Monday, 31 December 2012

Visual Delights: Mark Hearld's Work Book

A highlight of my Christmas this year was being given a copy of Mark Hearld's 'Work Book'. What a treat! From the boisterous cover to the hand-written acknowledgments, this book overflows with life and vigour; designer Nicola Bailey of Merrell (the publishers) has succeeded in keeping the artist's exuberance under control while allowing his energy to shine through. I particularly love the end-papers, which would have delighted Edward Bawden, I'm sure.

Near the beginning of the book Hearld provides a hand-written chart of artists who (he feels) have influenced him. To my mind Bawden is his most obvious ancestor, particularly in the illustrations, although the spirit of John Piper seems to hover in those swirling dark backgrounds. It seems typical of Hearld's down-to-earth approach that he freely acknowledges these influences. In the same spirit he admits that he isn't a potter but enjoys designing ceramics nevertheless, and tells us that he decided against calling one picture 'A Rat in the Kitchen' because the r- word might put off potential buyers.

His mission appears to be to bring the ordinary urban-natural world to life in new ways, which I think partly accounts for his popularity. There is nothing sinister or brooding about his creatures (even the rat is cute), yet they have tremendous character. Energy surges through his pictures and designs, almost like the bracing winds that roar across the eastern counties of England, turning farmyard scenes into swirling visions. Occasionally there's just too much going on, but more often the layering of textures and techniques works brilliantly.

A thoughtful text is provided by Simon Martin (curator of Pallant House gallery and an expert in 20th century art); he draws attention to the artist's marvellous hand-writing, which is all the more striking in the e-mail age. Hearld continues the tradition enjoyed by Bawden, Ravilious and friends, of sending hand-written letters embellished with illustrations (although it was Picasso's example that inspired him). There's no reward in this work, of course, other than the recipient's pleasure, but I get the feeling that the giving of pleasure is high on the list of this artist's inspirations.

You can buy Mark Hearld's 'Work Book' here.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Lighthouse Weather Alphabet

Dungeness Lighthouse in the days before automation - the base of an older version is behind it.
If you're getting fed up with Twelve Days of Christmas Rain you might enjoy pretending that you're a lighthouse keeper, charged with keeping an accurate record of the weather twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.

Keepers were provided with hefty journals by their employer, Trinity House, in which they recorded every four hours the temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind force and direction and, lastly, the state of the weather. Here's a suitably wintry sample...

 The State of the Weather was recording using a special lighthouse keeper's alphabet. Please note the very important distinction between Overcast, Gloomy and Ugly.
This wonderful alphabet was sent to me by the very helpful Association of Lighthouse Keepers, after I saw a Lighthouse/Vessel Journal in a display case at the wonderful Dungeness Lighthouse - a place I would thoroughly recommend visiting. From the top the French coast looked perilously close. Back in 1066 it would have offered the perfect vantage point if you wanted to watch the Norman fleet approaching... The keepers must have been calves of iron after climbing that spiral staircase ten thousand times.

The old Dungeness Lighthouse today, with nuclear power station
The newest Dungeness Lighthouse, with shingle

Friday, 21 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

That's one fiery pudding. Ravilious made this festive design for Wedgwood, and it has now found its way onto a Christmas card published by the V&A. And why not? There's also a rather lovely robin from the same set. Here's to a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year!

Friday, 14 December 2012

BBC Your Paintings: Mission Accomplished?

News from Robert Bell on the BBC Your Paintings blog:

Today the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) and the BBC completed their hugely ambitious project to put online the United Kingdom’s entire collection of oil paintings in public ownership. This makes the UK the first country in the world to give such access to its national collection of paintings. In total, 3,217 venues across the UK have participated in the project and 211,861 paintings are now on the Your Paintings website.

