Tuesday, 25 October 2011

'Paul Nash in Pictures': Wood on the Downs

Paul Nash, Wood on the Downs, 1930 (Aberdeen Art Gallery)

A clump of beeches rises in a sculpted wave over hills that roll and tumble like the sea. Nash loved the ancient uplands, and his paintings of Iron Age hillforts, trackways and sacred sites span a region from the Dorset coast to the northern tip of the Chilterns. It was during a 1924 visit to Ivinghoe Beacon, that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury, that he first discovered this wood, describing it as ‘an enchanted place in the hills girdled by wild beech woods, dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.’
     Today the Ridgeway and Icknield Way paths meet nearby, making this a landmark for long distance ramblers and a destination for daytrippers, but even in the 1920s people were visiting the hills and woods in increasing numbers. A national preoccupation with prehistory had been growing since the Victorian era and, in the aftermath of the Great War, books like H. J. Massingham’s Downland Man (1926) encouraged readers to explore the landscape of the ancient past. As aerial photography offered a new perspective on earthworks and monuments, the rise of motor transport turned sites like Ivinghoe Beacon into tourist attractions.
     ‘Millions of motorists must have passed the place,’ Nash noted wryly when he described this painting, adding ‘It is on the main road on the top of the hill. I have wanted to do something about it for years.’
     The opportunity came in the last month of his annus horribilis [1929], when Jack offered (or was persuaded) to drive him.
     ‘It was a lovely day for the drive,’ Nash remarked, ‘But devilish cold for drawing when we got to the hills…. The woods in the hollow below were crowded with wild pigeons which alternately sailed in the clouds over the tops of the trees or settled in the branches where they sat so thick the woods looked like monstrous orchards bursting into bloom.’
     He sketched directly onto canvas, noting the colours on a separate drawing, then painted the oil in his studio to his own design. One critic found the pleasure to be found in the picture ‘austere’, adding ‘It is a sort of higher mathematics of painting that Mr Nash pursues.’
     We can imagine the artist chuckling over this remark. As a boy he had been set for a career in the Royal Navy, but failed to pass the necessary entrance exams. There were plans to make him an architect, or set him to work in a bank, but the same weakness held him back:
     ‘Although I appeared to possess a good average intelligence,’ he acknowledged. ‘I was extremely deficient in mathematical calculation… Actually I was capable of quite complicated methods of computation to prove my sums. But the answers were fantastically wrong… I have seen mathematical teachers reduced to a sort of awe by my imbecility.’
     Awe of a very different kind is inspired by this painting. Simultaneously abstract, architectural and descriptive, it gives perfect expression to Nash's extraordinary sense of place.

This is an excerpt from 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', which will be available in early November from the Mainstone Press. Join us for the official launch at Henry Sotheran's bookshop in Piccadilly, on November 15th (more details here).

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

'Paul Nash in Pictures' - Launch & Events

Exciting news! Henry Sotheran's, the wonderful fine art and antiquarian bookshop in Piccadilly, is hosting the launch of 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' on Tuesday 15 November. I'm not sure of the time yet but I imagine it will be early evening - everyone is welcome to come along and I will post full details as they emerge. (It's 6-8pm)

Other events we'll be doing to celebrate the launch of the book:

Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford has invited me to give an illustrated talk on November 24th, which will probably feature Nash and Ravilious. I'll add a link to the publicity info as it becomes available.

On 1st December I'm taking part in a Paul Nash Evening in aid of the St Bride Library off Fleet Street. Alan Powers and Brian Webb are giving talks and so is David Heathcote, author of 'A Shell Eye on Britain'. It may well sell out.

And on 6th December I'm at Foyles in Cabot Circus, Bristol, for a combined Nash/Ravilious extravaganza.

The book itself should be printed, bound and ready to go in the first week of November. Apologies if you've been looking out for it on Amazon - production has taken just a little longer than anticipated. Judging from the proofs, though, it should be gorgeous.

Edward Burra: Pallant House Retrospective

Edward Burra, Country Scene 2, 1970
Why do we neglect British artists so badly? When you think of the effort made by Kenneth Clark to employ painters during World War II, both as war artists and on projects like Recording Britain, you have to wonder what has gone wrong since. Look at Edward Burra, one of the most original and extraordinary painters of the century.

