Monday, 22 April 2013

To Chichester by Choo-choo

RB Kitaj, The Rise of Fascism, 1979-80 (Tate/Artist's Estate)
Last Thursday I went to Chichester on the train, a journey that combined beautiful scenery with various human irritations. Did the conductors (there were two on the same train) have to be quite so aggressive in their ticket-checking? Was the woman sitting behind me trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest monologue about the minutiae of a person's everyday life? 

The train went via Bath and Bradford-on-Avon to Warminster, Salisbury and Southampton, crossing a region that roughly equates both to old Wessex and to Southern Command during World War II. Just beyond Warminster we passed an army depot with rows of heavily armoured, desert-brown vehicles, the austere hills of Salisbury Plain rising behind. We trundled along the Wylye Valley and through Wilton, where two artistically minded generals, Auchinleck and Alexander, held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Southern Command, one after another.

Their Camouflage Officer was Edward Seago, painter, inventor of a new concealment material made from horsehair and subsequently a life-long friend of both men.  I wonder whether he was involved with the crazy scheme to camouflage chalk railway cuttings by spraying them with black ink, an experiment Eric Ravilious was invited to record but which was abandoned too soon for him to do so.

Paul Delvaux, A Siren in Full Moonlight, 1940 (Southampton City Art Gallery)
The spire of Salisbury Cathedral reminded me of two other artists, Rex and Laurence Whistler, the former killed in action in Normandy, the latter responsible for his beautiful memorial in etched glass which you can see in the cathedral. When we reached Southampton I braved a gale to visit the City Art Gallery in the fabulous 1930s Civic Centre, and found some lovely things on display. A Delvaux mermaid stole the scene in the main room, while a moody painting of a forest by Elizabeth Magill showed that the Romantic tradition in British landscape painting is alive and well.

Chichester Cathedral - peregrine falcons nest in top right turret
I also had a look at Paul Nash's painting 'The Archer', which still seems a bit contrived but has a haunting quality shared by the material on display at my final destination, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. While Southampton seems to have been constructed by a giant armed with children's building blocks, central Chichester retains its 18th century or even Medieval scale. When Daniel Defoe visited he noted that the city's population could easily fit into the cathedral, and that may well still be true. 

'What will survive of us is love' - The Arundel Tomb
Unusually for a British church, the cathedral doubles as an art gallery, with a painting by Graham Sutherland standing on the altar in one chapel, while elsewhere a stained glass window by Chagall casts a ruby glow on the stone floor and gigantic tapestries dazzle the choir. There are glorious medieval reliefs carved in stone, Philip Larkin's favourite tomb and even a Roman mosaic; few churches can give one such a strong sense of continuous human history - something the vandals of the Reformation didn't think too much about.

Graham Sutherland, Noli me Tangere, 1960
But the cathedral was an added bonus. My real reason for coming to Chichester was to talk about Paul Nash at Pallant House, a gallery that, like Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, champions 20th century British painting and sculpture. The main collection inhabits a characterful 18th century house with small, well-proportioned rooms that might have been designed to show the kind of art on display. A couple are currently filled with Barbara Hepworth's hospital drawings, but otherwise this is a treasure trove of pictures by neglected artists.

Pallant House

Where else would you see a painting by Frances Hodgkins, the New Zealander who was one of Britain's best-known modern artists in the early 1940s? Where, outside Kettle's Yard, might you find pictures by Ben and Winifred Nicholson side by side, so that the similarity between the two is obvious? Christopher Wood is there too, and Alfred Wallis, and Ivon Hitchens, and the Nash brothers. At the end of my talk someone kindly pointed out to me that there was an Eileen Agar self-portrait in an upstairs room.

The main attraction just now is an RB Kitaj retrospective, which you can read all about here. I think I enjoyed most the more straightforward pastel drawings, which show both wonderful draughtsmanship and a disquieting sense of character and atmosphere.

Paul Nash, by Clare Neilson (Pallant)
But I was there because of Paul Nash and his patron and friend Clare Neilson. Her collection of his books, letters and photographs was recently given to Pallant House, and is currently on display. If you're a Nash fan you have to see this. This isn't a curator or critic's interpretation of Nash's career but an intimate portrait of the artist; alongside wood engravings, illustrations and books - 'Places', 'Room and Book' and others - are hand-written letters and photos, stuck to pages from faded albums, showing him playfully posing with standing stones. 

This is the artist I was looking for when I researched 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', and it was a treat to see him brought to life in this beautifully presented exhibition.

FFI: Pallant House Gallery

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