Friday, 22 June 2012

Eric Ravilious & The White Horses of Wiltshire

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939 (DACS/Artist's estate)
Although figures can be found carved into chalk hillsides all across the downland of southern England, a disproportionate number of the nation's white horses are in Wiltshire. I think there are eight altogether, with the Westbury Horse the most easily seen. Take a train from London to Devon or Cornwall via Castle Cary and you'll be treated to a view rather like the one Eric Ravilious portrayed (with a little help from his wife Tirzah) in 'Train Landscape'. The interior of a train may have changed but the white horse remains the same, which is no doubt one reason why people love them.

Quite how devoted people are to these equine carvings will be demonstrated over the coming week, as a whole series of related events gets under way. Tomorrow sees the launch of the Salisbury International Festival's celebration of Wiltshire's White Horses, which culminates next Saturday (30th June) with the illumination of the Devizes and Alton Barnes White Horses. The organisers promise a magical evening of fire, light and music at each venue, free of charge and with no ticket needed.

Between now and then, artist Ali Pretty will be leading a 100 mile walk around the county's chalk horses, with walks of varying lengths and difficulty on each day. As well as exploring the fascinating landscape of the chalk downs, walkers will have the chance to meet historians, environmentalists, writers (including Michael Morpurgo), artists and seasoned long distance walkers. There's no charge to join in, but you do need a ticket as numbers are limited.

Meanwhile, as reported in the New York Times yesterday, the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes is putting on show a new and rather extraordinary acquisition: the dummy of a Puffin Picture Book on white horses that was proposed by Eric Ravilious in 1940/41 and accepted by publisher Noel Carrington, but never produced. There's more on this story here, but the upshot is that the museum bid successfully for the dummy in January and is now revealing it to the public for the first time.

I'm planning to go and see this marvellous artefact in situ before I give a talk on the subject next Thursday at Devizes Town Hall, under the auspices of the Devizes Festival. The talk sold out a while ago but there are mutterings about a second one...

Meanwhile, exciting news from Museum chief David Dawson, who has been telling the BBC that he wants to produce a version of the Ravilious book:

"We would like to try and create the sort of book he intended," he told an interviewer. "It can't be a re-creation as there's not enough information - so it's going to take a lot of work."

I wonder whether the interval between proposal and publication would be some kind of world record!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Does Bloomsday Matter?

1992 Penguin edition, with embarrassing annotations...
This morning, for the first time since we moved here 7 and a half years ago, I took my old copy of 'Ulysses' down from the shelf. It's a 1992 Penguin edition designed for students, and I bought it a year after publication. Not because I wanted to, particularly, but because I was about to study the book for an MA in Modernism. I read it through at least twice and filled the margins with earnest pencilled notes about 'discourse', 'narrative disjunction' and, though I'm loath to admit it, 'phallocentrism'.

It seems impossible now either that I devoted so much time and energy to one book or that I swallowed all the critical hokum I was fed by my professor, an ardent post-structuralist with a reputation for seducing female students. But I was bright and directionless, and Joyce's mad book spoke to me. So I read, annotated and wrote about 'Ulysses' and then put it on the shelf, and have since moved it in and out of different houses without opening it again until this morning.

Flicking through the dusty pages the first thing that struck me was not the length of the book but the extraordinary power of Joyce's voice. From the first sentence to the last 'Ulysses' is one long bravura performance, a fantastically long and complex song. Think of the book as a novel and you're doomed to boredom by the end of the first page; there is no recognisable plot, and the characters are not driven by a novelist's sure hand. Instead they come and go like snatches of melody as the song rolls on.

This song is a hymn to Dublin, 'the second city of the Empire' as Joyce described it hopefully to London publishers (who took no notice), and to the Edwardian age. Did you see the films of Mitchell and Kenyon which were unearthed and shown on TV a few years ago? Made around the same time, though in England, they show city streets teeming with life, and it is this kind of human metropolis that Joyce presents in 'Ulysses'. If you want to know how many characters appear in the book, what their names are and who they are modelled on, you can easily find out, as 'Ulysses' has been picked apart and examined in every possible way by thousands of highly-trained academics. But you probably don't.

Instead, you may be wondering whether you should give 'Ulysses' a go. After all the book does have a day named after its main character, Leopold Bloom, which must give Joyce's ghost (who I'm sure wanders Dublin's streets alongside Molly Malone and her barrow of cockles) great pleasure. June 16 is, as you may know, the single day over which the action of the book takes place, and each year there seems to be a bit more fuss made over it. But does this make the book itself worth reading? Is this the sort of book that will change your life, as 'The Remembrance of Things Past' is supposed to? I struggled through the first volume of Proust, incidentally, but only just...

The trouble is that it's very difficult to sit down and read this book (I was going to say 'a book like this' but there aren't any others). Like many people I got to grips with it because I was told to, and I had time to read a difficult chapter over and over until it made sense. Even so, there are large chunks of the text that never did, particularly the sections where Joyce was sending up a now-defunct literary genre. There are passages written in the tawdry prose of Edwardian romance novels, for example, and I can't see any reason why reading those would change anyone's life.