Edward Burra, Silver Dollar Bar, 1948
He worked from the 1920s to the 1970s, travelling widely and painting subjects as diverse as 1930s Harlem, the cafes and hotels of French ports and bizarre skulls and skeletons. Prolific and inventive, he brought to the world an eye that was neither Modernist nor traditional; in fact his vision doesn't fit any of the maps of 20th century painting. For that reason he ought to be celebrated as a true original but instead art historians (the map-makers) have skirted around him.

Burra doesn't even sound British, and his work certainly doesn't look British - where are we supposed to put him? What were his influences and who, in turn, did he influence? Where does he belong in the evolution of art? 

Visiting the recent Watercolour show at Tate Britain I was knocked sideways by a gigantic painting of a church interior. Surely it couldn't be watercolour?! It was too big, too bold. It stuck out among the gentle washes and topographical details like the sorest of thumbs. I didn't know then that the artist who made that picture was crippled, often barely able to use his hands. I didn't know that he painted in the strangest way, starting in one corner and working his way like a spider across the paper. I didn't know that he was born and raised in suburban luxury, just outside Rye, and lived his whole life either at his parents' house (which he hated) or in the town itself (which he didn't like either).

I did happen to know that he was a friend of Paul Nash and studied at the RCA during the 'outbreak of talent' that included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Rex Whistler (Fine Art) and Ravilious and Bawden (Design). Burra appears in 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', accompanying the Nashes and their friend Ruth Clark on a disastrous 1930 trip to the Cote D'Azur...

Edward Burra, Valley and River, Northumberland, 1972
These few bits of information make Ed Burra seem all the more extraordinary, so well done to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester for putting on the first major retrospective of his work in a quarter-century. Hooray! It starts at the weekend and runs until February, and personally I can't wait to get there. I'm particularly keen to see the late landscapes - there was one fabulous example in the Tate's Watercolour exhibition - with their lovely greens and idiosyncratic design.

A new monograph is being launched at the show, but I would also recommend Jane Stevenson's book and Burra's letters - his writing is as peculiar as his painting. You can also see the artist's work in 'The Strawberry Thief', Jeremy Deller's show at the Fine Art Society - which also features Deller's model of a Ravilious plant house.

For a slightly different take on the subject, look here.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Paul Nash: Rye, Dymchurch, Iden

Paul Nash, Landscape at Iden 1929 (Tate)

Since I was eight or nine I've pictured the Battle of Hastings on a beach, like the Normandy landings of World War Two in reverse, so it was rather unsettling to drive through leafy hill country to the landlocked town of Battle. I was endeavouring to get from Eastbourne to Rye by as straightforward a route as possible, which turned out to be not very straightforward at all.

Paul Nash, Winchelsea Beach

The plan was to find a campsite near Rye, but at 6 o'clock on a Sunday evening, as I trundled around the backroads north of the town, this was beginning to look rather unlikely. Eventually I stopped south of Appledore at the Ferry Inn, an old pub with a landlord from Chaucer, and they kindly helped me find a site near Winchelsea Beach.

Driving around in the evening sunlight I found myself in Iden, a village I knew from association with Paul Nash and his haunting 'Landscape at Iden'. Perhaps it is because of the painting that the name of the village is so evocative; the name, which for some reason I associate in my mind with the poet Robert Frost, suggests beauty and antiquity and peace on the one hand and, on the other, death. Well, I suppose that is Nash's fault.

Orchard at Iden


The place itself is charming in a straggly sort of way and must have once - without the speeding lorries and vans - been an ideal artist's retreat. Bordered to the west by a huge orchard and to the north by the valley of the Rother, the village feels a bit like an island. The Nashes lived in the mid- to late-1920s in Oxenbridge - a sort of extension to the Iden - in a cottage Nash described as little more than a summer house, and the surrounding country is haunted by his work.

Paul Nash, Landscape, Stone Cliff

It is a varied landscape, with thickly wooded hills, wide valleys and, only a mile or two away, the great expanse of Romney Marsh, which is bounded here and there by steeply sloping hills, and it evidently inspired Nash more than Rye itself. He and Margaret moved to the ancient hilltop town in 1930, after her mother died and her father needed to live with them, and there's a blue plaque on their house at the top of East Street - a rather eccentric house reminiscent of Nash's grave in Langley.

