Monday, 30 January 2012

Ravilious Watercolours on Show in March!

We'll be launching the new book at the RWA, Bristol, on Saturday 10 March!
Exciting news for art lovers in the West Country! On 10 March an exhibition of watercolours, wood engravings and lithographs by Eric Ravilious (1903-42) will open at the Royal West of England Academy here in Bristol.

After the phenomenal success of Ravilious shows in Eastbourne (Towner, 2010) and Saffron Walden (Fry Art Gallery, 2011), it will be wonderful to see a substantial body of work on display in the West of England. I haven't seen a full list of pictures yet, but there will definitely be some favourites on show, alongside paintings that people may not have seen before.

from Ladies Who Travel
At the Towner exhibition, 'Familiar Visions', we saw the artist's paintings of Sussex alongside his son James Ravilious's photographs of Devon. The Fry also took a regional angle, concentrating on 'Ravilious in Essex'. This time around the organisers are taking a slightly more academic approach, using the title 'Going Modern/Being British' as a starting point. It was Paul Nash, the painter's teacher, who asked in the early 1930s whether it was possible to be a modern artist while retaining qualities he considered to be traditionally British. In paintings like 'Event on the Downs' he tackled this question head on, but he'd already addressed it in more subtle ways earlier in his life.

He was particularly influential in the 1920s as a champion of wood engraving and watercolour. These were in no sense new media, but they had been so neglected in the 19th century that they must have seemed fresh and exciting to young artists in the aftermath of the Great War. Nash's 1924 exhibition of landscapes in watercolour was a dazzling success, but with most of the pictures in private hands it is difficult for us to appreciate just how good - and how innovative - this work was.

We are much luckier with Ravilious, who was studying with Nash at the time and went on to master both of his teacher's favourite media. As a wood engraver he was rarely surpassed - a fact that was acknowledged during his lifetime - but as a watercolourist the very good reputation he had built up before his death is only now recovering from a long period of neglect. It's wonderful that so many of his paintings have survived, in excellent condition, and that so many are either in public collections or owned by people who are more than willing to lend them for exhibitions.

Eric Ravilious, Interior at Furlongs, 1939 (DACS)
Ravilious is often described as 'quintessentially English' rather than British, a distinction which I think makes him seem a slightly parochial figure - as does his lack of interest in artistic movements and theories. In fact he numbered Henry Moore and other modernist luminaries among his friends, and travelled as widely as circumstances allowed; he painted ordinary things - an old car, a greenhouse, a barbed wire fence - in a way that made people see them in a new light, which suggests a modern mind at work.

David Hockney, Winter Timber
I'm glad this show will be on at the same time as David Hockney's exhibition at the Royal Academy. The two exhibitions will prove a wonderful study in contrast, with giant, boldly coloured pictures on the one hand, and small, delicately-nuanced paintings on the other - brass band vs solo violin. Yet the two artists also have so much in common, in particular a vital understanding that mystery and beauty reside in the most ordinary scenes.

Eric Ravilious: Going Modern/Being British is at the RWA, Bristol, from 10 March until 29 April
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the RA, London, until 9 April

We will be launching 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' at the RWA, Bristol, on 10 March, and on 24 March I will be giving an illustrated talk based on my researches for the new book, also at the RWA.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Illuminations on BBC4: Intelligent Telly!

Dr Ramirez: look, no gloves!
Last night I belatedly started watching the BBC mini-series 'Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings' and about half-way through the first episode I witnessed something extraordinary: two women standing in front of a cathedral, discussing the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar as if this was the most natural thing in the world. There was no rousing music. There were no special effects. Nobody was making outrageous claims about anything, or trying to shock - although we did hear a Chaucerian tale of nuns being pursued by the lusty monarch. It was like listening to the radio - only with pictures!

I'm sure I've seen art historian Dr Janina Ramirez on TV before - yes, I remember now. It was a few months ago, and she was talking about Icelandic sagas with an engaging earnestness that she also brings to the subject of illuminated manuscripts and the world in which they were created. Unashamedly academic and proud of her ability to recite poems with an authentic (we assume) Anglo-Saxon accent, she seemed genuinely thrilled to be let loose among the British Library's collection of Royal Manuscripts shortly before they went on show to the public last November.

