Monday, 28 May 2012

Edward Thomas & 'The Old Ways'

Edward Thomas, 1916, by John Wheatley (National Portrait Gallery)
A century ago, Edward Thomas was in his mid-30s and on the verge of despair. Though well known and respected as a literary critic of great skill and sensitivity, he hadn't come close to achieving the success he had dreamed of when he started out as a professional writer more than a decade earlier. Every month he read numerous books and sent in thousands of words of articles and criticism, and every year or so he was commissioned to write a book, which he generally did at great speed, with minimal editing. Unsurprisingly, neither the reading public nor his fellow critics were ever that impressed.

He considered suicide on more than one occasion, and what would have happened to him had war not broken out in August 1914 one hardly dare imagine. Thomas was immensely gifted as a writer, and published his first book when still very young, yet his books are for the most part difficult going. Even when he wrote about his heroes Richard Jefferies and George Borrow he failed to bring his subject to life. His problem, one not unfamiliar to writers and artists, is that he was endeavouring to support a family in a way that was all but impossible, as a principled, devoutly literary writer who refused to teach and was too burned-out to write the bestseller that would have made his name.

It took George Orwell decades to match, in his earnings as a writer, the salary he had enjoyed as a very junior Imperial officer in Burma, and the concomitant sense of failure drove him to the extreme, self-destructive behaviour that gave us 'Down and Out in Paris and London'. He at least knew success for a few years before his early death, but Thomas never even saw an edition of his poetry published under his own name.

Imagine, though, his joy when that first poem came bubbling into his mind, and then the next, and the next! Imagine, after having to write tens of thousands of words every month without a break, his pleasure in the long empty evenings and weekends at Hare Hall, the Artists' Rifles' Essex HQ and the simple notebook with its scribbled lines. He may have scrawled his verses without line breaks so nobody would suspect him of being a poet, but deep down he knew they were good.

Today, Edward Thomas is better known and more widely-read than many of the writers who outshone him during his lifetime. Who now reads Lascelles Abercrombie's gargantuan volumes of verse? Who goes to see plays by Gordon Bottomley? Even giants like GK Chesterton and Walter de la Mare are probably less known to some than Thomas. Let's hope there's a literary club in heaven and that he's up there enjoying all the attention.

There's the lovely new Faber edition of his poems, and Matthew Hollis's marvellous biography 'Now All Roads Lead to France'. This I avoided reading for a while as I knew the Thomas story fairly well (and his wasn't the most cheering of lives), but it proved to be a revelation. In an age of over-stuffed biographies here was a book that was light in tone, selective in content and very informative in its analysis of Thomas's poetry. There was even the suggestion of secret passion to offset the well-known and rather tedious platonic romance with Eleanor Farjeon. Fabulous!

And now Dear old Thomas (as Paul Nash refered to him) is back in the literary pages again, courtesy of Robert Macfarlane, whose book 'The Old Ways' covers some of the Anglo-Welsh writer's old stamping grounds. In 2009 Macfarlane wrote an introduction to Little Toller's centenary edition of 'The South Country', in which he reappraised Thomas's powerful but chaotic book:

'There's something hypermodern about the book's collage-like feel, its shifts and bucks. In topographical terms, the experience of reading "The South Country" resembles a Google-Earth fly-over of the chalk counties: zooming in here, settling there, lifting off, scrolling on... In tonal terms, the book slides without warning from the intensely observed to the extravagantly imagined. The effect on the reader is an intriguing cognitive dissonance...'

The subject of this praise might have offered a wry smile had he heard it, as Thomas was renowned for his plain speaking. He and Robert Frost sought to write as ordinary people spoke, and you need only dip into the work of Bottomley or Abercrombie to see that this was actually rather radical; apart from Thomas, critics of Frost's first efforts didn't get it. And this wasn't just a question of style. Thomas is sometimes described as a proto-environmentalist, and his politics were indeed rather ahead of their time. Here he is in full flow in 'The South Country':

'And those long wayside greens, no man's gardens, measuring a few feet wide but many miles in length - why should they be used either as receptacles for the dust of motor-cars or as additions to the property of the landowner who happens to be renewing his fence? They used to be as beautiful and cool and fresh as rivers, these green sisters of the white roads - illuminated borders of many a weary tale. But now, lest there should be no room for the dust, they are turning away from them the gipsies who used to camp there for a night... Give them a pitch for the night and you are regarded as an enemy of the community or perhaps even as a Socialist.'

Thomas saw no distinction between the countryside and the people who belonged to it, principally working people and travellers. He had an abiding respect and fascination for tramps, and personally secured the publication of 'The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp' by Welsh wanderer WH Davies; whatever his views on property ownership, he was no respecter of fences and the 'pheasant-lords' who employed gamekeepers to keep walkers off the land.

If he were alive today I think he'd be a figure more like Iain Sinclair than Robert Macfarlane, or perhaps he'd be a mixture of the two: caustic and poetic, as aware of the present as he was of the past, and as concerned with those dispossessed by progress as he was with the land itself.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Devizes Festival Preview: Eric Ravilious & The White Horses of Wiltshire

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939 (DACS/artist's estate)

On June 28th I'll be at Devizes Town Hall, giving an illustrated talk on Eric Ravilious and the White Horses of Wiltshire as part of the Devizes Festival. After very enjoyable events at the RWA Bristol, Much Ado Books in Alfriston and Greenside School in west London I'm looking forward to it, especially as I'm planning to ride my bike at least part of the way from Bristol.

Apart from the wonderful enthusiasm for Ravilious's work I find in all these different places, the thing I enjoy most is meeting people with a connection to the world I've studied through books and correspondence. The number of people, for instance, who were taught by or are related to Peggy Angus (artist, teacher, tenant of Furlongs in Sussex) is astonishing, and everyone has something fascinating to add to the picture.

