Sunday, 17 February 2013

Win 'Ravilious: Submarine'!

Photo of 'Ravilious: Submarine' at the Bristol City Docks by Dru Marland
Since 2006 the Mainstone Press has published ten books. 'Ravilious: Submarine' is the tenth, but can you name the other nine? If you think you can, send the list of titles to before Monday 25th February. The first three correct answers out of the hat will win a copy of 'Ravilious: Submarine'.

There's more information on the book below and here.

27.2.13 Congratulations to the three winners and thankyou everyone who entered - watch the Facebook page for future competitions.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Lost World Rediscovered: 20th Century Murals at the Fine Art Society

Colin Gill, Allegro, 1921 (FAS London/Liss Fine Art)
Around 90% of the murals painted in Britain in the last century have been lost; the work of some artists, notably Eric Ravilious, has suffered so badly from neglect, bomb damage and what have you that only photographs and studies survive. The remaining murals, meanwhile, languish in obscurity. I had no idea, despite living in Bristol, that there's a fabulous painted ceiling by Thomas Monnington in our post-war Council House. Murals tend, by their very nature, to be fixed to a particular place, and if you never visit that place you're unlikely to see the painting.

So how, I wondered when I heard about the Fine Art Society's new exhibition of 20th century British Murals and Decorative Painting (in association with Liss Fine Art), do you go about putting on a mural show? In 1969 the Hayward Gallery held an exhibition of frescoes rescued from damp and crumbling buildings in Florence; these pictures were removed in ingenious ways from the walls on which Renaissance artists had painted them and transported around the world. Would something similar happen here?

Mary Adshead, An English Holiday: The Village Inn (detail), 1928 (FAS London/Liss Fine Art)
The short answer, judging from the exuberant catalogue, is no. The works on display are either studies for wall paintings - which vary from small watercolours to large-scale oil paintings - or murals painted on canvas or wooden panels. So, for example, we have two beautiful pictures painted by Mary Adshead in 1928 for Lord Beaverbrook, part of a series called 'An English Holiday'; these large-scale oils were designed to fill the walls of the press tycoon's dining room, but in the end he cancelled the commission, supposedly because a friend persuaded him that he was bound to fall out with the various grandees who had modelled for the paintings, and then be stuck with them every night at dinner.

There are some well known pieces here, including John Piper's 42-panel epic 'An Englishman's Home', which he painted for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and Edward Bawden's 'The English Pub' (1949-50), which spent a quarter century adorning the First Class Lounge of the SS Oronsay. But you'll also find plenty of delightful surprises. I'm looking forward to seeing John Armstrong's design for the Telecinema Mural (also painted for the Festival) and Barbara Jones' astonishing 3-panel picture 'Out in the Hall', which features a giant bear standing in a hallway the walls of which are bright yellow with a design of large white polka dots.

Alan Sorrell, Working Boats, 1951 (FAS London/Liss Fine Art)
This is one of the murals discussed in depth in a new book published by Sansom & Company to coincide with the exhibition: 'British Murals and Decorative Painting, 1920-1970'. I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds wonderful, with an array of experts each focusing on a particular piece: Ruth Artmonsky on Barbara Jones, David Fraser Jenkins on Piper and so on. I'm interested to read what Alan Powers has to say about Alan Sorrell's delightful mural 'Working Boats from Around the British Coast' (1951), which includes the Norfolk Wherry but not, I was sad to see, the Severn Trow. With Stanley Spencer and Rex Whistler also featured, this book sounds like a must-have.


Friday, 8 February 2013

'Ravilious: Submarine': First Pictures!

The traditional lo-fi photo shoot on the kitchen table... Very excited to see 'Ravilious: Submarine', which has been beautifully printed and bound in, respectively, Norwich and London.

For further information, please contact the publishers at

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Engraved Letters by Eric Gill

As well as being the inventor of Gill Sans and Perpetua, Eric Gill was a prolific wood engraver. The letters on this page, engraved in 1923, were intended perhaps for use in a book. View this and other wood engravings by the artist at Tate Britain, by appointment.

Or, if you're in Los Angeles between now and March, you could go along to the exhibition 'Eric Gill: Iconographer' at the Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Art, Archaeology and the Modern Mind

Figure carved from mammoth ivory, 26k years old, Dolni Vestonici, Czech (BM)
I love the idea that people 40,000 years ago had modern minds, although the definition of 'modern' adopted by the British Museum for its amazing exhibition of Ice Age art is fairly broad. Writing in the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine, curator Jill Cook puts it thus:

The premise is that complex language and all forms of art require a modern brain, like our own, with a well-developed region at the front to power minds capable of externalising imaginative and abstract thoughts.

Some might argue that mind and brain are rather different, but perhaps I'm just being picky. The show sounds unmissable, bringing together as it does Ice Age artworks from umpteen European museums and displaying them alongside work by Matisse, Mondrian and Henry Moore. I've no doubt that treating cave paintings and carved objects of the distant past as pieces of art, rather than as archaeological finds, will help to break down barriers. My feeling, in the face of minimal evidence, is that we probably share more in common with our distant ancestors than we imagine. We've been conditioned by ideas of progress to assume that people in the past were less clever and more barbaric than we are; the sight of a deer beautifully drawn on the wall of a cave (an experience to be recreated within the exhibition) makes us think again, as do the kind of carvings that will be on show.

Replica of Lespugue figurine, 25k years old, France
In the same article Jill talks about the inspiration 20th century artists found in ancient artefacts, citing the example of Picasso and the curvaceous figurine popularly known as the Venus of Lespugue. Artists had always looked to the past for guidance, but the idea of looking to the distant past was a more modern phenomenon, part of a wider interest in the prehistoric that is celebrated in a second British Museum-sponsored exhibition opening this week.

You probably won't have to queue as long to get into the Quadriga Gallery, an exhibition space run by English Heritage and located, bizarrely, inside the Wellington Arch near Hyde Park Corner, but I think 'The General, the Scientist and the Banker: the Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past' sounds fascinating (if a little long-winded):

In 1859 two extraordinary events changed the way people considered human existence: a flint hand axe was found in a gravel quarry level with bones of extinct animals, and Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s big idea and the discovery of the axe broke the Biblical version of history. Opening with the book and the rarely seen axe, this exhibition tells the story of what happened next - as archaeological pioneers battled to save Britain’s great prehistoric sites from destruction.

Paul Nash, Silbury Hill, c1935 (Tate)
Naturally this exhibition is also written up in British Archaeology. We learn that the initial Ancient Monuments Protection Act, passed in 1882, achieved very little, and that the business of preserving old sites and buildings really took off 30 years later, accelerating rapidly after World War One. A widespread, respectful fascination for the prehistoric seems to be a 20th and 21st century phenomenon - a feature, perhaps, of the modern mind.

Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious were both fascinated by ancient monuments, as they were by downland landscapes more generally. I've written about this here and also, more recently, for British Archaeology magazine. For this very issue (No 129), in fact. I have to say - and this is no thanks to me - it looks great, particularly the photos of Rav's impossible-to-photograph White Horse dummy. Wonderful.

Incidentally, the Wiltshire Heritage Museum is fund-raising to cover its purchase of the White Horse dummy at auction last year. Find out more here.