When you consider how difficult it can be to get hold of a single decent image of a painting, this achievement is extraordinary. I've only been able to dip into the gradually expanding archive over the past few years but so far the reproductions have almost always been good and the accompanying information accurate. My only quibble is that the project's focus on oil painting means that watercolourists don't get much of a look-in, but perhaps this will be remedied in the future. Besides, if you attempted to catalogue all of the watercolours in public ownership in Britain it might take rather a long time.

I'm not sure anyone's taken an approach like this to a nation's paintings before. What is perhaps most remarkable about the project is that, other than the focus on a specific medium, it is (as far as one can tell) non-selective. There may be artists and pictures missing for one reason and another, but the range of published work is impressive; how wonderful, on reading about Algernon Newton or Meredith Frampton or Alfred Munnings or I don't know who else, to be able to view a good selection of their work and find out where to see particular paintings.

I love the idea that you can now hear about an exhibition or an artist and, without having to order books or trawl through old volumes in the reference library, see for yourself what they're all about. The question now is, what happens next? The catalogue is only useful if it is used, so can the project help foster interest in painting among a population far more attuned to music, film and TV? How might this happen?

A while ago I reviewed an entertaining series of short films, in which various critics and celebrities picked their favourite paintings from the archive. That was a nice idea, and one which perhaps went some way to attracting a mainstream audience to the backwater of art. What I'd like to see is some connection being made between the appreciation of paintings and people making art for themselves. The explosion of interest in Urban Sketching shows what can happen when people are encouraged to get out there, draw and share their work - is it possible that people would be more interested in looking at pictures in the context of their own creativity, rather than as examples of art history?

It always strikes me as odd that the BBC has an entire radio station devoted (for the most part) to music of the past, yet visual art of the past struggles to win attention. Every city has a concert hall where people pay good money to enjoy classical music, while any art museum that charges admission has to fight for visitors. Perhaps part of the problem is that a hundred different venues can host a Beethoven symphony on the same night, whereas you can only show the Mona Lisa in one place at one time.

But I don't believe for a minute that British people are innately more interested in music than in art. Show kids an interesting art exhibition and they'll love it. Offer a city's art fans some really top notch pictures to look at and they'll turn up in droves. The problem is not lack of interest, but lack of opportunity. If we could only stop worrying about the value of paintings as material objects and focus on their worth as beautiful things to be shared with all people; if only it could be made easier for provincial museums and galleries to borrow pictures by popular artists...

Well, thanks to the BBC and the PCF we can at least see reproductions of pictures by many thousands of artists. We couldn't do that before, and now we can.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

'Ravilious: Submarine' - Update

Our new book, 'Ravilious: Submarine' is looking fabulous but production is a bit behind schedule, so we'll be releasing it in January as an antidote to the winter blues. If you were planning to give it to someone for Christmas, don't despair. Simply download the cover picture above, print it and write a message on the back promising a copy of the book as soon as it's available.

'Ravilious: Submarine' is a 72 page book, illustrated lavishly throughout. As well as reproductions of the 10 Submarine Series auto-lithographs, you'll find previously unpublished preparatory drawings and numerous, rarely-seen examples of auto-lithography from some of the best artists working in Russia, France and Britain between the wars.

Plus you'll learn what submariners ate while at sea, why British submarines carried a Jolly Roger and what happened to travel writer Eric Newby when he went to Italy on a clandestine submarine mission...

Apologies for the delay - we'll let you know as soon as the book's ready.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Forgotten, Remembered: Algernon Newton & Alfred Munnings

I remember years ago reading a novel by Milan Kundera, in which I first came across the Stalinist policy of erasing disgraced political figures from photographs. The idea of deliberately removing someone from the historical record seemed to my young mind thoroughly fiendish; little did I know that a comparable fate had befallen a number of 20th century British artists whose work was deemed unfashionable by the opinion-makers of the age.

It is not difficult to make an artist disappear. If you run a museum you leave their work languishing in the basement, and if you publish books you contrive to overlook them. If you leave, say, Eric Ravilious, out of your survey of 20th century British art, then the chances are that art history teachers will ignore him too. So the next generation grow up having never heard of him, and his vanishing is complete. The artist doesn't need to be dead, although it helps. Fashion in art is just as brutal as fashion in Cold War-style Stalinist politics; in both cases, a few influential people control the flow of information to the public, and use their power as they see fit.

