Thursday, 29 December 2011

'Great Expectations' & 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist'

The Greatest 'Great Expectations'? David Lean's 1946 film
Watching 'Great Expectations' the other night I was reminded how important a sense of place can be. Pip and Magwitch are both creatures of the marsh, the lowest of the low. No wonder Pip's sister goes on in typically Dickensian fashion about being 'raised up' - out of the swamp and into society.

It's easy to take the places chosen by artists, writers and film makers for granted. We think of them as settings - a backdrop to the action - yet a place is often integral to the story. Charles Dickens understood perfectly that a place - whether a marshy seashore or a tenement building - can hold tremendous power. Victorian London was a thriving modern city, yet we remember the corners Dickens made into fiction, drawing out the emotion attached to old, picturesque or terrifying streets. Much of his London was composed of relics of the previous century, the city that was rapidly disappearing as the one we know grew up.

David Hockney, Looking at Woldgate Woods, 2006
Some writers and artists focus on places they know intimately. Thomas Hardy reimagined his native Dorset, Stanley Spencer the country around Cookham. Can we envisage the work of either separate from the location? And what about the Brontes? Or John Constable? Having abandoned dowdy Britain for the bright colours of California, David Hockney has returned home, West Coast palette in hand, and found new inspiration in familiar scenes.

Dickens was rather different. He went in search of places and scenes that came with emotional resonance or topicality built in, and in books like 'Hard Times' he borrowed heavily from the dramatic newspaper reports of the day. It's interesting to compare his lifelong quest for captivating places to that of JMW Turner, an artist who travelled widely to find subject matter that captured the violent changes wrought by the steam age.

JMW Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-boat off a Harbour Mouth, 1842, Tate
Curiously, the painters who followed him didn't seem so keen on the subject of place; think of the Pre-Raphaelites with their studied figures. While the work begun by Constable and Turner was taken on by painters across the Channel, it took a new century and the upheaval of the Great War to drive British artists out of their studios on a mass exploration of coast and landscape. After the mechanized brutality of the Western Front there was an understandable desire to 'get back to nature', and at the same time the production of cars and buses by factories that had previously made armaments enabled people to visit ancient sites, historic villages and beauty spots.

Paul Nash, Sudden Storm, 1918 (print from watercolour)
Painters turned their attention to places with an enthusiasm not seen since the early 19th century. Paul Nash set the tone, putting watercolour to use as a medium of modernity and teaching his students at the Royal College of Art to do the same. Among these were Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, both of whom took to the medium of John Sell Cotman and Francis Towne with great success - Ravilious never got on with oil paint, which he likened to toothpaste.

In his watercolours, Ravilious focused almost exclusively on place, with figures appearing sometimes as part of the scene, and his career progressed he went further and further in search of inspiration. This quest for new subject matter took him around Britain and into northern France, and it forms the basis of 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', the fourth volume in the series published by the Mainstone Press. There are some glorious paintings in the book, from pictures of Rye Harbour and Newhaven to watercolours of Capel-y-Ffin and the Welsh hills, and some wonderful stories.

Eric Ravilious, Rye Harbour, 1938 - note Dickensian mudbank
An enthusiastic and accomplished letter writer, Ravilious left brilliant and often hilarious descriptions of the places he visited and people he met, without revealing exactly what he was looking for when he went out to paint, or analysing his work. This fourth book has been particularly fun to research and write, and as it goes into production I'll post the odd excerpt and some more descriptions of my own travels, following this genial ghost around the countryside...

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' will be published by the Mainstone Press in late Feb 2012.


  1. Really like the Nash painting: Sudden Storm, 1918. It's not one I know, can you tell us more about it?

  2. Nash painted 'Sudden Storm' in the Chilterns in 1918, during time off from work as a war artist. Like many of his best watercolours it sold right away and is now - presumably - in a private collection somewhere. There isn't a colour repro of it anywhere, but I did find this picture of a print made during PN's lifetime, I imagine in the late 20s/early 30s.

    By the way, if anyone owns, or knows about a Paul Nash watercolour in private hands, please get in touch (you can reach me via Mainstone Press email)

  3. Although painted in the Chilterns, do you know if Nash based it on an actual location or is it possibly an allegorical comment on war? The trees, mud and rain on the left look like a tidal wave about to envelop the peace and calm on the right. Powerful stuff.

  4. An interesting thought - you could well be right. It's a very different painting from John Nash's famous oil 'The Cornfield', painted at the same time. JN had spent two years in the trenches and people have read his picture as an expression of gratitude for his survival. PN saw very little active service but was powerfully affected by what he saw of the Passchendaele battlefield in Nov 1917.

  5. Hello James,

    Apologies for posting here, but I thought that this would be of interest:

    Best wishes,