Saturday 3 December 2011

Eric Ravilious & Paul Nash in Bristol

Eric Ravilious, Bristol Quay, 1938
Bristol has been a popular destination for the wandering artist since at least the 18th century, when the Avon Gorge began attracting painters who were looking for something Sublime (cliffs, ruins, etc), but didn't want to go dragging all over Wales looking for it. Since then the port city and its scenic surroundings have proved a fertile hunting ground for generations of artists, and today Bristol must boast one of the highest per capita population of creative types in the country.

JMW Turner, The Avon Gorge & Bristol Hotwell, 1792 (Bristol Museums & Art Gallery)
This was brought home forcibly to me when I went to the launch of Francis Greenacre's lovely book 'From Bristol to the Sea' (Redcliffe) - it must be more than five years ago now - at the Merchant's Hall in Clifton. The great and the good of the city were out in force, I remember, and quite rightly, as the book is a gem - a nicely-produced, readable survey that includes some lively watercolours by a 16 year old JMW Turner; he spent a family holiday perched on the cliffs with his sketchbook, pursuing his vision with typical dedication.

Francis Danby, St Vincents Rocks & The Avon Gorge, 1815 (private collection)

Bristol at the time was becoming something of a fashionable watering hole, on account of the allegedly health-giving waters of the Hotwells, so there was a market for scenes of the city and environs. John Sell Cotman painted an unusual, atmospheric watercolour of St Mary Redcliffe Church, while Thomas Girtin, Francis Danby and Samuel Jackson were among the many popular painters who worked here.

John Sell Cotman, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol; Dawn, etching after 1802 w/c
Later in the 19th century the attention of artists turned from scenic views to shipping and industry. With its unique layout, the port of Bristol - the City Docks, rather than the port at Avonmouth - offered unusual perspectives that combined features of city life (church spires, shops, crowds) with ships and the activity surrounding them. This remained an attraction for artists into the 20th century. Edward Wadsworth was sent to Bristol during World War One to supervise the painting of ships with dazzle camouflage, and he then recommended the place to a younger artist friend, John Nash.

Nash visited in the 1920s and then returned in November 1938, bringing with him Eric Ravilious. Nash had been trying to get Rav to Bristol for a while, but what really persuaded his friend was the prospect of the paddlesteamers laid up in their winter berths. These lovely old boats, run by P&A Campbell around the Bristol Channel during the summer months, were exactly the kind of subject Ravilious enjoyed, and the pair spent days and, more often, nights sketching them. The resulting pictures give a fascinating insight into the way each artist worked, and I also like to imagine them sitting side by side on the docks with their easels, each intent on his version, perhaps pausing to share a nip of something against the cold.

John Nash, Britannia, 1938 (pic borrowed from Dru Marland)
There was a certain rivalry between the Nash brothers which may partly explain, I think, Paul's comparative lack of enthusiasm for Bristol. Or perhaps it was simply that he drew his inspiration less from cities and man-made things than from nature. Anyway, he did visit the city in March 1939, where he made one of his hastier sketches of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This was included in 'The Giant's Stride' an article he wrote for the Architectural Review about Brunel's bridge and the legends surrounding the Avon Gorge.

Paul Nash, To the Memory of Brunel, 1939 (British Council)
'It had an unhappy air,' he wrote of the bridge, 'Like the dream of an ambitious mind, never quite realised. What dream was walled up in this impressive travesty? ... Strange forces had been at work in the Avon Gorge, I felt convinced, not those alone of honest engineering.'

More on all of this, and on the fascinating relationship between Ravilious and the Nash brothers, in my talk at Foyles on Tuesday 6th December - yes, that's THIS TUESDAY, 6.15pm!


between-the-lines said...

"Strange forces had been at work in the Avon Gorge, I felt convinced, not those alone of honest engineering"

A cryptic comment.
Any idea what he might have meant by that?

Btw, lovely to see the Gorge free of that vicious modern road ... one far off day it'll be like that again.

James Russell said...

Yes, rather an odd sentence. He was talking about the origins of the Gorge, which scientists connected to an earthquake... 'but legend preferred the idea of two giants hewing the Gorge with a pickaxe. Recalling the huge nocturnal voices (the sounds of ships' horns), I could believe in the latter version, indeed as I read on the idea of giants obsessed my mind. Strange forces had been at work in the Avon Gorge, I felt convinced, not those alone of honest engineering.'

Acornmoon said...

I love the way Ravilious seems to use his brush in a similar way to an engraving tool. I wonder if he had not learnt how to engrave if his paintings would look any different?

I have a Ravilious theme on a recent blog post too.

James Russell said...

Interesting post on Curwen, Valerie - by coincidence there were papers on show at the recent Paul Nash evening at St Bride Library...

The relationship between Rav's watercolours and engravings is fascinating, although the work is very different in all sorts of ways. I wonder whether some of the techniques that look like engraving actually derived from pen and ink/drawing... Anyway, impossible to imagine Rav not being both painter and printmaker!

Julie White said...

My Great Grandfather was the Captain of the Paddle Steamer Britannia and my Grandfather also served on it. They took it to Dunkirk. I found this article and have ordered a print of the paintings. Thank you
Julie White