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!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this piece - I was just researching the picture on a card I was about to send to my grandma, and really didn't expect the web to be the source of such refreshing insight into a picture I'd barely looked twice at before.