Ravilious disappeared on active service 70 years ago this coming September, and his world grows ever more remote. There are few people left these days who remember him personally, although artist David Hepher shared some tantalizing childhood memories at the Fry Gallery last year.

People grow old and die; letters and sketches and so on are scattered and lost. But whereas this process is irreversible for us mortals, the things which surround us can return from the dead - or appear to. Which brings us to my reason for coming to Devizes in June...

Eric Ravilious, White Horse Dummy, c1940
Earlier this year a remarkable artifact came up for auction: the dummy of a book of white horses and other chalk figures which was put together by Ravilious in 1940. He had already made the drawings he needed, and he prepared the dummy for Noel Carrington, editor of the new Puffin Picture Books series for children. Carrington was all set to go ahead with the project but due to time constraints Ravilious was forced to postpone.

For years it was believed that the artist had taken this dummy to Iceland with him, and perhaps had it with him when he disappeared. Then it turned up in London, and I assumed someone had found it as people do sometimes when they go through boxes of old papers. But even this was wrong. The dummy wasn't lost. Rather it was in the possession of artist Roland Collins, who had been given it by Noel Carrington when they were neighbours in Percy Street, Bloomsbury during and after the war.

I wrote a post on the dummy in January, just before the little book came up for auction. I hoped that a museum would buy it rather than a private collector, and in the end the bidding was won by the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes. There's something particularly satisfying about this, given the proximity of the white horses at Westbury and Uffington, both of which Ravilious drew, and it gives me a chance to revisit the landscapes I explored in 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'.

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939 (DACS/artist's estate)
Curious to think that when Ravilious sketched the white horses in December 1939 they were about to be turfed over, to prevent them being used as navigational aids by enemy aircraft. It was by no means certain that they would be uncovered again.

I'm at the Town Hall, Devizes at 8pm, 28th June. The Devizes Festival runs from 13 June to 1 July and there are all kinds of strange and wonderful events to choose from: details are here.

Future talks:

Alan Powers and I will be talking about Eric Ravilious for the Friends of the Towner in Eastbourne on September 2.

I'll be discussing Ravilious and Paul Nash at the Rye Arts Festival later in September.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Point of Departure: Eric Slater to Wolfgang Tillmans

Eric Slater, Cuckmere Haven, 1930s
These days departure from Britain tends to involve taking off into the sky or descending into a tunnel, but until recently the idea of doing either would have been fantastic. If you wanted to leave these islands at any point up to about 1960 you had to take a boat. Ports were not only strategically important but emotionally charged; people left London, Bristol, Liverpool and Southampton knowing that they might never return. During the Great War the ports of southern England were gateways to France and the Western Front, particularly Portsmouth and Newhaven. How many soldiers watched the chalk cliffs recede, wondering whether they would see them again?

This thought struck me when I first heard about the current exhibition at the Towner in Eastbourne. 'A Point of Departure' refers specifically to Newhaven, a port which played such an essential part in supplying men and materials to the battlefields just across the Channel that it was taken over by the military for the duration of the conflict. In peacetime the quickest route from London to Paris was by train and steamship via Newhaven and Le Havre, and during the war men and materials followed a similar route.

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939 (DACS/artist's estate)

One can imagine the delight of the surviving soldiers when, returning at the war's end, they came in sight of Beachy Head or the Seven Sisters. But if the white chalk cliffs symbolised home to the returning armies, they soon came to mean something different: freedom from the constraints of modern urban life. This is what I feel, certainly, in the coloured woodcuts of Eric Slater, which are featured in the Towner show (there's a nice introduction to his work here). At the very edge of the land, the cliffs and beaches offered the promise of escape to sea and, more literally, the possibility of a new life in the unplanned housing developments and bungalow towns springing up along the south coast.

Artists continued to come to Sussex, as they had done for generations. Where John Constable had found inspiration in the marine light and nautical incident of Brighton, artists of the 1930s were now drawn to Newhaven. I've posted before on Ravilious, Bawden and Piper, all of whom stayed at The Hope Inn beneath the ramparts of Newhaven Fort, and looked out to sea. It was the light that interested Ravilious, as it had the film-makers who set up a studio on Shoreham Beach before the Great War, whereas Piper seemed more attuned to something wild and elemental in the place.

Ravilious returned on numerous occasions to this coast, exploring clifftops and estuaries and finding novel approaches to famous sights. After World War Two Roland Collins built on the foundations laid by Ravilious and the rest, creating colourful multilayered pictures that present familiar scenes in new ways. One of the fascinating things about this exhibition is the artists' ability to look again and again at the same old places, finding new inspiration where most of us would think none could be found.

Wolfgang Tillmans, End of Land 1, 2002 (Towner)

In this spirit, look at Wolfgang Tillmans' photograph 'End of Land 1', which shows a woman approaching the clifftop at Beachy Head in the only sensible manner. But where is the photographer taking the picture from? We seem to be looking back at the cliff, as if slipping down the face, and it isn't a comfortable sensation. We are a long way here from Slater's woodcuts, or Vera Lynn's bluebirds over Dover. Although an island nation, we're becoming increasingly cut off from the sea; to previous generations the white cliffs may have been a Welcome Home sign chalked across the horizon, but today they mark the edge of our world.

A Point of Departure runs at Towner, Eastbourne until 11 November 2012

Friday, 4 May 2012

Win the 'Ravilious in Pictures' Quartet!

Rather late notice - sorry - but if you enter this competition before 6pm (UK time) tonight (Friday 4 May 2012) you could win all four books in the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series. The question is below the picture and isn't very hard, just make sure you email the Mainstone Press rather than posting the answer as a comment! (It has been done)

The names of everyone who gets it right will be put into a hat and the lucky winner pulled out...