Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ravilious fans - watch this space!!

Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, lithograph, 1936/7

Hello! I do hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and are looking forward to the new year. Exciting news for Ravilious fans coming up in 2015! Look out for an announcement in the middle of January, when all will be revealed...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden

Edward Bawden, February 2pm, 1936, private collection/estate of Edward Bawden
It seems amazing that seven years have passed since Tim Mainstone of The Mainstone Press commissioned me to track down the shops portrayed by Eric Ravilious in his remarkable 1938 book 'High Street'. I spent one memorable day racing around London, armed with a folder of pictures and an annotated A-Z, trying to visit a dozen or more sites before dark, and another with Tim exploring the Hedinghams in the pouring rain.

Writing about art and artists is always enjoyable, but there's nothing quite like a quest. Come to think of it, all of the books I've written have involved at least an element of sleuthing. Finding locations is always fun, but so is teasing out a new influence or connection. Top of the list, though, is discovering a painting. When JS Auctions sent me a photo of the Ravilious watercolour 'Aldeburgh Bathing Machines' it hardly seemed possible that such a beautiful painting had been hidden away for so long.

Although it was the Ravilious that made the money in last Saturday's auction, Tim and I were equally excited by the discovery of a second painting that had not been seen for many years, Edward Bawden's watercolour showing the back of Brick House, Great Bardfield, and entitled 'February, 2pm'.

The auctioneers kindly took the time to show me both paintings last week, and while the Ravilious was, as Anne Ullmann put it, 'an absolute corker', the Bawden was full of surprises. I knew that he liked to work on non-absorbent paper so that he could scratch into the paint, but I had never seen the results of this approach up close. It looked as though Jackson Pollock had lent a hand with a welter of scratch marks, pencil scrawl and jagged stabs of pastel.

Which makes our new Mainstone Press quest that much more exciting. The art world has rather forgotten that in the 1930s Edward Bawden was renowned not only as a talented illustrator and designer but also as a watercolourist of great skill and daring. Exhibitions at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1933 and Leicester Galleries in 1938 were well received by critics and buyers alike, and it was this commercial success that now makes the paintings so hard to find.

Many of the pictures disappeared into private collections and have rarely, if ever, been seen since. And the task of locating them is made rather more difficult by the fact that the 1933 paintings were given lines of poetry for titles - often cleverly apt lines, but too wordy for everyday use. Often the watercolours were given more straightforward titles by owners or dealers, so it is not easy to work out which is which.

However, the quest is going well, and a number of fascinating, often lovely and always inventive pictures have come to light. We'll be putting a book together in due course, so if anyone can help us find more of these pre-war Bawden watercolours, do get in touch with me or with The Mainstone Press.

MAY 2015 UPDATE I'm now working on the book. Meanwhile, new paintings continue to come to light, and my opinion of Bawden-the-watercolourist just keeps going up. His 1938 Leicester Galleries exhibition must have been one of the events of the year, judging by the twenty-something pictures that Tim has located. The paintings of Newhaven, in particular, are startlingly fresh and original.

DEC 2015 UPDATE The book is now in production!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A Pop-Up Bookshop for Art on the Hill

**NEWSFLASH** The 2014 Art on the Hill app is now available for iphone/android, which means you can wander the streets of Windmill Hill (above) and listen to artists chatting about their work. Congratulations to David Smith, who made it happen.

Our house in Windmill Hill, Bristol, will be temporarily transformed over the weekend of October 4th/5th into a pop-up bookshop and print gallery. My friend Christopher Williams will be exhibiting his rather wonderful linocuts and talking through his creative process with the help of precious sketchbooks, and I'll be selling my books about Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash, Peggy Angus and Edward Seago.

We're part of the 2014 Art on the Hill art trail, which covers Windmill Hill and Victoria Park in the southerly regions of Bristol. Have a look at the website and you'll see the diverse range of art and crafts on offer - I tried picking out some highlights but the list got too long. I'm particularly intrigued by Bedminster's smallest maze, which is advertised with the question: can you get lost in a front room? In ours yes, you probably can.

