Saturday, 28 April 2012

Ravilious in Riyadh? The 'Out of Britain' Experience

Eric Ravilious, Storm, 1941 (Crown copyright)
I wish I could have gone to the recent launch of 'Out of Britain' at the National Museum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In fact I'd be happy just to visit this unusual travelling exhibition of (mostly) 20th century British landscape painting - the kind of loosely-themed, wide-ranging show we ought to be allowed to enjoy more often.

When challenged a while ago about Tate Britain's reluctance to hang work by LS Lowry, curator Chris Stevens explained that the nation's favourite modern painter didn't fit anywhere. You couldn't hang a Lowry as part of a themed exhibition or even in a room devoted to a particular aspect of British art, because Lowry's paintings aren't like anyone else's. Perhaps they will give us a full retrospective instead...

Anyway, the British Council has found no difficulty whatsoever fitting Lowry's 'Industrial City' (1948) into 'Out of Britain', an exhibition that brings together an eclectic group of pictures, along with a few 3-D pieces. The theme of landscape is ideal, first because it avoids any potential awkwardness over representations of the figure, and second because so many of Britain's best 20th century artists painted landscapes.

Rodrigo Moynihan, Barbed Wire - Cornwall, 1943 (Crown copyright)

Between the wars, when British artists were trying to find ways of reconciling their native traditions with the cultural revolution of modernism, there was a marked tendency to avoid the figure and to concentrate instead either on places or on abstract subjects or, perhaps most notably, on various combinations of the two.  Sometimes manmade features lend a contrasting structure to a natural scene, as in Rodrigo Moynihan's wartime painting 'Barbed Wire - Cornwall'. Elsewhere, Paul Nash's 'Landscape of the Megaliths' (1934) takes the ancient and familiar stones of Avebury and refashions them into something new and unsettling.

This is the first time the art lovers of Saudi Arabia will have been treated to the sight of Nash's painting, but by no means its first excursion. 'Landscape of the Megaliths' was first sent abroad to promote British culture in 1939, when it was shown at the British Pavilion of the New York World's Fair. The picture subsequently travelled to Canada and New Zealand, to Japan and India and Africa. A tour taking in Mauritus, Nairobi and Zanzibar must have proved quite a challenge to the curatorial team charged with maintaining proper standards of climate control. Or perhaps they didn't bother.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1934 (British Council)
You have to admire the British Council's derring-do in transporting 'Landscape of the Megaliths' around the globe. The painting has been enjoyed in Bulgaria, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, as well as Argentina. More recently, however, Nash's idiosyncratic work has resided mostly in the UK, and this trip is its first foray outside Europe in more than twenty years.

I'm not quite sure why 'Out of Britain' is touring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at this particular moment, although regional newspaper reports note the success of the British Museum's recent 'Haj' exhibition, which featured a number of notable pieces from Saudi Arabia. Students from the region are an important source of income for British language schools and universities, so perhaps the aim is to promote greater awareness of our chilly island nation.

Spencer Gore, Mornington Crescent, 1912
The premise of the show, as described by the British Council, is marvellously simple:

The exhibition features over 50 artworks and examines the ways in which artists have engaged with landscape and addressed timeless and fundamental questions about man's place in the world. Structured around an imagined journey the display will begin in the city and lead out into the countryside to follow the coastline before ultimately returning to an urban landscape. The works in the show illustrate individual artist’s attempts to find their place amongst an ever-changing environment where they are often driven to challenge traditional ways of interpreting and framing the landscape.

Style- and medium-wise, in other words, anything goes. I'm reminded of Kenneth Clark's strategy when he set up the War Artists' scheme in 1939, the idea being to let artists portray the war in their own way. This sent out a message that British artists enjoyed a freedom of expression unknown in Hitler's Germany, which no doubt went down well with the pro-British faction in the then-neutral United States.

David Hepher, No 22, 1972 (Artist copyright)
By coincidence two very fine paintings by Eric Ravilious are included in 'Out of Britain', both created and exhibited in his official capacity as War Artist. Alongside these pictures, visitors to the exhibition will find work by a dizzying range of well-known artists, from Spencer Gore and Matthew Smith to John Tunnard and Peter Lanyon. There are sculptural pieces by David Nash and Richard Long and even, lest we forget that the 20th century is over, Conrad Shawcross's 2008 video installation, 'Pre-Retroscope V', which shows the view from a rowing boat on the River Lea.

