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


  1. It is a shame when the frames contemporary with the work get ripped off for the latest fashion, museums often spend a fortune finding the right old frames to suit such pictures.

    A well made rag paper well looked after has a good chance of lasting several thousand years like a canvas. The paint is probably more likely to fall off the canvas and so many pictures have had to be stuck on to a second substrate to preserve them only for the paint to be squashed in the process. Water colours lasting really depend on the light fast quality of the paint employed and the quantity of light it is subjected to. live with someone who works in a museum and you find your best watercolours living in a cupboard!

  2. Thanks Coline - I went to see some watercolours by David Jones in Cardiff recently and the light was so dim you could only see the pictures if you pressed your nose up against the glass.