As on any art trail there are lots of fascinating houses to nose around in - because we're on a hill they tend to vary a lot in layout and views - as well as the park, city farm and community orchard. There are even musicians of one kind and another playing in the park and at venues around the trail, so it should be fun. If you do come along, pop in and say hello!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Lost Worlds: Edwin Smith & Ed Kluz

Edwin Smith, church interior, 1950s, copyright Edwin Smith/RIBA Library Photo Collection
At some point in the late 1960s my grandparents went on a bit of a book-buying spree, so that when I was very young their house seemed to be packed with tomes too massive for me to lift. There were books on the Renaissance, Myths and Legends, Rembrandt and Picasso, but none of these were as huge as 'The English House Through Seven Centuries', which loomed so large it might have contained actual houses.

But eventually I was bigger than the book and years later I opened it to find myself in a lost world of moated granges, austere halls and cottages that seemed to have emerged fully formed from the earth. Photographed in black and white and with few signs of human presence, the buildings seemed to belong not so much to the past but to another reality, one that was rather nobler and a lot less messy than ours: the world of photographer Edwin Smith.

The text, by contrast, was sprightly. I didn't think it was possible to write about architecture without being crashingly dull but Olive Cook - Smith's wife and collaborator - soon had me hooked. She was a wonderfully lucid, entertaining writer and the ideal foil to her husband, and the pair were commissioned to create numerous books about English places and buildings. After Edwin's death Olive donated his life's work - some 60,000 negatives and as third as many prints - to the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a very select selection of these pictures has just gone on show at RIBA's gallery in Portland Place.

Edwin Smith, 'Ideal' fish & chip shop, London, 1958, copyright Edwin Smith/RIBA Library Photo Collection
'Ordinary Beauty' features images of urban scenes documenting British social life, atmospheric interiors and evocative landscapes overseas, along with published books and photographic equipment. Alan Bennett even makes an appearance on film, offering a personal take on Smith's life and work.

Olive and Edwin were great pals of Peggy Angus and Tirzah Ravilious (whose son James was inspired by the photographer in his choice of career), and they included Furlongs in their haunting book of English cottages. Smith's photo of the interior, which is reproduced in 'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter', is almost unique in making the cottage appear neat and tidy. I wonder if it's in the exhibition... (see below)

Meanwhile, in another part of the country... actually just down the road in Kent, Mascalls Gallery is about to launch an exhibition which also relates to buildings of the past. For a number of years Sussex-based artist Ed Kluz has been making collages and prints of old houses and eccentric structures, borrowing from a tradition that stretches back through John Piper to the topographers of the 18th century to create unmistakeably 21st century artworks.

Ed Kluz, Fonthill Abbey, 2013, collage (artist's copyright)
The Mascalls exhibition is Ed's first solo museum show, and for it he has found a particularly intriguing subject. In the Lincolnshire village where I grew up there was a park in which stood a humdrum brick building known as The Butler's Pantry. This was all that remained of the Hall, a grand old place with Jacobean origins, Georgian symmetry and a tower added by a Victorian; it was knocked down the year we arrived, leaving me with a tantalising half-memory of creeper-covered brick and empty windows.

Our Hall was one of countless houses of similar size that were demolished during the 1950s and 1960s, a state of affairs highlighted by the V&A's 1974 exhibition 'The Destruction of the Country House'. Now Ed Kluz is returning to the subject, and marking the 40th anniversary of the V&A show, with 'The Lost House Revisited', in which he explores both the creation and the destruction of Britain's great country houses. A must for Romantics!

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith is at RIBA until 6 Dec.
Ed Kluz: The Lost House Revisited is at Mascalls Gallery, Paddocks Wood, Kent, from 20 Sept to 13 Dec.

PS Made it to RIBA on Friday and thoroughly enjoyed the Edwin Smith show - I thought all those black and white images together might be a bit dry, but the exhibition is beautifully curated, with imaginative use of the room and larger displays to break up the photos. Highlights? A ploughed field with a farmhouse in the distance... A funerary statue from Pompeii... Pictures of clowns (a surprise, that). There were far more people in the photos than I had expected, mostly I think from before the war. Altogether a wonderful introduction to and celebration of a great 20th century talent.

There isn't a catalogue but Merrell have reissued 'Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith', which I think came out originally in 2007. Very good reproductions of a wide range of work, and a readable essay by the late Robert Elwall. Would have been nice to have an essay putting Smith in context of our current rediscovery of all things mid-20th century - but you can't have everything!