The Alphonso Psalter (click name for details), British Library
This I can completely understand. For anyone who has a passion for any subject, there's nothing like handling a precious artefact, whether it's a book, a painting or a pair of Elvis's sneakers. And no gloves! When I saw her flicking through the first book with her ungloved fingers I thought Security would show up at any moment and carry her away, but then we were told that this is BL policy: bare fingertips are far more sensitive, apparently, and less likely to damage thousand year-old vellum.

The first episode was admirably simple. We saw books in the library. We saw the cathedrals, formerly monasteries, where they were made. We saw a few enthusiasts, also some cows (vellum on the hoof). The iPad, if that's what it was - other tablets are available - was put to good use, and on occasion text and pictures rose off the page and floated about in a pleasingly modern way. There was an assumption throughout that the viewer had a basic grasp of British history after the Fall of Rome - which may have been slightly over-generous - but in the main 'Illuminations' was as good as a Radio 4 documentary (something you can't say about many TV shows).

King Edgar, New Winchester Charter (click name for details) BL
But perhaps I'm biased. A long time ago now I studied illuminated manuscripts and once put on a slide show with images and pages from psalters and similar books. I've since seen different books at odd times and I love them. I love the ancient vellum and the glorious handwriting, and the personal quirks that Ramirez picked up on so well - the annotations and corrections and scribbles. Most of all, though, I love the bright, eccentric, personal illustration of these books, which you can see echoed in the work of more recent artists - from William Blake to Quentin Blake.

Some of the decoration I've seen so far has been breathtaking, preserved (as the presenter noted) for centuries by having been hidden away within the covers of a book. I'm looking forward to watching more, and visiting the exhibition of Royal Manuscripts at the British Library (ends March 12, I think).

Friday, 20 January 2012


Miniature railway, lighthouses, shingle - Dungeness!
In the autumn I enjoyed a whistlestop tour around Rye and environs, a part of the world I knew well from the work of artists I love but hadn't visited in years. The place I had heard most about was undoubtedly Dungeness, that great parson's nose of shingle jutting out from the flat Kent coast a few miles south of the hilltop town.

Actually I read about it first, in Derek Jarman's wonderful, elegiac book 'Modern Nature'. This must have been twenty years ago, but both the tone of the book and the descriptions of the film-maker's strange, stony garden stayed with me. A dying man attempting to tease life out of salt-encrusted shingle, in the shadow of a nuclear power station? I didn't like his films, particularly, but this was a wonderful tale.

Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman's former home (private - please respect)
Other stories about Dungeness reached me over the subsequent years. I remember the sound of feet scrunching over shingle in a Radio 4 documentary, a programme which left with me an image of stones lying in great undulating waves, so that when you stood in the midst of them you could see nothing else.

Then I came across the painting by Eric Ravilious that features in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which gives a completely different impression. His version is more like a scene from an old-fashioned Sci-fi movie, with improbable modern structures dotted around a desolate shore. Dungeness had been popular with artists since at least the mid-19th century, when dramatic scenes of ships in peril were so much in vogue. More recently, that intrepid travelling artist John Piper had made several lovely pictures of the lighthouse and attendant buildings, using his favoured media of pen and ink, gouache and collage. Ravilious may have seen these, which would partially explain his idiosyncratic choice of subject and angle.

Eric Ravilious, Dungeness, 1939, private collection/DACS
Anyway, one bright morning in September I set off from Rye. As I drove south the weather changed, the clouds not so much moving in as forming around me, and by the time I reached the deserted holiday camps and hotels of Camber Sands it was drizzling. The country beyond reminded me of Lincolnshire or the Baltic coast, but that was probably just the weather. To the right the land was fenced off, miles of it, and looking at the map afterwards I realised it was an army range. I drove through Lydd, read a report in a local paper that trumpeted the expansion of the local airport as the only hope for the local economy and lambasted the bird lovers of Dungeness for their opposition to the plans, and carried on.

Approaching my destination on a narrow lane it was clear that this was one of the world's stranger and more wonderful places. To the right the industrial bulk of not one, but two nuclear power stations. To the left, an evenly-spaced row of houses, each slightly different to its neighbour, which stretched away along the coast towards Dymchurch, as far as I could see. And all around, the most extraordinary landscape - a kind of miniature Lake District with hills ten feet high and no plant taller than a gorse bush.

