Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Flight and the Artistic Imagination

Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1947 (V&A)
It's 'last chance to see' time for the wonderful summer show, 'Flight and the Artistic Imagination' at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Once again a relatively small, provincial museum has produced an exciting exhibition around an inspiring theme. The range of work on display is impressive, especially given all the hoop-jumping curators have to do to borrow artworks from some of our major museums.

There's an excellent overview of the exhibition by Richard Cork in the Financial Times. I love the way the show brings together mythical stories like the Fall of Icarus and modern visions of flight; it hadn't really occurred to me before that my instinctive lack of faith in the ability of a plane to remain airborne is rooted in childhood stories. Human flight, so the Icarus story suggests, is a form of hubris (ie having ambitions above your station) which the Gods are obliged to punish.

Alfred G. Buckham, Storm Centre, 1920 (Scottish NPG, copyright R & J Buckham)
I can't help thinking that Raymond Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman's character in 'Rain Man', has the right idea when he screams blue murder to avoid boarding. Then again, the career of one of the artists featured in the show, Alfred G Buckham, could persuade me otherwise. A flying ace of World War One, though armed with camera rather than machine-gun, Buckham was cruelly wounded in his ninth crash but went on to spend years taking photographs in the sky. His visionary pictures are enough to make you want to, well, sprout wings and fly away...

Hurry! The exhibition ends September 30th.

FFI: http://comptonverney.org.uk

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelite Moderns, or Trouble in Gallery IX

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1849, Walker Art Gallery Liverpool
Love them or hate them, you have to say this for the Pre-Raphaelites: they have staying power. Year after year the shows roll out, each with its new take on the subject, and we dutifully read the reviews and trot along to feast our eyes on all that gaudy colour, the frocks that resemble an Austin Powers' suit and those lantern-jawed women who nowadays remind me of Rupert Everett playing the Headmistress of St Trinians.

This time around Rossetti and co. have been rebranded as Moderns, presumably on the basis that if Rex Whistler and John Betjeman can be Romantic Moderns then the Pre-Raphaelites can jolly well be Modern too. And why not? After all, the Pre-Raphaelites were new and exciting for a few years around 1850, although not in the same way as Manet a decade later. The powers-that-be in the Parisian art world launched tirades against 'Olympia' and 'Dejeuner sur L'Herbe' in part because of the subject matter but mostly because they hated the way Manet painted. What we now see as his distinctive style they saw as a dreadful departure from the proper way of doing things.

Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel
Adverse reaction to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - or PRB - as they styled themselves, only erupted once it was revealed that they had formed a secret society (and this at a time when Europe was in revolutionary turmoil). When 'Isabella' was exhibited in 1849 it was widely admired, but once the whole PRB scandal kicked in there was a period when not even the supremely talented and not particularly radical Millais could do anything right. Incidentally, I read a wonderful piece in the Guardian the other day about phallic symbols in this painting, which I would urge people to read if only because it shows that the academic world is still merrily turning, even in these straitened times.

Rupert Everett & Talulah Riley in St Trinians
The boys were young and feisty, and they weren't too keen on the more conservative elements of the art establishment. But it takes a leap of faith to call their response radical, either artistically or politically. Blake, Constable and Turner were all more interesting as artists, and if you want a sense of what Victorian politics was like at mid-century, have a look at Thomas Carlyle. Victorian society may have aspired to respectability, but 19th century cities were plagued by cholera and other diseases, by appalling labour conditions and abuse of the young (children over 9 could work, while the age of consent was 12), and by grinding, unrelieved poverty.

In this context, portraying Christ as the son of a lowly carpenter, as Millais did, was a fairly mild comment, even if it did arouse the ire of Charles Dickens.

But though the Pre-Raphaelites were, generally speaking, God-fearing, patriotic and conservative in their influences (I'm sorry, but Tennyson?), their work was and remains wonderfully, compellingly odd. Every provincial museum has (or ought to have) its Pre-Raphaelite, hanging among the tedious old landscapes and portraits like a camp elderly relative who has turned up for the wedding in a fantastic velvet tunic, clasping a lyre.

What I struggle to understand is how a group of artists set out to record nature, to represent only what they saw, and ended up producing pictures with the verisimilitude of 'The Wizard of Oz'. Whose idea was it to paint in those extraordinary colours? How are we expected to take seriously the plight of Mariana, take one example, when she's wearing such an outrageously gorgeous dress? 
William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, 1886-1905, Wadsworth Athaneum
In 1934, the Royal Academy held an Exhibition of British Art from about 1000 to 1860. Tasked with reviewing this mammoth show, a critic in The Times noted 'the extraordinary homogenousness of the exhibition as a whole'. Out of this vast enterprise, which included everything from medieval illuminated manuscripts to work by Gainsborough and Constable, only two rooms seemed not to fit, one of which was Gallery IX, the room devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites.

