Monday, 26 March 2012

Ravilious on the BBC Antiques Roadshow: Newhaven Harbour

Viewers of the Antiques Roadshow last night were treated to a wonderful sight: Ravilious's 'homage to Seurat', the lithograph 'Newhaven Harbour' (about 19 mins into the programme). Its owner had apparently trimmed the picture so it would fit in a clip frame, leaving a protruding corner bearing the artist's signature. There were a few things the presenter didn't mention, the most important being that 'Newhaven Harbour' is an auto-lithograph, ie everything from the initial drawing to the colour separations and the printing itself was done or closely supervised by Ravilious himself.

This was his first attempt, and he went on to achieve great success in the medium, first with his 1938 book 'High Street' and then with a stunning wartime series based around submarine interiors and related subjects. We'll be coming back to this subject, but in the meantime here's an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist':

Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, 1935-6, lithograph

Newhaven Harbour

While staying in Newhaven Ravilious got up early to avoid the crowds, and one morning sketched a steamer entering the harbour from the open sea. His pleasure in the fresh dawn light is palpable, and one senses that the peculiar radiance of the marine sunrise attracted him to the south coast as much as the port architecture and the ships. Many of his best paintings were begun at dawn, and if he had one overriding ambition as a watercolourist it was perhaps to capture in pigment the subtle brilliance of sunrise.

Yet this is not a painting but the artist’s first excursion into lithography, a medium exploited successfully in Soviet Russia in the 1920s and subsequently imported to Britain, where it was used in book illustration and in the production of advertising posters by organisations like Shell and London Transport. It was Robert Wellington, of the Zwemmer Gallery in London, who first suggested selling lithographs made by contemporary British artists to education authorities and schools, thus introducing children to original work by living artists.

Together with John Piper, Wellington set up Contemporary Lithographs and commissioned ten artists, including Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Paul and John Nash, Graham Sutherland and Norah McGuiness, to produce lithographs at the Curwen Press in Plaistow, Essex. Not all chose to become closely involved in the process, but Ravilious rose to the challenge and in September 1936 was working, under the expert tutelage of Harold Curwen, on his first stone. Ravilious was delighted both with lithography itself and with the works atmosphere of the Press, and he went on to explore this method of printing further in 'High Street', his 1938 book of shops.

Here he has reimagined the topography of the harbour so that the sunlit walls encircle a pool of blue water, creating an idyllic destination for the approaching ship; it is difficult to imagine waves breaking over the wall to the right, as they did the night Ravilious ventured out in the storm. The red bands painted on the lighthouses and the warm colours of the foreground add to the welcoming atmosphere, although there are no people here, not even a seagull. Only the incoming ship offers the prospect of life, noise and activity. Ravilious called this his ‘Homage to Seurat’, and if the arches on the right suggest de Chirico, the picture as a whole recalls Seurat’s spare, unpeopled paintings of Honfleur and other Channel ports.

In January 1937 the first set of Contemporary Lithographs were exhibited, to enthusiastic reviews. ‘The series of ten is extremely promising,’ The New Statesman commented. ‘There is something in fact for every sort of taste except bad taste...’

A second series followed, with work by 14 broadly representational artists including the New Zealand-born painter Frances Hodgkins. When John Piper showed her this lithograph of Newhaven Harbour, she studied it carefully then declared, ‘So glad he didn’t put in a seagull!’

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which is available now from The Mainstone Press and good bookshops. 

I will be giving an illustrated talk based on material in the book tomorrow (Tuesday) evening in Alfriston, East Sussex. For info please contact Much Ado Books.

In April I'll be speaking at Greenside Primary School in West London and at the RWA Bristol. 

Hope to see you there!

Friday, 23 March 2012

New Ravilious Event: Greenside Mural Fundraiser

I'm looking forward to giving an illustrated talk on Eric Ravilious to the Friends of the RWA tomorrow. It's sold out, but if you don't have a ticket I'm doing a second date on April 25th. Meanwhile, in another part of the country...

And this is what it's all about:

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Ravilious meets Stanley Donwood in Bristol Review of Books

Issue 20 of Bristol Review of Books is out now, with a fabulous linocut by Radiohead artist-in-residence Stanley Donwood on the cover; there's an entertaining illustrated interview inside. His book 'Household Worms' is available from Tangent Books.