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Ravilious Rediscovered

Eric Ravilious, Aldeburgh Bathing Machines, 1938 (photo JS Auctions)

Until this year only the owner of ‘Aldeburgh Bathing Machines’ knew of its existence. This scintillating watercolour was bought from the artist’s exhibition at Tooth’s in May 1939, and since then the title has been attributed to a different painting, also of bathing huts. As far as anyone other than the owner knew, the picture featured here had never existed, so that to Ravilious’s descendants, collectors and fans ‘Aldeburgh Bathing Machines’ is not a lost painting returned, but a new and exciting discovery.

Eric Ravilious was in the middle of a prolific period when he visited Aldeburgh late in August 1938. Galvanised by the prospect of the Tooth’s exhibition he had travelled around the country, seeking out inspiring subjects. His letters are generally a good source of information about his activities, yet we know almost nothing about his visit to Aldeburgh; he left no clue as to why he was so intrigued by bathing machines.

There were, however, similar devices on the beach at Eastbourne when he was a boy. Ravilious was born in London, but at the age of eight moved to the Sussex seaside town, where his father ran an antiques shop. A scholarship took him to the Royal College of Art in 1922, and from there his career as a designer and artist blossomed alongside that of his friend and fellow student Edward Bawden. Ravilious retained a lifelong fascination for unusual and old-fashioned objects, particularly wheeled vehicles.

He also liked to work in series, so we should not be surprised that he painted three watercolours of these delightful blue-and-white-striped bathing machines. In this case the composition is centred on the parking sign and its shadow, around which the other objects (and the attendant) are carefully arranged so that the eye keeps moving from one to the next as if around a dial. The objects themselves are intriguing even by Ravilious’s high standards of oddity: the chicken appears in another painting and must have had some purpose, but we don’t yet know what it was. Having no doubt seen his friend John Piper’s illustrated essay on ‘Nautical Style’ in Architectural Review a few months earlier, Ravilious may have included the fowl as an amusing addendum.

However, the most striking feature of this beautiful painting is the quality of the light. Dawn was this artist’s preferred time for outdoor work, and in many watercolours it is the radiant early morning light that seems his true subject. The striated iridescent sky would become a feature of Ravilious’s finest wartime paintings, but this is peacetime, and the scene is set for a holiday.

'Aldeburgh Bathing Machines' is going under the hammer at JS Auctions on Sept 27. I wrote the text above for the catalogue.

In other news, Towner will be opening its Ravilious room on Sept 12. This will be a resource room for fans of the artist, with an evolving display of work, plus books, documents, etc. Obviously I haven't seen it yet, so do contact the museum if you want to know more.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Random Spectacular #2

Cover of Random Spectacular #2 by Jonny Hannah

Amazingly, almost four years have passed since St Judes published Random Spectacular, a delightfully eclectic collection of words and pictures that reminded me of the old Saturday Books. The edition sold out so quickly that everyone was taken by surprise, not least editor Simon Lewin, and some St Judes devotees were unable to get hold of a copy.

This time around, Simon is taking the unusual step of basing the edition size on the apparent demand. Anyone interested in buying a copy should trot along to the St Judes website and enter their email address. NB this doesn't mean they're guaranteed a copy, but they will be sent payment information by email when Random Spectacular #2 is published in August 2014.

There are some treats in store for fans of Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton, Angie Lewin and numerous other artists, and the whole book is beautifully designed. I was delighted when Simon asked me to write something on Eric Ravilious's submarine lithographs: look out for some gorgeous full page reproductions.

FFI: St Judes

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Modern British Summer!

Paul & John Nash reunited at RWA Bristol
For a long time the auction houses and dealers have been enjoying a boom in Mod Brit, as 20th century British art is known in the trade. Or rather, as 20th century British painting, sculpture and artist-made design is known.

For those baffled by artspeak, there's a world of difference between 'modern', which now refers to a period from about 1910 to the beginning of the Saatchi era, and 'contemporary', which refers to art being made now - or some of it, at least. For art to be 'contemporary' it generally needs to be non-traditional, as 'modern' art used to be. Nowadays Edward Seago is 'modern', and you don't get much more traditional than him.