George Shaw, Ash Wednesday, 2004-5 (Artist copyright)
This is hardly a multicultural vision of Britain, but it is an intriguing one. How wonderful to see David Hepher's 1972 portrait of suburbia, 'Number 22', alongside George Shaw's 'Ash Wednesday' (2004-5) and Victor Pasmore's post-war 'Suburban Gardens'.

I'm becoming increasingly jealous of Riyadh's art lovers. Do you think the British Council might keep the show together for a while at the end of its tour and exhibit it in the UK? Is that allowed?

'Out of Britain' is at the National Museum, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia until 25 May, then at other venues. See the British Council website for details.

'Eric Ravilious: Going Modern/Being British' is at the RWA, Bristol, UK until 29 April

Friday, 27 April 2012

Long Term Memory: Roland Collins' Found Landscapes

Rye Harbour, 1958
There can't be too many living artists who exhibited in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition of 1937, but painter Roland Collins did just that. He was eighteen that year, and his drawing 'Riverside, Chiswick' shows the vision and talent that would sustain him through a long career; the current retrospective at Mascall's Gallery in Kent features a painting from 2005, which means he must have been painting for seven decades.

If there's one word I would use to describe Collins' paintings, most of which combine gouache with pen and ink, it's 'jaunty'. Here is an artist who is enjoying himself thoroughly, seeking out interesting sights and scenes and painting them in a style that mixes carefree brushwork with detailed architectural drawing. Sometimes it seems as though a topographical drawing has collided with a colourful abstract painting, creating a highly individual picture that is strangely compelling.

Newhaven Harbour, 1962
Mascall's is one of those small, idiosyncratic galleries (like the Fry Art Gallery and Kettles Yard) that have done so much to maintain and reawaken interest in 20th century British art. Last year curator Nathaniel Hepburn gave us 'John Piper in Kent and Sussex', a fascinating survey which went on to the Towner; two of the paintings were then bought by the Eastbourne gallery and will, I believe, be on display this summer alongside work by Ravilious, Bawden and Collins himself, in Towner's exhibition 'A Point of Departure'.

It was as a result of the Piper show that Hepburn discovered Collins. As he told me, "A chance remark was made by Andrew Lambirth about Collins' work being in a similar romantic topographic tradition and I leapt at the opportunity to meet an artist still working in this genre. Once I saw the works in his studio it was obvious that this was an artist who deserved wider recognition and would be loved by our visitors."

Lambirth wrote an essay for the unpretentious and rather beautiful catalogue accompanying 'Found Landscapes', in which his enthusiasm for Collins and his work comes through strongly.

Gunnersbury Park, 1990
Growing up in London between the wars, Collins evidently took notice of the exhibitions at Tooth's, the Zwemmer Gallery and other venues in the capital. Look at his pictures and you see echoes of Ravilious and Bawden, Piper and Paul Nash. There's a similarity to Kenneth Rowntree's work in some of the paintings, but Collins is a good enough artist to have absorbed powerful influences and created a body of work that stands on its own and which is still fresh and exciting today.

Fans of Ravilious and co. will recognise many of the scenes and subjects chosen by Collins. Rye Harbour features in one picture, Newhaven in another. There's a lovely painting of Beachy Head painted from within Belle Tout Lighthouse, which is a wonderful foil to Ravilious's painting of the same view. Whereas the earlier watercolour captures the lantern room in all its interwar glory, Collins shows the old lighthouse after being used as target practice by Canadian troops.

Beachy Head from Belle Tout, 1958
Did the two artists ever meet? I suspect not, since there is no mention of a meeting in the catalogue. However, Collins did get to know many other artists and writers of the time. In 1940 he moved to 29 Percy Street in Fitzrovia, an address shared by publisher Noel Carrington (Dora's brother and editor of Penguin's Picture Puffins), and a haunt of creative types like the poet Kathleen Raine. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had a flat next door during the late 1950s, a connection which takes us back into the Victorian age.