Algernon Newton, The House by the Canal, 1945 (Harris Museum & Art Gallery)
People now find it incomprehensible that Ravilious was so neglected, but his work was too thoughtful and too localised for the post-war champions of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and so on. In the era of 'The Shock of the New' artists vied to push the great experiment of Modernism to ever wilder extremes; what significance could a painting of an old bus or a lighthouse have in that age of grand gestures?

Following Rav's rehabilitation, art lovers are now wondering whether there are other artists of a similar calibre waiting to be rediscovered. One of those whose name is suggested as 'the next Ravilious' is Algernon Newton, whose work is currently on show at the Alex Katz Gallery, off Piccadilly; it's worth going along just to see the gallery, which occupies several floors of a grand old town house.

Algernon Newton, Dawn, 1936 (Ferens Art Gallery)
The paintings themselves vary greatly in size, but whether working at the scale of a postcard or filling a wall, Newton approached his work with the same meticulous care. His best known pictures show long urban vistas in the manner of Canaletto but with a completely different mood - an unsettling atmosphere, Andrew Graham-Dixon suggests in his fascinating catalogue essay, that reflects Newton's mental state in the aftermath of the Great War and the break-up of his family. Richard Dorment of the Telegraph disagrees with this biographical interpretation, arguing instead that Newton's idiosyncratic style reflects his artistic influences.

Whichever side you take in this welcome debate it seems clear that Newton was an artist of unusual vision, a painter who apparently controlled a terror of impending apocalypse with luminous glazes and fastidious attention to detail. He painted ever brick in his buildings and every leaf on his trees, even in the many large paintings he produced during a long and prolific career. Strikingly, after a tumultuous and frustrating youth, Newton went on painting into his eighties, depicting downland landscapes with the same painterly precision and poetic mystery he exhibited in his earlier work.

Alfred Munnings, The Start, 1950 (Richard Green Gallery)
If you want to follow Newton with something rather different I recommend popping round to Richard Green for a look at an artist who has been thoroughly 'disappeared' from most accounts of 20th century British painting. I knew very little about Alfred Munnings, self-taught Norfolk painter of horses and landscapes, until I saw James Fox's startling series about modern British art. Whether out of genuine interest or a desire to cause a stir, Dr Fox decided to rehabilitate the former President of the RA, whose famous 1949 outburst against Modernism in general and Picasso in particular had earned him his erasure from the art history canon.

I must admit that I thought Dr Fox had gone a bit far with Munnings. I couldn't see what was so great about his crowd-pleasing pictures of racehorses. Walking into the Bond Street gallery, however, it was immediately clear that this artist had something; his subject matter may have been less than challenging but the way he painted was startling. Nothing measured about Munnings. Look up close at a picture and you see a welter of paint applied this way and that, not stroked but slapped and slathered. But the clumsy jumble of colours is transformed as you step away and there, extraordinarily, is the horse or circus troupe or whatever it may be, brought to life without great subtlety but with considerable panache.

This was an exhibition to warm the cockles on a cold December afternoon in a recession, and the accompanying article by Brian Sewell only added to the fun. Odd to think that Munnings (1878-1959) and Newton (1880-1968) were almost exact contemporaries.

Mary Fedden at the Portland Gallery
Other highlights in the vicinity include a celebration of the life and work of Mary Fedden, which has just opened at the Portland Gallery. Understandably, this is dominated by the more decorative paintings from the last twenty years of her life, but there is more than enough variety to make it worth the short jaunt across Piccadilly. A couple of early pictures show that classic brownish Slade palette, but the real scene stealers are a set of gorgeous little watercolours of animals and birds.

FFI: Richard Green, Daniel Katz, Portland Gallery.