JD Fergusson, Bathers: Noon, 1937, (c) The Fergusson Gallery
Of course some Mod Brit artists really were modern. Take JD Fergusson, the Scottish painter who immersed himself in the vibrant visual culture of early 20th century Paris and brought home a wild palette and a boundless zest for life. One of the world's great colourists, he has remained popular since his death in 1963 - but neglected south of the border. Now, however, Pallant House is offering English fans an opportunity to revisit Fergusson's work, as curator Simon Martin explained to me recently.

'Over the past few years,' he told me, 'Pallant House Gallery has carved a niche in presenting reappraisals of overlooked British artists and themes.

'The JD Fergusson exhibition has come to us from the Scottish National Galleries and is very timely as it the first solo museum show of this Scottish Colourist in England for over forty years, and demonstrates the important point that British artists were not working in a vacuum, but working in continental Europe as part of the international avant-garde.'

Great exhibition, great catalogue...
Simon made a name for himself a few years ago with a brilliant exhibition devoted to another overlooked British artist, Edward Burra - a painter of extraordinary originality and verve - and since then Pallant House has become one of several out-of-London museums catering to the renewed interest in all things Modern and British.

Dulwich is only just out of London, but the need for visitors to leave the West End and venture onto the rail network does make Dulwich Picture Gallery a not-quite-London venue. Famous for its gorgeous permanent collection, DPG has also embraced Mod Brit following the startling success in 2010 of 'Paul Nash: The Elements', David Fraser Jenkins' memorable exhibition.

Until 21 September you can enjoy 'Art and Life', a delightful exhibition devoted to the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and others, in an environment ideally suited to the pictures. These artists, like many of their generation, painted on a relatively modest scale, and the work feels at home in the intimate exhibition gallery at Dulwich. I enjoyed seeing the exhibition at Kettle's Yard, but the paintings come to life in a different way in their current home - worth taking the ten-minute train ride from Victoria to see them again!

Closer to home (for me, at any rate), and close to my heart, is the new RWA exhibition devoted to the careers of Paul and John Nash. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years writing about, thinking about, and generally going on about Paul Nash, and I wish there weren't so many books about him so I could write another one. Oh well.

Paul Nash, Dymchurch, c1922-4, Dudley Museums Service, (c) Tate
A few years ago I had the idea of celebrating the centenary of the Nash brothers' first (and only) joint exhibition, which took place in 1913. I approached the RWA, with whom I had worked on an exhibition of Ravilious watercolours, and they decided to include 'Brothers in Art' as part of their impressive Great War centenary programme. I've been too busy elsewhere to get involved, but curator Gemma Brace has put together a mouth-watering selection of pictures by both artists, including one of the nation's favourite paintings, John's 'Cornfield'.

Like many smaller institutions the RWA is handicapped by the prohibitive charges levied by larger museums and estates for reproduction rights, making it very difficult for them to promote the exhibition nationally, but I hope that word spreads around the grapevine. There are pre-Great War paintings by both artists that have rarely, if ever, been shown publicly before, along with later pictures that are justly celebrated. From Paul a lovely oil of Dymchurch and 'Eclipse of the Sunflower', from John languid views of Bath and the eye-of-God vision of 'Gloucestershire Landscape'.

Almost my favourite picture on public display anywhere in Britain right now is Paul Nash's early watercolour of elm trees in the blue summer dusk, which is featured in the exhibition.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country... we have Towner's wonderful Peggy Angus show, which is full of surprises. When Sara Cooper and I were planning the exhibition we faced a particular challenge in the varied nature of Peggy's career. On the surface, at least, her paintings are very different from her tile designs, and what about her long and distinguished teaching career? How on earth do you represent years in the classroom in a museum show?

As it turned out, her fabulous wallpaper (hand-printed for us by her grand-daughter Emma Gibson) offered a way of pulling the disparate aspects of her career together - as well as causing a lot of jaws to drop. Besides, these different sides of her life were not actually so different. Look for instance at the curving line of the railway in one of her paintings of Asham Cement Works, and then at the undulating design in her Lansbury tile mural, and you can see the same hand behind them. Similarly, the design work she did in the classroom relates closely to her commercial work. Thanks in part to Towner's moveable walls, the exhibition flows nicely, showing us different sides of a single, inspiring, creative mind.

