Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Eric Ravilious: Gilbert White of Selborne

Few British books are as well-loved as Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. As a teacher in the mid-1920s Ravilious had urged his students to read it, and he was delighted by this commission. The title page probably shows White and Thomas Pennant, otherwise the illustrations are all carefully rooted in the text. Below we see a boy stealing a honey-buzzard egg from ‘a tall slender beech’ and ‘considerable falls of snow, which lay deep and uniform on the ground without any drifting, wrapping up the more humble vegetation in perfect security’. The illustration above accompanies the words, ‘A good ornithologist should be able to distinguish birds by their air as well as by their colours and shape; on the ground as well as on the wing, and in the bush as well as in the hand.’ It shows, particularly in the barn owl depicted against the stars, how deeply Ravilious absorbed the vision of his great forerunner, Thomas Bewick.

This is an edited extract from 'Ravilious: Wood Engravings', which will be published by The Mainstone Press at the beginning of November. The book will be launched on November 7th at Pallant House Gallery, where I will give an illustrated talk on Rav's fascinating career as a wood engraver...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Paul Klee: Pure Pleasure

Paul Klee, Der Goldfisch (The Goldfish), 1925
When I was in my late teens my favourite picture was Paul Klee's 'Death and Fire' (see below). I do look at it now and wonder whether I was entirely mentally well at the time, but my enjoyment of Klee's paintings has never diminished. I can think of few artists whose work gives me such simple pleasure. I can stand and stare at those patterns of little squares or trace the lines of a drawing for hours; his picture of a giant gold fish has hung in our bedroom for years and has yet to dull. Scribbled and scratched, the great fish has the menace of Jaws and the gilded poise of some underwater deity.

Paul Klee, Flora auf Sand (Flora on Sand), 1927
Klee struggled for years to find his vision. The child of musician parents he was a talented violinist himself but as a teenager decided to go his own way. By his early twenties he was lamenting his lack of colour sense and despairing of ever becoming a painter. Until he visited Tunis in 1914 (when he was in his mid-30s) Klee was known for his work in black and white; North Africa opened his eyes to the possibilities of colour, and for almost two decades he was prolific and highly inventive. He was a respected teacher too, working at the Bauhaus for ten years, but a combination of illness and persecution by the Nazis in the mid-1930s brought his career to a premature end. He died in 1940, the same year as his father; 'Death and Fire', I now know, was one of his last paintings.

Paul Klee, Alter Klang (Ancient Harmony), 1925
Art historians have lots to say about Klee, not least because he wrote detailed and extremely technical diaries all through his early years of struggle. It was almost as if he had to work out how to be an artist before he could become one, and it is notable that he stopped writing his diary in 1918, when his career was really taking off. Wasn't all that writing a kind of scaffolding, to be discarded once the real work began?

Paul Klee, Kuhlung in einem Garten der heissen Zone (Cooling in a Garden of the Torrid Zone), 1924
I love the modesty of Klee's work, the small scale of his paintings, the strange little line drawings and his media. Watercolour was a favourite, and quite a few of his pictures are on paper, mounted on card - surely an archivist's nightmare. A central figure in the thriving German art scene of the 1920s, Klee nevertheless remained his own man. You can't limit him with Isms. You can't define him as a follower of so and so. The Nazis lumped him in with all the other modern artists they hated, including 17 of his pictures in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, which is perhaps all the more reason to respect him as an individual artist, whose work is difficult to write about in simple English but easy to enjoy.

Paul Klee, 'Florentinisches' Villen Viertel ('Florentine' Residential District), 1926
Klee was evidently a clever and complex man, but I'm not sure that it's helpful to struggle through his writings or the volumes of subsequent commentary in order to appreciate his work. I'd rather know more about the years he spent in his late twenties looking after his young son Felix while his wife taught music. Did domestic duties hold him back, or did the experience of parenting free him in the end? Spending so much time with a child, was he able to rediscover the naivety and sense of fun that fills his work?