'To put into a sentence,' the critic wrote, 'the chief reason for the disconcerting effect of Gallery IX, as a whole, it is because decorative colour, at full pitch, is here applied to realistic modelling.'

I love the silent scream in that phrase 'at full pitch'. He went on, 'Most of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures would be improved if they were flattened out, a la Gauguin...'

Was John William Waterhouse included in Gallery IX, I wonder? To my mind he showed best what could be achieved by adopting the mood and subject matter of a classic Pre-Raphaelite picture but working with a less insane palette. I've loved his version of 'The Lady of Shalott' for years, since I studied Tennyson for A-level, while Holman Hunt's take on the subject could be retitled 'The Great Rococo Spaghetti Factory Disaster'. There's so much going on in Hunt's picture that the tragedy of the woman's plight is buried in incidental detail, whereas Waterhouse tones the decoration down and provides a sombre but beautiful background to the scene.

John William Waterhouse, the Lady of Shalott, 1888, Tate Britain
Anyway, I will definitely be making the trip to Tate Britain to revisit some old friends. In the meantime what I'd like to know is not how revolutionary the Pre-Raphaelites were, but what their real significance has been since those heady days of 1849. If a group of artists has a lasting importance then surely it will be seen in the work of those who come after them, so is it in this case? Is there a Post-PRB tradition? I'm going to try to find out, but let me know if anything comes to mind.

'Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde' is at Tate Britain

Monday, 10 September 2012

Help Beachy Head Lighthouse Keep its Stripes!

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939 (DACS/Artist's estate)
Visiting Eastbourne recently I learnt about the campaign to keep the red and white stripes on Beachy Head lighthouse. At the moment they don't seem to be in too much danger of disappearing, but apparently Trinity House (which controls and maintains the nation's lighthouses) announced last year that it would no longer be repainting them, and that the distinctive structure would gradually fade to its natural granite grey.

Understandably the people of Eastbourne and environs feel strongly about their lighthouse, and a campaign was swiftly launched to raise money for two very large pots of paint, one white and one red, and all the other equipment you need to paint a lighthouse that stands seventy metres seaward of the chalk cliffs. Bill Bryson commented:

'Beachy Head Lighthouse is one of the most uplifting sights anywhere along the English coastline - indeed, along any coastline - and those jaunty red stripes are what make it literally outstanding. It would be a tragedy to lose them.'

It's difficult to think of a type of building that has nobler associations than the lighthouse, an edifice constructed and maintained to preserve the lives of strangers. Our folk history glitters with tales of heroic lighthouse keepers who died or risked their lives to ensure that the light remained always lit. Most celebrated of all was Grace Darling, whose father was the keeper of Longstone Lighthouse in the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. In 1838, when she was 23, she spotted a ship wrecked on a nearby rock and, with her father, rowed in heavy seas to rescued 13 people; her death from TB only a few years later ensured her fame as one of the great Victorian heroines.

John Constable, Harwich Lighthouse, 1820s
Today all of Britain's 69 lighthouses are automated, and monitored from the Trinity House operational headquarters in Harwich, but the old associations remain. As Sue Clifford and Angela King put it in their wonderful book 'England in Particular',

'Lighthouses have saved ships and inspired us. John Constable, Eric Ravilious and Virginia Woolf responded to their melancholy and constancy.'

John Piper, Dungeness
For Ravilious, and for his friend John Piper, lighthouses were also fascinating as man-made objects - buildings that were functional, decorative and idiosyncratic. In the 1930s a lighthouse like Beachy Head was still a relatively modern wonder - its light was switched on in 1902 - whereas its neighbour Belle Tout had a more eccentric, Victorian air. By day Ravilious drew the newer lighthouse from within the disused lantern of the older one, and by night he painted the light of Beachy Head in a composition that counterbalances the geometric beams of artificial light with the ragged line of the clifftops.

At that time the lighthouse was painted with a thick black stripe against the natural grey, which was evidently judged sufficient to make the edifice stand out against the bright white cliffs, but in 1951 the red bands were painted. I wonder whether black was used before because there wasn't a red paint tough enough to withstand constant exposure to strong winds and salt water.