But there are several reasons why I think 'Ulysses' is worth trying - and persevering with. If you can make sense of the writing it offers a wonderful picture of Edwardian Dublin, one brimming with life and music and character, and if you're interested in the poetic use of language you will find untold riches here. If you're sensitive to the power of words there are phrases and sentences in this book that will bring tears to your eyes, passages equal to anything in 'The Wasteland' (to take one example).

And then, above all, there's the voice within a voice, the quiet, wry counterpoint to Joyce's loud and insistent song. Though in some ways the most elusive of literary heroes, Leopold Bloom is a constant presence as you journey through the book. Sly, observant, packed full of strange and wonderful thoughts, Bloom makes his way around the streets of Dublin on an everyday journey made extraordinary by his intelligence.

For me, the book really gets going in Chapter Two (p65 of my edition) when we first meet Mr Bloom preparing breakfast for his wife Molly:

     Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
     Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

It's that last sentence which is the killer, and it's the constant, earthy, human presence of Bloom which makes 'Ulysses' such a glorious, life-affirming book. Joyce invented him and wrote the book between 1914 and 1921, when Europe was in the process of tearing itself apart, and both book and protagonist stand as a defiant monument to civilisation writ small, the civilisation of ordinary men and women living ordinary lives. In that sense, 'Ulysses' is a life-changer; it can make you appreciate just how wonderful something as mundane as breakfast can be! You can always skip the hard bits.

Happy Bloomsday!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Ravilious: Submarine

Eric Ravilious, Commander... Looking through a Periscope, 1941
I'm hard at work on an exciting project, which is proving as much an adventure of discovery as the 'Ravilious in Pictures' books. For some time now Tim Mainstone and I have been plotting a book about the artist's second major foray into lithography, the set of prints he made in 1940/41 while working as a war artist. Known as the Submarine Series, these are, like the illustrations of shops in 'High Street', auto-lithographs. Ravilious made them himself, rather than handing his artwork over to a master lithographer, and individual prints vary widely across the edition, reflecting his tinkering during the printing process. Each one has the status of an original work of art, rather than a reproduction.

Most of the ten pictures show submariners at work or rest aboard their craft, while others focus on the kind of quirky subjects Ravilious enjoyed: the arcane equipment used by mine disposal experts or a diver preparing for the water.

The full set was on show at the Royal West of England Academy during their recent Ravilious show, and I was interested to learn from observant museum staff that the lithos were the most popular works, particularly among more youthful visitors. They are in some ways quite unlike his landscapes, being bold in colour and focused on people rather than place, but you can see the same economical designer's eye at work. Compare one of these interiors with, say, Barnett Freedman's interpretation of a similar scene, and you can see how much detail Ravilious has stripped away in his quest for clarity.

Barnett Freedman, Interior of a Submarine, watercolour, 1943 (Tate)
He had been rather taken to task when his magnificent paintings of the ill-fated Norwegian expedition of May 1940 were exhibited at the National Gallery, with critics suggesting that he was more interested in the effects of light in the far north than he was in the human drama of war. I think this was his response. In the best war art - like Paul Nash's visions of the Passchendaele battlefield - the artist's technique fits the subject matter so well that the finished picture serves both as a record of what a particular place or experience was LIKE and as a work of art in its own right. Nash's pictures of Flanders were beautiful and at the same time perfectly evocative of 'the phantasmagoria of No Man's Land', as one critic put it; similarly, the lithographs in the Submarine Series are beautifully designed and executed artworks that capture the intensity and human drama of the war beneath the waves.

Eric Ravilious, Diving Controls No.1, 1941
Anyway, the adventure for me - quite apart from discovering strange and wonderful details of the submariner's life - has been in learning about the extraordinary flowering of auto-lithography among British artists in the mid-20th century. The period from about 1930 until well after World War Two saw artists taking up the challenge of making their own lithographic prints, and some of the results are gorgeous. I just bought a copy of George Borrow's eccentric classic 'Lavengro', which was printed at the Curwen Press in Plaistow, Essex, in 1936 and illustrated with colour lithos by Ravilious's good friend Barnett Freedman. What a wonderful book! There's lots to say about Borrow and Freedman, but to start with, have a look at this.

From what I've seen of the preliminary design ideas, 'Ravilious: Submarine' is going to be stunning, illustrated not only with the Submarine Series and preparatory drawings but also with examples - some rarely seen - of lithography from Britain, Russia and France. Having said that, I better get back to work!

'Ravilious: Submarine' will be published by the Mainstone Press in October.

St Bride's Print Library will be hosting an evening devoted to early/mid 20th century lithography on December 5th. I'll be talking about the Submarine Series, while Alan Powers and Joe Pearson - an authority on Noel Carrington and the Puffin Picture Books - will discuss other fascinating aspects of the subject. More info on this to follow...