Paul Klee, Sie beissen an (They're Biting), 1920
Filled with warmth, humour, the glow of life, a constant hum of music and occasional bursts of wickedness, Paul Klee's paintings are wonderfully human, mysterious and profound. You need no specialist knowledge to enjoy and appreciate them, only a willingness to look and lose yourself in the looking. I still have flashbacks of the 2002 Hayward Gallery show, which I enjoyed so much in part because his pictures had in real life a fragility that gets lost in reproduction. The modest environs of the Hayward suited Klee; I wonder how his work will suit the rather less modest halls of Tate Modern...

Paul Klee, Tod und Feuer (Death and Fire), 1940

FFI: Tate Modern

Friday, 11 October 2013

Popular Painters: Jack Vettriano & Edward Seago

Jack Vettriano, Self-Portrait (artist's copyright)
A couple of years ago I was chatting with the director of a provincial museum. This museum does not have much public funding and so has to charge admission, and he was describing the challenges of persuading people to pay the small sum asked of them. In recent times, he said, only one artist had really drawn the crowds, and that was Jack Vettriano (b.1951). As he mentioned the name he looked to see my reaction, which was not (I have to say) desperately enthusiastic. I had been to the exhibition in question and found it rather soulless. However, I could see that the show's success had been significant, both financially and in terms of increasing awareness of the museum and its architectural and artistic wonders.

Jack Vettriano is that rare creature, a painter whose activities arouse strong feelings in all kinds of people, from his famous collectors and feisty fans to the critics who are shocked and appalled by his success. His current retrospective in Glasgow has attracted some negative write-ups, while his supporters have used the 21st century soapbox of the on-line comments section to air their views.

Jack Vettriano, Along Came a Spider (artist's copyright)
To date I think the best article on him is Lynn Barber's interview from 2004, when Vettriano was in the limelight after 'The Singing Butler' achieved the highest price for a Scottish painting at auction. She was straightforward as usual. 'Anyway,' she wrote, 'the fact that there is all this exciting 'story' in the images makes it easy to ignore the deadly flatness of the technique.

'This is the answer to the question: why don't art critics take Vettriano seriously? Because there is nothing of any interest in the way he paints - Vettriano is to painting what Jeffrey Archer is to prose. Nevertheless, he is very interesting both as a person and as a phenomenon; a self-taught painter who, by depicting his own fantasies, has somehow managed to reach an audience who don't normally take any interest in art. He is also - I was pleased to discover - a very modest, articulate, friendly interviewee.'

Jack Vettriano, The Singing Butler (artist's copyright)
Whatever his weaknesses as a painter, Vettriano does what he does very well. He is so consistent that you can identify one of his pictures instantly, and he has a talent for making images that are slightly mysterious, nostalgic and glamorous (in the 1980s Helmut Newton sense). His men and women remind me of characters from old hard-boiled detective novels and thrillers, or perhaps that's the lighting. The scenes hover between eras from the 1920s to the present, without really belonging anywhere - they are fanciful rather than historical. The kinkier pictures are un-PC but, in the great scheme of things, hardly shocking. Beyond that, what is there to say? Except that struggling art museums HAVE TO attract big crowds, or they will not survive.

I find Vettriano's case intriguing partly because I've just finished writing a book about landscape painter Edward Seago (1910-74), which will be published by Lund Humphries next year. In his lifetime Seago was hugely popular, to the extent that the queues before his exhibitions were reported in the press.

Edward Seago, The Wild Beast Show, 1932 (artist's estate/Portland Gallery)
‘Queue Here for Seago’, announced the Eastern Daily Press on 22 November 1961: 'At 5 o’clock this morning, two old ladies dropped anchor outside Colnaghi’s gallery in Bond Street. By 9 o’clock, when the floodgates opened, the waiting multitude looked like a convention of Top People. Another private view of watercolours by Edward Seago, the Norfolk artist, had begun.

'Having pounced on their prey, the Seago-seekers had to stand at attention for another hour while the embargo printed in red on their invitation cards ran out: "It is regretted that no Drawings can be sold before 10am on the day of the Private View."'

Edward Seago, Winter Landscape, Norfolk , c1960 (artist's estate/Portland Gallery)
Like Vettriano, Seago was hard-working, prolific and an astute businessman - he sent out 5000 personal Christmas cards to collectors every year and exhibited all over the world. He was modest, charming, entertaining and self-centred (a not unusual quality); he was greatly loved but rather unhappy, and his behaviour was at times quite odd - researching his life and work has been fascinating.