Rye at the time had a small but boisterous colony of artists and writers, notably the authors EF Benson and Radclyffe Hall. Nash became friends with the latter and with her partner Una, Lady Troubridge, whose appalling taste in art he forgave for some reason, and with Edward Burra and the American poet Conrad Aiken.

Rye: an unlikely outpost of Modernism

Aiken once described Nash's 'love of beauty that was oddly both animal and mineral, and could be as soft as a cobweb... or the flesh of a woman, or as hard as one of the flints in his "Nest of Wild Stones"'.

Chez Nash 1930-33

The early 1930s were a tricky time for Nash, however, with a less-than-successful foray into abstraction and considerable soul-searching about his work. Visiting Rye, with its narrow streets isolated from the natural world (Burra, who lived there most of his life, called it Tinkerbell Town) one can understand how his mind became tight and tangled there.

He had got on much better along the coast at Dymchurch where, in the early 1920s, he painted at least two dozen pictures, both in oil and in watercolour.

Paul Nash, The Shore 1923 (Leeds Art Gallery)

What I hadn't realised until I clambered up onto the sea wall to have a look is that he could have painted them all without moving more than a hundred yards or so. Rarely have I visited a place and found it so haunted by a painter.

He himself alluded to a certain therapeutic quality in his Dymchurch work, and one can see how the sheer bulk and wonderful geometry of the sea wall might have helped him to overcome the nervous strain of war.

Paul Nash, The Shore, Dymchurch

An odd little place, Dymchurch must have been, with its handful of grand villas, its humble, pantile-roofed cottages, the marshes stretching away to the north and, looming over everything, the great mass of the wall. Subsequent history has layered amusement arcades and gift shops over the old buildings, but the wall, though recently improved, is still a thing of elegance and grace - modern, functional and as good a symbol of security as you could wish for in unstable times.

Look out for 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' - published this month by The Mainstone Press.

To be continued.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

PM Praises 'Things of No Use'

Speaking at Morley College, an adult education centre near Westminster Bridge, London, the Prime Minister alluded to a remark made by the chairman that nobody came there to learn anything useful.

'I thank God there is such a place left,' the PM said. 'It is the things that are of no use that really make up one's life. You may remember that at Cambridge there was a toast that used to be given, "God bless the higher mathematics, and may they never be of any use to anybody." There was in that toast the quintessence of a profound common sense, which distinguished my old University, and I have always taken it to heart. And on the lowest ground how good it it is for us to have some outlet - indeed, something that opens a window in one's soul completely remote and alien from one's daily work.'

'Such knowledge and such beauty as you teach in this college is the knowledge and beauty that open "the magic casements" for us, and every life wants its magic casements. I may be old-fashioned and prejudiced, but I always feel that there are no real magic casements except to those who at some time in their lives have grounded themselves on the humanities. In those people, admirable though they be, bursting with statistics and training in the syllogisms, in whom that groundwork on the humanities is absent, there is always to me - I come from a fruit country, so I use this simile - there is always a certain unripeness, a certain tartness and certain acidity, and the only mellow fruit is that which has been ripened in the wisdom of the ages, in the beauty and romance of art, poetry and music.'

Edward Bawden & Eric Ravilious at Morley College, 1929/30
As you might have guessed, these words were spoken not by David Cameron but by Stanley Baldwin, who in February 1930 unveiled a set of murals at Morley College for Working Men and Women. These murals had been painted by Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious in the refectory, where students came to relax, and were designed to offer things 'interesting to look at and intriguing to unravel for people sitting scattered about the room'.

The college, which had been founded in the previous century, had close links with the the Old Vic Theatre, so the murals had for the most part a theatrical theme. Bawden painted scenes from 'King Lear', 'The Tempest', 'As You Like It' and 'Romeo and Juliet', while Ravilious contributed scenes from Marlowe's 'Tragedy of Dr Faustus', with the Seven Sins floating down from the beams. There were pictures from Miracle Plays and obscure Elizabethan drama, interspersed with figures and symbols: a quartet of winds, a group of Harlequin figures and so on.