Visit the Royal West of England Academy to see FOUR great shows, including 'Eric Ravilious: Going Modern/Being British'. My talk there on Saturday is sold out, but I'm doing another one on, let me see, April 25th. Info here.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Sutherland, Ravilious, Piper: Why I Love 'Works on Paper'

Graham Sutherland, Setting Sun
If you haven't made it to Modern Art Oxford to see the exhibition of work by Graham Sutherland it still isn't too late, not quite at any rate: the show closes tomorrow. I finally got there yesterday, spurred on by the imminent deadline, and was immediately struck by a similarity between this exhibition and the Ravilious show that opened last week at the RWA Bristol. No, I don't mean that the pictures were all works on paper. I'm talking about the frames.

When I sold paintings I used to spend a lot of time helping people choose frames or come to terms with frames they didn't much like but couldn't afford to replace. The choice of frame says a great deal about the collector (ostentatious, tasteful, lacking a sense of proportion, etc) and the condition of the frames on show in an exhibition say a lot about the paintings and the artist on display.

Sutherland show: note mismatched frames (pic: Marcus Leith)
With these eighty-plus Sutherland pictures, many of them studies and sketches, you get a veritable survey of 20th century British framing. There are frames with grubby old mounts and others with no mount at all; you find a hefty frame in dark wood with a neighbour that is light and delicate. Frames are rarely photographed, but they can change your perception of a picture; in one instance the serrated edge of a frame cast across the painting a shadow like battlements on a castle wall.

This splendid variety of frames is also found in the Ravilious show, which reflects the history of the paintings themselves. These are pictures (the frames tell me) that have hung in the homes of collectors or family members for years. They have been loved for themselves, as magical objects belonging to a lost past, rather than as treasures to show off. One can imagine glancing at the battered frame and thinking, hmmm, better get that seen to... And then doing nothing about it.

Ravilious paintings on arrival at RWA (pic: Lottie Storey - I think!)
Perhaps the state of the frames also says something about the new-found popularity of these neglected painters. The will now exists to put on exhibitions, but does any institution have the cash to go round reframing these old pictures? These are, lest we forget, works on paper, which for some reason I have never understood makes them less precious than works on canvas. No, I can see why a canvas would be worth more money-wise, since the medium is longer-lasting. But in artistic terms?

Some of Sutherland's Pembrokeshire pictures are gorgeous. I would have been quite happy to save his work as a war artist for another day and linger in front of those fat, melting suns and swooping lanes. They show a sensitive soul inspired to delirious levels by his surroundings. I'm going to St Davids in the summer and look forward to studying the paintings through the landscape and vice versa...

Graham Sutherland, The Wanderer, 1940 (V&A)
But while I was in Oxford I had one more treat, a visit to the Western Print Room at the Ashmolean. Actually two more, because I popped into the Blackwell Art Bookshop on the way and saw 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' prominently on display.

I love the Ashmolean because it seems to have just the right amount of stuff in just the right amount of space, and the print room is old-fashioned in all the right ways. There are little wooden signs on the tables advising that fountain pens may not be used, and the staff are wonderful, treating top scholars and ordinary members of the public with the same courtesy and attentiveness.

And this is the kingdom of works on paper: boxes and boxes of prints, drawings and watercolours, all carefully mounted, catalogued and stored away from the light. I pulled out a Cotman watercolour of the interior of Norwich Cathedral and a red in it just leapt off the paper. But it was Piper I had come to see, for the sake of comparison with the Sutherland show. The Lewin bequest of assorted sketches, prints and paintings is a mixed bag, with a couple of the artist's sparkling 1939 Brighton Aquatints alongside some pretty rough pencil sketches of Windsor Castle.

My favourite picture is a study for Piper's famous painting of Coventry Cathedral, the morning after it was bombed. The finished painting is famous for good reason, but the study, though only a few inches across and little more than a scribble of black ink coloured roughly with yellow and blue, shows us his first reaction. Like the Sutherland studies, where you can sometimes see the marks of raindrops on the paper, this picture shows the artist's spontaneous response to a scene of great drama. It's a gem.

Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World ends tomorrow
Eric Ravilious: Going Modern / Being British runs until April 29
There's a show of work by John Piper at Blenheim Palace
And don't forget Long Live Great Bardfield, coming soon to the Fry, Saffron Walden

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Art of Penguin at RWA Bristol

Sir Allen Lane, c1960, Associated Newspapers Ltd, Sydney *
As I write, one of the majestic exhibition rooms at the RWA in Clifton is being painted a shocking shade of orange. No, they're not filming a Fanta advert, but preparing for an imminent exhibition about the history of Penguin Books. Penguin Parade is one of four spring shows opening this weekend, alongside the travelling V&A fashion photography show Selling Dreams and exhibitions of work by Eric Ravilious and Peter Reddick.