The Old Neptune, Whitstable, 1986
But though there is inevitably something nostalgic about these paintings and about the exhibition, I don't feel as though I'm looking respectfully at a collection of past art. In fact, given the recent rediscovery of Bawden, Ravilious and their peers by younger artists and illustrators, you could - if you knew nothing about Roland Collins - easily mistake this for an exhibition by an up-and-coming young painter who is looking at interwar paintings of place through the filter of Pop Art. Fabulous.

'Roland Collins: Found Landscapes' is at Mascall's Gallery, Paddock Wood until 30 June.
The accompanying catalogue is available from the gallery, price £10 plus p&p.

Paintings featured are all by Roland Collins and remain his copyright.

Monday, 9 April 2012


NOT Shaun the Sheep
We were in the Lake District last week, more specifically a valley just north of Ullswater, close to the village of Dockray. One day the sun blazed and we went canoeing on the lake - much quieter than the Thames, the only protests from a pair of geese guarding their island - the next a brisk north-easterly blew snow in our faces.

Actually it didn't feel much like the Lake District proper, there being so few other people around. Ambleside and Grasmere may be the preserve of robust families with rucksacks but the hills around Ullswater belong almost exclusively to the sheep. And what sheep! We were surrounded on all sides by Herdwicks, a breed with shaggy greyish wool and considerably more brain than your typical Shaun-the-Sheep type animal.

In their lack of concern for the weather Herdwicks are the sheep equivalent of Geordie girls on a night out. We were reliably informed that when it snows hard (ie measurable in feet) they cluster against a wall and let the snow pile up on top of them. Then they wait for it to melt, nibbling their own wool for sustenance, sometimes for weeks. With a clump of sheep thus buried it is not unknown for a second set to come along and seek shelter in the same place, so that the two groups are temporarily entombed in the snow one on top of the other.

It was lambing time when we were there, which can be rather grim in years when the ewes don't have enough milk. The sight of a ewe angrily butting a hungry lamb is not the most cheering, but we were fortunate to witness lambing in a very good year, with black, white and brown lambs leaping about all over the place.

The ubiquitous stone walls are apparently not very good at keeping Herdwicks in a field - they just climb over - but we saw how the sheep used them for shelter and warmth. The morning after the mini-blizzard, the pasture was covered in snow, except for a strip in the lee of a wall, where the morning sun had warmed the stone. While new lambs got to grips with the challenge of existence in this natural nursery, their mothers patrolled the vicinity for foxes and other predators. One ewe with twisted horns and a malevolent glint in her eye came charging towards me, stopping with said horns just short of my middle. Gored by a sheep? I suppose it's one way to get your name in the papers.

So the sheep are perfectly suited to their environment of rough grass, bad weather and stone which is attractive on a sunny day but otherwise an uncompromising dark grey. This stone was evidently the only building material for centuries, as every building is constructed from it. Thick walls and small windows reflect the climate, and there is nothing chocolate-boxish about the hard geometry of barn and cottage.

This combination of (mostly) treeless hills and austere buildings appealed to Ben Nicholson when, in the early 1920s, he was buzzing about with his wife Winifred, looking for inspiration in the landscape. I think it's quite telling that they charged all around Europe but ended up living on the very edge of what the Romans considered civilisation - up against Hadrian's Wall a few miles north-east of Ullswater.

I'd been looking at Ben Nicholson's paintings of Cumbria before we went, and when we arrived I recognised the simple barns and stripped-down landscape. Could there have been a better landscape for a budding abstract artist to explore? Like the Herdwicks, Nicholson fitted in.

What I didn't realise was that the Nicholsons knew the actual valley where we were staying, since collector and patron Helen Sutherland lived in a farmhouse just up the hill during World War Two and after. Winifred Nicholson painted at least one picture in the valley and, given Sutherland's largesse and fame, there were no doubt many other artists and poets who visited during the 1940s and 1950s.

It's funny how often one 'finds' a place, only to discover that generations of artists and poets have been there before, often leaving little trace. Paul Nash in Worth Matravers, Ravilious in Capel-y-ffin, Graham Sutherland on St David's Head... The same extraordinary, strangely authentic places appealed to neolithic mound-builders and Celtic monks, who no doubt found the same weather, and probably the same sheep.

We stayed at Crookwath Cottage, which is one of Alastair Sawday's Special Places.