Friday, 24 February 2012

John Piper, David Jones & The Queen: Art in Cardiff

John Piper, Llanthony Priory, 1941 (private collection)
By the time I'd worked my way through both rooms of the The Queen: Art and Image at the National Museum of Wales, one thing was clear: this is a monarch who likes having her picture taken. There are photos of her smiling, photos of her tight-lipped, magisterial pictures in which she looms over the viewer. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the monarchy, but one or two of the photos oozed power. Never mind all that democratic nonsense, I found myself thinking, she's the boss. By contrast, Lucian Freud's tiny painting makes her look like a camp little man of a certain age. I guess he was trying to tell us something too.

But I wasn't in Cardiff to look at Royal portraits. In fact I didn't know the exhibition was on until I walked into the room and saw the same face repeated over and over, reimagined by Warhol, Gilbert and George and sundry others but still essentially the same unknowable woman. If there is a real, hidden Elizabeth beneath the public persona, this exhibition leaves her in peace.

Pietro Annigoni, Queen Elizabeth II, 1969 (Nat Port Gall)
I'd been meaning to visit the Welsh equivalent of the National Gallery for a while, to see a temporary exhibition of work by David Jones, and when I read that a Piper exhibition had just started as well I rushed down to Temple Meads and took a train Across the Border. It's been a while since I visited Cardiff, and I was struck on arrival by how different it is: flat, expansive and conceived on a grand scale. The place has the air of a provincial French city, a character best expressed in the flamboyant old stone palaces that house the City Hall and National Museum, and in the neighbouring parks and boulevards.

Once inside the museum I headed straight for the Piper show, a public display of a private collection comprised mostly of dramatic mountain scenes. I hadn't realised before quite how much time that quintessential wandering artist spent in Wales, but it seems he practically lived in Snowdonia in the 1940s and 1950s. Personally, I don't think that the mountain paintings, which are dramatic but rather formless, show him at his best, but there was one gorgeous treat: a painting of Llanthony Priory from the 1940s. Nobody has ever captured the peculiar atmosphere surrounding an English or Welsh church quite like Piper, and here the dramatic contrast of darkness and light (the wall on the right is a dazzling golden yellow) is enhanced by a wonderful texture; the paint surface is covered in swirls and squiggles that almost form a pattern but instead reinforce the sense of age and beauty.

Thank heavens he gave up abstraction.

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin, 1926/7 (NM Wales)
I got distracted by the Queen after that, but presently located the corridor where a dozen or so paintings by David Jones hang in light so carefully controlled that you peer at the pictures as if through a Welsh mist. Which I suppose is authentic. Jones is less well-known than Ravilious, Bawden and other watercolourists of the age, partly because his subject matter and style are eccentric, to say the least, and partly because he chose to work so lightly that he makes Rav, by contrast, seem as bold as Matisse.

A Londoner of mixed Anglo-Welsh parentage, Jones served in the Great War and subsequently suffered two nervous breakdowns that hampered his career just as he was becoming established. This was in the early 1930s, after a productive decade which he had spent working alongside Eric Gill, first at Ditchling, Sussex, and then at Capel-y-Ffin in the Welsh Marches. In later years Jones produced increasingly odd pictures, often in pencil and crayon, covering the paper with mythical figures, plants and flowers and symbols of one kind and another. These are fascinating but less accessible than his landscapes from the 1920s which, though sometimes agonisingly delicate, are beautifully crafted and highly original.

Gwen John, Girl in a Green Dress (NM Wales)
I was hoping to see some of his work from Capel-y-Ffin, and was rewarded with one lovely picture. The man was evidently brilliant (TS Eliot described his epic 1937 war poem 'In Parenthesis' as a work of genius) but with little interest in artistic fame. I want to see more!

Another artist of that productive era of whom the same could be said is Gwen John (who was born in Pembrokeshire), and it was a pleasant surprise to happen upon a clutch of her portraits hanging next to a group of her brother's. Where Augustus John's pictures are bright and expressive - crying out to be noticed, you might say - Gwen's are self-effacing and thoughtful. In a couple of the portraits the subjects seem about to fade into the background, but they are beautiful nevertheless.

James Dickson Innes, Arenig, 1913 (NM Wales)
The art galleries of the National Museum are full of treats like this. I'd been wanting for a long time to see some paintings by James Dickson Innes, a bohemian friend of Augustus John who died of TB in his twenties, and here were half a dozen or more, scattered through the collection. I could see right away why people used to rave (maybe they still do) about the jewel-like colours in his landscapes, which are mostly small but striking.

One final surprise awaited me in the room devoted to Welsh landscape: a picture I've been thinking about a lot over the past year. 'Waterwheel' is one of my favourite Ravilious paintings, and one that features in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', and it was fascinating to come across it like that, unexpectedly and in a room full of landscapes by other artists of different generations. What struck me instantly was the quality of the light, both the luminous sky and the radiance surrounding the waterwheel like a halo. In that brightness I felt the motion of the waterwheel and heard the gurgling water - a place (Capel-y-Ffin) and a moment (dawn, early March 1938) brought to life.

Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, 1938 (Brecknock Museum)

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is being bound, and will be available very soon! Come and say hello at the RWA, Bristol on Saturday March 10th, when I'll be signing copies...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Eric Ravilious: Illustrated Talks for 2012

Eric Ravilious, Rye Harbour, 1938
I've just proof-read 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' for the last time, so now it's up to the printers, who I'm sure will produce a fabulous book. It's strange to think that almost four years have passed since we first started talking about 'Sussex and the Downs', which in turn grew out of the quest Tim Mainstone and I went on to find the shops depicted by Ravilious in 'High Street' (1938).

One of the things I've really enjoyed about this whole adventure is meeting people at talks, signings and exhibition launches, so I'm excited to have lots of events coming up. Mostly these are illustrated talks in which I show slides of paintings, archive photographs and my own pictures, and talk about the stories and characters associated with them. So far, the dates booked for this year go like this:

Saturday March 10th, 12-2pm: Launch and signing of 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist',
Royal West of England Academy, Bristol.

Saturday March 24th, time TBC: Illustrated Talk on Eric Ravilious, RWA, Bristol (contact RWA for ticket info).

Tuesday March 27th, 7pm: Celebrating Eric Ravilious, Illustrated Talk at The Old Chapel Centre, Alfriston, Sussex (contact Much Ado Books for ticket info).

Thursday June 28th, time TBC: Eric Ravilious & the White Horses of Wiltshire, Illustrated Talk at the Assembly Room, Town Hall, Devizes, Wilts (part of Devizes Festival - see website nearer the time for ticket info)

Sunday Sept 2, 3pm: Eric Ravilious: A Life in Pictures, Illustrated Talk with me AND Alan Powers at the Birley Centre, Eastbourne (ticket info nearer the time from Friends of the Towner)

Friday Sept 21st, time TBC: Two Travelling Artists - Paul Nash & Eric Ravilious, Illustrated Talk at the Rye Arts Festival (info from Rye Arts Festival nearer the time)

I don't think I've missed anything out, although it's always possible... Other events will probably be arranged as the year progresses. If you're interested in booking a talk, please get in touch via the Comments or Twitter, or contact The Mainstone Press.