Pick up a Penguin at Oxfam Books
I wonder how many of the books I've read have been Penguins of one kind or another. There was a period in the late 80s when I wouldn't buy a book unless it was a King Penguin, and that after a childhood in which Puffins played a significant role. I remember being quite shocked to see that a Paddington book someone gave me for Christmas had no bird logos anywhere on the cover; I recollect that it had a lion instead, which just wasn't the same.

More recently, I've found the Penguin Modern Painters series, launched during World War II with Kenneth Clark as series editor, to be wonderfully useful. In fact there are a number of artists, well-known at the time, about whom very little else has ever been published. Take the New Zealand-born artist Frances Hodgkins, a painter of expressive, stylised landscapes whose work was greatly admired in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. It is not easy to find her work or books about her, but there is a 1948 Penguin Modern Painters book, with a lively introduction by Myfanwy Evans.

Other books on Edward Bawden, Paul Nash and sundry others may not offer the best reproductions in the world (although they're amazing considering the quality of the paper and inks available) but they're solid introduction nonetheless. Carol Peaker's 2001 book 'Penguin Modern Painters: a History' offers a survey of the series.

Back in the here and now, the new exhibition is being produced by Bristol University's Penguin Archive Project and curated by Katherine Hann, who previously created the permanent collection at the award-winning Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Since Penguin Books was founded in 1935 by a Bristolian, publisher Allen Lane, it is fitting that the vast Penguin Archive should be housed at the University, and that the RWA should be hosting this unique exhibition.

Published in 1946, introduction by JM Richards
The Archive contains all manner of books, documents and artwork dating from the foundation of the company to the 1980s, a small selection of which has been chosen for the show. Visitors will discover rare books, posters, paintings and documents relating to landmark events such as the 1960 prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing DH Lawrence's notorious novel 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. Penguin's famous colour-coding - orange for fiction, green for crime and blue for biography - will feature prominently, making this a trip down memory lane for older visitors and, for the young, a wonderful introduction to a design classic.

There's a fascinating essay about the first ten Penguins here - not all the titles have lasted the test of time! Dashiell Hammett's 'The Thin Man' was one of the next ten.

And here's an extra story, about a Picture Puffin that never was...

'Penguin Parade' opens on Saturday March 10th at the RWA, Bristol - more information here.

*University of Bristol Library, Special Collections, Penguin Archive DM1294/2/1/22/10/2 Published in Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane. Jeremy Lewis 2006

Monday, 5 March 2012

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' - Excerpt

Eric Ravilious, Belle Tout Lighthouse, 1939, private collection (DACS/artist's estate)
Belle Tout Lighthouse, 1939

We may notice the view first, those green grassy clifftops and the sea sparkling below, but almost immediately our attention is drawn back to the window itself, with its bold white bars alternately lit or cast into shadow by the bright sunlight. Above it the ceiling seems to be curved like a dome and beautifully decorated: a most unusual ceiling for a most unusual room. Having painted several watercolours of lighthouses, Ravilious had now found one he could sketch from the inside.

As a boy growing up in nearby Eastbourne, Ravilious no doubt visited Beachy Head and its lighthouses, Belle Tout perched on top of the cliffs and its replacement in the sea below; you can see it in the upper left of the painting. When he was born the newer lighthouse had only been operating for a year and its construction, in perilous conditions and in full public view, was the stuff of legend. Belle Tout, meanwhile, became a private house and was eventually bought, in 1923, by Sir James Purves-Stewart, an eminent neurologist.

Sir James was not averse to visitors, and once played host to George V. The king, he wrote in his autobiography The Sands of Time, ‘took a keen sailor's interest in the various gadgets that had been fitted up. When we came to the foot of the spiral staircase leading to the lantern room, Queen Mary was already aloft, enjoying the stunning view. She called down to him, “George, don't come up here, it's far too steep for you.” To which his majesty replied, “Dammit, I'm coming.”’

One can imagine the eminent doctor - or his wife, perhaps - noticing Ravilious sitting with his sketchbook on the clifftop and inviting him in. The artist had spent many hours already on the cliffs in the howling wind, producing the splendid night scene included in Sussex and the Downs, and was delighted to find himself inside the lantern, ‘in the greatest comfort with my jacket off’.