As I got closer to the coast the vegetation grew sparser, the shingle more obvious, until I was driving along an even more makeshift road with the odd wooden chalet on one side and on the other a wave of stones that formed a crest above the shoreline. On this crest, outlined against the grey sky, brightly painted boats were perched ready for launching, while closer at hand lay the skeletons of older, abandoned boats with bleached and broken timbers. Among these were other relics - huts and bits of winding machinery, and long, snaking sections of narrow gauge railway track. Up ahead were the lighthouses and on my right, as I went slowly along, Prospect Cottage with its matt black walls and bright yellow trim, and the bizarre ornamental garden created by Derek Jarman in the last years of his life.

The Low Light, built C19, converted to foghorn station C20
Few places I've visited have such a powerful and unique identity as Dungeness and I could see instantly why Ravilious had felt at home. The lighthouses and miniature railway and power stations and eccentric little houses were part of it, but what appealed to me most was the evidence of passing time.

While the cliffs of Beachy Head, just along the coast, are constantly being worn away, the shingle bank is continually growing, and as the sea retreats so the fishermen and other inhabitants of this peculiar settlement follow it, leaving behind on the stones whatever they no longer need. Everywhere was evidence of past endeavours, although I found no trace of the lighthouse on which Ravilious focused his attention, the so-called Low Light installed in the 19th century to supplement the main lighthouse.

Prospect Cottage
What a place to create a garden in the face of death. What a place for a painter of everyday marvels. I can't wait to go back.

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is published by The Mainstone Press at the end of February.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Eric Ravilious: The Case of the White Horse Dummy

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939
When I was researching 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', several years ago now, I kept hearing about a lost relic - the mock-up or dummy of a book that the artist was planning. The story ended up in the essay accompanying 'The Westbury Horse':

After making a successful start with the Wilmington Giant he had decided to paint more figures in September 1939, but war intervened. Joining the Observer Corps, Ravilious stayed in Essex until early December, when he abruptly swapped shifts with a fellow Observer and rushed off. He had been promised a job drawing chalk figures for a book, he told Diana Tuely, and in a tremendous burst of energy drew the white horses of Uffington and Westbury, the Cerne Abbas Giant and George III on horseback outside Weymouth.

On his return, he was invited to be a war artist... The book of horses and giants was not forgotten, however, and in January 1941 he sent a dummy to Noel Carrington, who was then editing the Picture Puffin series of children’s books for Penguin. Carrington responded enthusiastically, suggesting that the book might include drawings not only of chalk figures, earthworks and castles, but also of implements excavated from prehistoric sites. ‘Downland Man’ or ‘Whitehorse Hill’ might be the title, with accompanying text by H.J. Massingham; artist and author had collaborated not long before, when Ravilious illustrated Massingham’s new edition of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White.

With Tirzah about to have a third child, Anne, Ravilious decided not to proceed, but he continued to work on the book and, according to Carrington, took the dummy with him on his posting to Iceland in August 1942, intending to finish it. He may have taken it with him when he volunteered to join the hunt for a missing plane, because it disappeared thereafter, and has never, despite the efforts of researchers, been found.

Eric Ravilious, White Horse dummy, 1941, cover
As I understand it, one or two of the more diehard Rav fans visited Iceland and endeavoured to track down the missing dummy, and their failure to find it encouraged this legend that he had, for some reason, taken it with him on that last flight. A more likely explanation was that the flimsy paper book had simply got lost, but the its creator's disappearance has a powerful hold on the imagination. His obsession with the North (a region associated with death in Mediterranean mythologies) and with flight suggest an artist driven by his own aesthetic desires to his doom. Whatever we may think of this, Rav's mysterious disappearance fascinates people of a romantic disposition.

Within the context of this story, the missing dummy had a grail-like status, so it was rather astonishing when the little book turned up last year, not in an ancient army-issue satchel but in a box uncovered in London during an office clean-up - one that must have been long overdue. Now the legendary dummy is up for auction, with a guide price of £2000 - £3000. I have no idea whether this represents value for money, but I suspect that this lot will fetch a decent price.

True, the dummy is sketchy in the extreme, with a few black and white photos of the chalk figures accompanied by rudimentary page layouts and a few pencilled notes, but the cover, based on 'Train Landscape', is nicely done. Besides, the buyer will probably not be interested in these details. Work by Ravilious is scarce, and this dummy, whatever its merits, is unique. It's the Last Book, a true relic.

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is in production and will be published in late February by The Mainstone Press.