Stanley Baldwin was evidently impressed, observing that 'the one thing he felt was that the works were conceived in happiness and in joy, and the execution gave real pleasure to the artists. It was only in that spirit that any creative work could be done that was going to give pleasure to other people.'

Morley College is still going strong more than 80 years later, but the murals were destroyed when the refectory was hit by a bomb during the Blitz. Whether or not such work will ever be commissioned again, it seems unlikely that a Prime Minister, speaking in public during a period of grave economic hardship, would praise an educational institution that taught literature, music and art with no thought of skills or outcomes, simply because life with a knowledge of these subjects is richer than life without.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ravilious, Nash, Piper: Newhaven, Eastbourne, Rye

Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, 1936
Last Sunday I managed to see the John Piper show at Towner, just a couple of hours before it closed. An interesting experience: as anticipated there was some fabulous work from the 1930s, especially those collaged visions of Newhaven and other places on the south coast. Some of the later work was less fun, but all in all a lovely exhibition that confirmed my view that you often have to travel out of London to see the best work by British artists. Can we have Paul Nash in Kent and Sussex next?

I was in the happy position of having a couple of days to charge around the region, taking pictures for forthcoming talks about Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. It's possible to get a bit obsessed about finding the settings for particular paintings, but it is interesting to see how an artist redesigns reality for a particular composition. Perhaps more important, though, is seeing what it is about a place that attracts artists - feeling the atmosphere and getting a sense of the light.

Closed for the duration... West Pier, Newhaven
Take Newhaven, a port that might seem rather humdrum in comparison to Lewes and Eastbourne. Ravilious,  Edward Bawden and Piper all loved the place, but why? I went there first, having left Bristol early in the morning, and parked on the West Quay. I set off walking towards the sea, past wooden piers piled with fishing stuff, through a new marina development and on, and on - I'd mistakenly parked miles from the sea. Here was Newhaven Fort on the right, finally, and some boats perched in a yard, and then the sea came into view, between a lowly breakwater to the east and the magnificent curving arm of the West Pier or, as Tirzah Ravilious called it, 'the mole'.

Giorgio de Chirico, Ariadne, 1913

The sense of space was breathtaking and the light pearly - I could imagine that at dawn, with the sun rising over the sea and the cliffs of Beachy Head, Rav for one would have been in his element. The breakwater with its arches borrowed from a de Chirico painting has evidently been closed for some time, so one can't walk to the lighthouse at the end as Ravilious did in a storm in September 1935 (the night an old man was swept off the same pier to his death).

However the Hope Inn, where he and Bawden stayed several times, is going strong. I was wondering when it was transformed from traditional old pub into its groovy modern form, and a letter from EB to ER seems to pinpoint the date to 1936/7. With his usual waspish humour Bawden points out that the improvements are both to the layout of the pub, with a balcony now running in front of the bedrooms, and to the food: ‘Meals and service have brightened; gone are those soft, stale oyster-eyed eggs and there is is less water and more gravy with the meat’.

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939
From Newhaven, I drove through Seaford and on towards Beachy Head, only belatedly realising that the road crossed the top of Cuckmere Haven - a glimpse of water in fat sunlit coils almost sent me into the hedge then it was gone, as sights always vanish when you're in a car, and it was on to the next place. I'd been wanting to visit Belle Tout Lighthouse since I'd found out about it being a hotel, and overcame what I think is a perfectly sensible horror of cliffs to have a look at the place.

Beachy Head... not for the faint-hearted

It reminded me that, years ago, I visited Beachy Head with a friend who stood with his feet STICKING OUT over the edge of the cliff, while I cowered on all fours. There's something particularly daunting about those chalk cliffs, but what is it? The curving green hills that are cut off so abruptly? The stark white of the chalk? The sheer drop? Those white cliffs are scarier than the black granite of Pembrokeshire.

Belle Tout... the moving lighthouse, now a hotel
On then to Eastbourne and the Piper show, before heading for Rye. Quite what was going to happen in Rye I wasn't sure, but the idea was to camp... somewhere. And see the landscape and coast that inspired all three of these artists along with countless others...

To be continued

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Gerhard Richter: Painting from Photos

Gerhard Richter, Gymnastics, 1967
I don't think I'm alone in associating Richard Hamilton, who died recently, almost exclusively with his brilliant 1956 collage, 'Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?', a Pop Art classic that you'll find in every book on 20th century/modern art. I remember coming across the picture in 'The Shock of the New' and being mildly astonished that its creator was British.