Not that living in a lighthouse was without its dangers. Sir James had been warned early on that erosion of the soft chalk cliffs would one day imperil his new home, but a respected geologist opined that the building would be safe for six centuries. This proved optimistic, and by the mid-1990s a series of major rock falls had brought Belle Tout almost to the edge of the precipice. Rather than despair, however, owners Mark and Louise Roberts sought expert advice and learned that the lighthouse could be raised by hydraulic jacks, lowered onto skates and thus moved to safety. Preparations began, only to be halted by the discovery of two unexploded bombs on the beach, but in March 1999 the extraordinary move began. Today you can see the view from the lantern yourself; following a change of ownership Belle Tout Lighthouse opened as a hotel in March 2010, and the former lantern has become a sitting room – with a view.

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which is available now from The Mainstone Press.

The book will be launched officially on Saturday 10th March, 12-2pm, at The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Friday, 2 March 2012

Eric Ravilious & Tirzah Garwood: One Couple, Two Exhibitions

Tirzah and Eric Ravilious painting a mural at the Midland Hotel, Morecambe
Artist couples are fascinating. Like the rest of us they have a public life and a private life, only the hidden world of an artist couple or family is often revealed - if only in tantalising glimpses - in correspondence, diaries and in artworks themselves. In some cases the relationship has proved inspirational to both halves of the couple, but often one artist's work tends to pushed into the background as the career of the other takes off.

Still going strong in 2012
The history of 20th century British art is rich in artist couples. There are those who, like Gilbert and George, have pooled their identities to form an artistic double act and others, among them Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan, who succeeded in maintaining parallel careers. This was true too of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, a couple whose artistic relationship long outlived their marriage; they were still busily writing to each other about painting decades after splitting up, although you wouldn't know it to judge from the books about Ben.

I was at the Central Library in Bristol the other day - it has a wonderful art history collection - and on asking about Ben Nicholson in the Reference section was presented with a trolleyful of books, each one progressively bigger and glossier and less comprehensible. His first wife merited a solitary book. 

Personally, I think Winifred's best work is beautiful. I also think the importance of intimate relationships is underplayed in conventional art history, which tends to consider artists in terms of similar artists and via the art historical theories of the day. An artist is only 'important' if they fit within the narrative - but you don't need me to tell you that...

Winifred Nicholson, Bonnie Scotland, 1951 (Tullie House)

Eric Ravilious was virtually invisible ten years ago and is now a central figure in the alternative story of 20th century British art that Alexandra Harris has championed in her 2010 book 'Romantic Moderns'. The exhibition of his watercolours which opens at the RWA in Bristol next week will be the third show in consecutive years, each one given little attention in the national press but attracting unprecedented numbers of visitors nonetheless.

Tirzah Garwood, The Train Journey, 1929-30

His work also features in a second exhibition opening this month, at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, but he is not the main subject. 'Long Live Great Bardfield!' is a show about Rav's wife, Tirzah, and the creative force behind it is Anne Ullmann, their daughter and the author/editor of several stunning books about them. Over the past few years she's been editing her mother's autobiography, 'Long Live Great Bardfield, & Love to You All', which is about to be published by the Fleece Press.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939 (Aberdeen Art Gallery)
I've written before about Tirzah, who learned wood engraving from Eric and as Tirzah Garwood became an outstanding printmaker in her own right. She gave this career up to concentrate on raising her children, but didn't give up art per se. Throughout her married life she made marbled papers, which at different times she sold through London boutiques, and she also assisted Eric, publicly when he was commissioned to paint murals at the Midland Hotel, Morecambe, and privately in ways we will probably never fully appreciate. Her contribution to the painting 'Train Landscape' (1939) is one of my favourite instances.

Tirzah Garwood, Orchid Hunters in Brazil, 1950 - there's a story to this...
After Eric's death she took up oil painting and also made a series of unusual relief pictures of shops. This work is rarely shown, except at the Fry, and the appearance of two examples on the Antiques Road Show last year caused some consternation to their resident expert. Now we have the opportunity to look at Tirzah's work properly and also to read what she thought about married life with Eric. Famous for her fiery letters, I suspect that she had a thing or two to say...

'Eric Ravilious: Going Modern / Being British' is at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, from Saturday March 10th.

'Long Live Great Bardfield!' opens at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, on March 31st.

Wood engravings by Eric Ravilious are included in an exhibition of work from the archive of the Society of Wood Engravers, showing until March 23rd at Manchester Metropolitan University.

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' will be launched at the RWA on March 10th, 12-2pm