His paintings, mostly landscapes in oils and watercolour, were immediately recognisable and often delightful. With the art world going crazy for abstraction and dour post-war introspection, art lovers looking for something enjoyable and uplifting found it in Seago, whose self-avowed mission was to record the fleeting beauties of nature. The Queen Mother and the Duke of Edinburgh were fans, even friends; the critics were not. I doubt there was an artist who outsold Seago in his pomp during the 1950s and 1960s. He handled paint with considerable skill and also wrote entertainingly, penning a number of thoughtful autobiographical books. Not all of his paintings are great, but the best of them can make you pause, look again, relax and give in to the pleasure of looking.

'Edward Seago' will be published by Lund Humphries in June 2014. His estate is represented by The Portland Gallery.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

How We Used to Live

Wonderful stuff from director Paul Kelly. Composed of footage from the British Film Institute's national archive, most of it shot between the 1950s and the 1980s and rarely seen thereafter, 'How We Used to Live' premieres at the London Film Festival on Saturday October 12th.

FFI: Heavenly Films

Monday, 7 October 2013

Ravilious Talk Dates: Pallant House, Richmond, The Fry & Dillington House

Eric Ravilious, Fireworks, 'High Street', 1938
Ravilious fans may be happy to know that I'm giving four illustrated lectures in November and early December. Personally I'm delighted, especially as each talk has a slightly different subject or angle - putting together a slide show for a specific event is great fun.

First, on November 7th, I'm speaking at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, where an exhibition devoted to Ravilious's work as a printmaker is about to open. I know Simon Martin the curator will have gathered a wonderful selection of prints, books and ephemera, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he's put the work together. I'll mostly be talking about wood engravings - and launching the new Mainstone Press book 'Ravilious: Wood Engravings' - but with excursions into lithography and the artist's designs for Wedgwood. Tickets are on sale here.

Eric Ravilious, BBC Talks Pamphlet, 1934
Taking part in a literary festival is always a highlight, and this year I'm giving a talk on 'Eric Ravilious: A Life in Pictures' at Richmond Literary Festival (that's south-west London, in case there's a rival Richmond somewhere else). Tickets for the talk on Saturday 9 November are available from the festival website, where you can of course see all the other treats in store. This lecture will give an overview of Ravilious's life and work, with plenty of pictures - watercolours, wood engravings, ceramic designs, lithos and photos both archive and modern.

I gave a talk on 'Ravilious in Essex' at the Fry Art Gallery - or at a hall nearby - a couple of years ago, and I'm looking forward to going back on Friday November 15th. This time I'll be discussing printmaking and design in a lecture entitled 'Woodcuts & Wedgwood, Shops & Submarines: Ravilious, Designer', and I'll work in plenty of biographical material, archive photos and so on. Some of the pictures I show will no doubt appear on Christmas cards the following month...

On 1st December, finally, the Ravilious roadshow arrives at Dillington House in deepest Somerset, a wonderful place to visit on a wintry Sunday. I have to confess that I didn't realise, until I was asked to give a talk there, what a fantastic arts programme they have at Dillington. In fact my talk is part of a Big Art Weekend, with lots of other events and courses going on; I'll be showing pictures and talking in informal and (I hope) entertaining fashion about 'Eric Ravilious: Master Artist', with watercolours, wood engravings and design work on show.

If you'd like more information about any of these lectures do get in touch. And if you come along, say hello!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Art on the Hill: Art Trail Fun in Bristol

Very excited to be part of the 7th annual Art on the Hill art trail in lovely Windmill Hill. Do come along if you're in Bristol this weekend. Lots of wonderful art to enjoy, obviously, plus you get to see inside people's houses. If you've got kids/other halves who aren't interested you can leave them to amuse themselves in Victoria Park, have a cup of tea at Mrs Brown's Cafe, or go to the pub. Nowhere is more than ten minutes' walk from anywhere else, so you can slow down, relax and generally take it easy.

The sun might even shine.

We're at Venue 26, with paintings and collage by Dayna Stevens, drawings by Charlotte Murray and books by me. I have all the 'Ravilious in Pictures' titles and 'Ravilious: Submarine', plus 'Paul Nash in Pictures'. Come and say hello!

FFI: Art on the Hill