Unlike Rauschenberg and Johns, Warhol and Lichtenstein, Hamilton didn't spend years creating similar works that could be distributed among the modern art galleries of the world and assure his reputation. Instead he addressed subjects that interested or infuriated him (Bobby Sands, Tony Blair) in whatever he felt the best medium to be. The Tate website has some unlikely-seeming early work - diagrammatic line drawings of simple machines that might have been done by Hamilton's hero Marcel Duchamp.

Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London, 1967

According to the excellent obituary in The Guardian (which was written, slightly bizarrely, by Norbert Lynton, an art historian who died four years ago), Hamilton was essentially a painter, though not in the Lucian Freud mode. No long nights staring at a model for him. Instead, his wonderful, epoch-defining picture 'Swingeing London' was based on a grainy black and white newspaper photograph; both subject and composition came to him readymade, and his task was to translate the energy and immediacy of the Paparazzi snap into paint.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1606
The result is different from any picture he could have invented or made from his own sketch. It is a painting both of an exciting moment (Mick Jagger's arrest) and of a new phenomenon (the intrusive photographer), and the dramatic light and shadow remind me of Caravaggio.

When Hamilton painted 'Swingeing London' (he made at least one collage of the subject too, as well as prints), Gerhard Richter had been making his distinctive, blurry photo paintings for several years, and he was to continue doing so on and off until the late 1980s, when he brought the decades-long project to a close with a haunting series portraying the last days of the Baader-Meinhof gang (or Red Army Faction as they were officially known). You can see numerous examples on his website, and no doubt a few will make it to Tate Modern for the imminent retrospective.

Gerhard Richter, Aunt Marianne, 1965

In notes and interviews Richter tends to play down the personal in his work. He chose to paint from photos, he told an interviewer in the 1960s, because, 'When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated. I don't know what I am doing.' He chose banal, everyday subjects to avoid anything that might mean something already, or be part of some debate. Yet one of his earliest pictures, catalogued under 'Death' on his website, has an extremely significant subject: Adolf Hitler, under whose rule the artist grew up. While some of his family supported the Nazis, Richter's Aunt Marianne, a schizophrenic, was killed by them at a euthanasia camp; in his 1965 portrait she is holding the young Gerhard in her arms.

Mundane or historically charged, Richter's photo paintings are almost always filled with a sense of loss and longing, as if the image were of a dead loved-one, dimly remembered. This is as true of the 'October 18, 1977' (Baader-Meinhof) series as it is of the portraits and figures he painted in the 1960s. The pictures of Gudrun Ensslin are particularly poignant, showing us not a captured terrorist but a complex woman who seems by turns fragile, defiant, idealistic and lost. 'There is sorrow,' Richter said of these paintings, 'But I hope one can see that it is sorrow for the people who died so young and so crazy, for nothing.'

I've been trying to imagine what it could have been like to grow up in Nazi Germany, surrounded by Hitler's followers, to experience the outbreak of war (at aged 7) and the almost complete destruction of one's home city (Dresden 1945, aged 13), then to discover the horrors of Belsen and Auschwitz. Then there was the 1961 flight from Communist East Germany to the West, and a new beginning. He brought with him his wife and one suitcase, and memories.

Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 2 (Gudrun Ensslin), 1988
When I look at Richter's grey paintings, made in the late 1960s, I can't help thinking of Max Ferber, the Jewish-German painter in WG Sebald's 1993 book 'The Emigrants', whose art is as much about erasure as creation:

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to air, light or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often though that his prime concern was to increase the dust. He drew with vigorous abandon, frequently going through half a dozen of his willow-wood charcoal sticks in the shortest time; and that process of drawing and shading on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woollen rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust...

Ferber achieves success, late in life and almost in spite of himself, when his work is discovered by the London art scene. Richter, by contrast, has enjoyed a long, prolific and continually successful career; his output of abstract paintings since 2005 alone is quite astonishing. There have been a few photo paintings since the Baader-Meinhof series, but these represent a tiny proportion of his catalogue. Perhaps they were part of a process, and no longer needed.