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

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