Today the stripes are not considered necessary for mariners equipped with modern navigation equipment, although the light (two flashes every twenty seconds) continues to keep sailors safe from harm. For tourists and for local people, meanwhile, the lighthouse itself is a special kind of landmark, both a symbol of human vigilance and an object of wonder. Given Ravilious's fondness for lighthouses in general, and this one in particular, the Mainstone Press has donated some books to the cause. I'm not sure what the Beachy Head Lighthouse Campaign is planning to do with them, but they're very good at posting news and information on their website...

FFI: www.keepthebeachyheadlighthousestripes.org.uk

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Eric Ravilious: V&A Study Day

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939 (V&A/DACS)

Eric Ravilious
Saturday 17 November, 10.30-17.00
Painter, illustrator, muralist and designer, Eric Ravilious was one of the most talented and versatile artists of his day. He is also one of the most distinctively English of the artists of the inter-war generation. His wood engravings for pottery, glass and book illustrations incorporate a strikingly personal and charming naivete. And his watercolours of English rural subjects, that often include everyday objects like watering cans and greenhouses, are characterised by their delicacy and innocence. This study day reviews Ravilious’s contribution to British art and design. Topics include book illustrations, wood-engravings, his work as a water-colourist and a War Artist, and his relationship with contemporaries like Edward Bawden. Speakers include Alan Powers, Brian Webb, James Russell and Gill Saunders. The event is organised to mark the 70th anniversary of Ravilious’s death and the publication of a new facsimile of Ravilious’s classic book, High Street.

Tickets:  £45, £35 concessions, £15 students

To Book: Call 0207 942 2211 or visit www.vam.ac.uk/whatson


10.30       Introduction and Welcome

10.40       Ravilious at the Royal College of Art, Alan Powers

11.20       Tea/Coffee

11.40       Eric Ravilious: Painter in Peace and War, James Russell

12.20       Ravilious as Engraver: A Great Range of Textures, Jeremy Greenwood 

13.00       Lunch Break

14.00       Ravilious and the Submarine Lithographs, Brian Webb

14.40       Ravilious and High Street, Gill Saunders

15.20       Tea/Coffee

15.40       Ravilious and Bawden, Peyton Skipwith 

16.20     Discussion

Mockford & Doig (plus new Ravilious date)

Harold Mockford, Eastbourne, 1958 (artist's estate)
It was great to see so many people at our talk in Eastbourne on Sunday - 150 or thereabouts, including an MP and the Mayor and his wife! Aside from a minor crisis in the biscuit supply chain, everything went very smoothly, and I managed to use a clip-on mic without sounding as though I were trapped inside a 1920s wireless... There was even a raffle, which came as a bit of a surprise. If you live near Eastbourne, join the Friends of the Towner! And visit the Harold Mockford retrospective, which runs until the end of the month and features a host of lovely, inventive landscape paintings.

Harold Mockford, The Long Man of Wilmington (artist's estate)
On the way home I stopped in at Tate Britain to see what was going on, and found a quite odd but interesting set-up in the main hall, with paintings like Paul Nash's 'Totes Meer' and Sutherland's 'Entrance to a Lane' presented salon-style with various related artworks, photos, etc. Unfortunately I didn't have time to work out exactly what it was all about, but it seemed like a good way to breathe new life into familiar paintings... By contrast the galleries of 20th century British art seemed a bit tired, although Peter Doig's 'Echo Lake' was fabulous. Here's an artist who manages to be both painterly and tuned in to our media-saturated world - I will definitely try and see this painting again before it vanishes back into the gallery's nether regions.

Constable vs Turner is one of my favourite Tate games, almost as fun as Spot the Lowry. I always want to like Constable more because Turner was such a thoroughly unlikeable man, but this time 'Norham Castle' beat one of the Brighton beach paintings hands down. Obviously not in the mood for all that leafy green...

Peter Doig, Echo Lake, 1998 (Tate/ artist's estate)
Have just discovered that my talk on Rav and Paul Nash at the Rye Arts Festival later in the month has sold out, so sorry if you haven't managed to get a ticket for that. During October I'm going to be busy launching a new, updated edition of The Naked Guide to Cider, and also pressing apples for the Totterdown Press 2012 vintage.

Then on November 6th I'll be giving an illustrated talk on Ravilious for Hungerford Books, though I can't remember off the top of my head where in Hungerford it's going to be. The time is 7pm, and I'm sure you can get further info from the shop.

After that, we have the V&A Study Day on Sat 17th Nov, then I'll be in Devizes the following Saturday, 24 Nov. Finally, there's the St Bride evening on Weds 5th Dec. More info on all of these HERE.