photographing and sketching everything that caught his interest - churches and ancient monuments, elegant streets, hills, ruins, harbours...

Edward Bawden, Newhaven, 1935
I think his work reflects this restless, sometimes hectic, motion. At its best it can capture the spirit of a place perfectly, and bring something new to the artistic process too, and this is especially true of the collages he made in the 1930s. His collage of the Castle pub and the harbour is in striking contrast to the paintings Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden made at the port around the same time.

The Towner has secured £75,000 from The Art Fund and other sources towards the purchase price of Piper's 'The Castle' and 'Newhaven' - a wonderfully energetic pen and ink drawing, but still needs another £10,000 to complete the sale. Perhaps some generous sponsor has already stepped forward, or perhaps the money will come from thousands of people, each giving a little. They're well worth the investment, I'd say. Thank heavens Piper had the sense not to become a solicitor...

Later: the extra money was found and Towner now owns both pictures - once again the Art Fund has helped a museum buy work which is both popular and important. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Slow Death of Banksy's Reaper

Banksy's Reaper: rowing nowhere slowly
I was sitting recently outside The Ostrich, one of those Bristol dockside pubs that has seen its fair share of comings and goings over the centuries, nursing a half of cider and looking across the water at a picture I see several times a week. In fact, other than paintings we have at home, I probably see it more often than any other artwork. This picture is rudimentary in the extreme, a hasty sketch in white paint on the hull of a boat, just above the waterline.

My daughter tried to persuade me the other day that the picture is of a monkey, but I'm fairly sure it's supposed to be the Grim Reaper, rowing a boat as hundreds of people do in the Harbour every week. Not that this Reaper would actually be going anywhere, were he really rowing: he looks more like a gruesome old signalman yanking at his levers to change the points (and, no doubt, send two trains hurtling towards each other).

on Stokes Croft
This rowing reaper was painted by the Bristol street artist known to the world as Banksy, a man renowned for his ability to create quite substantial paintings in public without anyone noticing. He hasn't often taken to water, and this note in his book 'Cut It Out' suggests why:

One night I painted the side of Bristol's new harbour bridge [Pero's Bridge] with  a message about the slave trade, which got painted over within six hours of daybreak. Afterwards, I made the slowest getaway in criminal history, splashing through the darkness in a tiny rowing boat before stopping off to paint my name on the side of the Thekla.

This tag was removed, against the wishes of the boat's owners (Thekla houses a music venue and nightclub), by Bristol City Council, whose long campaign against Banksy has distinctly Pink Panther-ish overtones, so the maverick dauber came back with the Reaper. It has survived the Thekla's 2006 refit and paint job, so that today Death occupies a square of dark grey on the otherwise green hull. Various patches of paint in greenish-greyish hues show where other tags have been deleted.

Blue paint cleaned off by BCC
I'm not suggesting that the Rowing Reaper has any great significance, but it interests me a lot more than some of the officially sanctioned art on display nearby. What I love about Banksy's Bristol pictures is that they are expressions of an inventive and wily character at work; they tend to be tucked round corners, just off major thoroughfares like Stokes Croft and Park Street, in the sort of places you could stick up a scaffold or a ladder without anyone noticing; the rats and monkeys and so on just pop up as you're walking along. They make you smile, or not, depending on mood. To the kids they're unremarkable, part of the fabric of the city like the statue of Cabot outside Arnolfini.

While Banksy's fame grows around the world his Bristol pictures are deteriorating quietly. The guy hanging out of the window off Park Street has been pelted with blue paint, while a gorilla was recently painted over by a property owner who obviously doesn't keep abreast of the news. No effort has been made to protect any of these paintings, which would presumably be extremely valuable if they weren't fixed forever to a wall in Bristol. Perhaps there will, in due course, be a preservation campaign which will see the best of them sealed behind perspex; perhaps not.

Fun while it lasted: Banksy vs the Bristol Museum (2009)
When the Reaper fades into the rusty hull of the Thekla I can't see many people waving their arms about in horror and consternation. More likely there'll be a shake of the head and a wry smile. It was fun while it lasted.

UPDATE! As of August 2014 Banksy's Reaper has been removed from the side of the Thekla, iron plating and all, and will apparently be exhibited at the nearby M Shed Museum. I hope Banksy paints something else on the side of the ship, otherwise my walks into town will never be the same again...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Eric Ravilious at the Belle Tout Lighthouse

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939
Listeners to this Saturday's 'Excess Baggage' are in for a treat as presenter Sandi Toksvig takes a bus from Brighton to Eastbourne, pausing near the end of her journey at the Belle Tout Lighthouse. In 1999 the retired lighthouse made the news when its owners had it moved 17 metres inland, away from the edge of the crumbling chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, but this isn't why Radio 4's travel show is visiting. Last year the 1832 building, which was decommissioned in 1902 and spent much of the 20th century as a private house, opened as a hotel, offering the unusual experience of a 360 degree view from the lantern room.

Belle Tout circa 1900
It is always good to hear that an interesting old building has been given a public role, but for Ravilious fans the news brings an added frisson of excitement. In 1939, as he prepared for his last major show as a civilian, Ravilious explored the region around Eastbourne (his childhood home, where his parents still lived) with renewed curiosity. His watercolours of Cuckmere Haven and the Wilmington Giant are what springs to mind whenever I hear the phrase 'romantic modern', since they take old provincial subjects - the kind of scenes an 18th century antiquary might have drawn - and make them new.

During this busy period the artist spent several days on Beachy Head, unknowingly rehearsing his wartime role as a painter of coastal defences. In 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs' we featured one of the pictures he made from his vantage point on the cliffs, and I imagine that the view at night from the lantern room of the new hotel is similar.

Belle Tout Hotel, lantern room (Rob Wassell
But he didn't only work outside on the clifftop. Although known as a landscape painter, Ravilious produced a good proportion of his work indoors, and he had an eye for an interesting interior that few artists have rivalled. He worked in several greenhouses and in a butcher's shop, in an RNAS sickbay and a farmhouse bedroom. In his quiet, good-humoured way he easily persuaded the owners or occupiers of building to let him set up his easel, and so it was that he escaped the fierce breezes of Beachy Head for the calm of the Belle Tout lantern room.

'Just now I am busy on the hills painting,' he wrote to his friend Diana Tuely, 'in the greatest comfort with my jacket off, and seated in a magnificent Chinese chair. That is to say I am perched in the top of the Belle Tout lighthouse (I wish you could see this) in the lantern drawing the immense expanse below with a gale blowing outside'.

I am very much hoping that the painting he made from this vantage point will be included in the fourth volume of our Ravilious series. 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is due to be published by the Mainstone Press in November, featuring watercolours painted by the artist on his travels around Britain and northern France. There are some gorgeous pictures in this new volume, from fabulous interiors to harbour scenes and Welsh landscapes, and some wonderful stories to be told...

Full details of the book will be released soon, and I will post a picture of 'Belle Tout' once all arrangements are in place.