Eric Ravilious, Interior at Furlongs, 1939, Towner

Peggy Angus, The Three Bears, c1945, (c) Estate of Peggy Angus/DACS
We thought a great deal about whether to include Ravilious paintings in the exhibition and decided they were so immediately relevant - given the artists' friendship and shared artistic interests - that it would be crazy not to. Although Ravilious was the superior painter overall, I don't think Peggy's pictures of the cement works, or of Furlongs, suffer by comparison.

Rather, his 'Interior at Furlongs' and her paintings of the same subject complement one another, while the fantastic stage set of the famous table and chairs is a must-see for any true Ravilious devotee. There is even an oil lamp on show that he bought for Peggy from a Lewes junk shop.

In part I think the growing fascination with all things Mod and Brit has a lot to do with our distance from those days, especially the 1930s. You have to be of a fairly decent age now to remember the decade with any clarity, and for those born in wartime or afterwards it has the same air of mystery and nostalgia that the Victorian period had for their parents. For young artists and designers, meanwhile, Peggy Angus must come as something of a revelation - a talented maverick who enjoyed not one but several careers, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work.

JD Fergusson at Pallant House
Art and Life at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Brothers in Art: Paul and John Nash at RWA Bristol
Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter at Towner

Also playing:

From David Bomberg to Paula Rego: The London Group in Southampton at Southampton City Art Gallery - a century old this year, having been set up on the eve of the Great War to help artists who were shunned by the Establishment, the London Group is still going strong today. It describes itself as 'a thriving democratic co-operative of artists practicing in all disciplines, from painting and sculpture to moving image and performance, with a full annual events programme in London and beyond.'

Keith Vaughan at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden - an exhibition 'specially devised to reflect the influence of north west Essex on Vaughan by showing 'Essex work'. Vaughan enjoyed relaxing in the Essex countryside where he could explore the constant changes in the natural world and the open sky as a contrast to his life in London. He was also interested in the juxtaposition of geometric shapes provided by vernacular architecture. Many of his later paintings can be traced back to photographs that he took in Essex whilst living at Harrow Hill.'

Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain

Apologies if I've missed out something obvious - please add a comment!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Peggy Angus on Film

This film was shot just before the Private View of the Peggy Angus exhibition at Towner last week. You have to wait a while for David Dimbleby, but there are some great pictures of the show. Sara got to stand in front of the Sun and Moon wallpaper, which is most unfair.

The film was made by Bourne Iden TV.

Peggy was also featured in The Observer a couple of weeks ago; you can see the article by Rachel Cooke and accompanying slideshow on the Guardian website.

I'm back in Eastbourne on Saturday (19 July), giving an afternoon talk on Peggy's life and work... The weather forecast isn't very good for Saturday, so why not come and be entertained for an hour! Info here.

Friday, 4 July 2014

What links... Kenneth Clark, British Folk Art & Peggy Angus?

How's that for Folk Art? Lady Godiva Clock, Coventry, with tile mural by Peggy Angus
Hooray for Tate B. Not just one but TWO inspiring exhibitions on at the same time. I thought a show devoted to an art historian and cultural bigwig might be a bit dry, but far from it. Fascinating to see the work Kenneth Clark collected, all those delicate Cezanne drawings for example, and the pictures he was looking at during his formative years.

Here was a portrait of an art lover whose watchwords seemed to be refinement and modesty - a patron whose genteel good taste and position in the art establishment greatly assisted the careers of Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and other artists of equally rare sensibility.

A bit of a shock, then, to go from the world of 'Civilisation' to the multifarious oddities of British Folk Art, an exhibition which is probably more popular than its debonair rival but which must have been fairly nightmarish to curate. I mean where do you begin? What do you include? The curators seem to have taken a similar approach to Barbara Jones in her wonderful book 'The Unsophisticated Arts', in that they have gathered together work that shares certain characteristics but without trying to define it too closely or to include everything.

Buy the new edition from Little Toller!
Like the book, it's an eclectic, individual survey of figureheads and shop signs, textiles and amateur paintings - a display put together (it seems) by enthusiasts with a good eye for an object, rather than academics with a point to make. In the same way some of the artists championed by Kenneth Clark picked up on interesting or quirky objects or designs. Eric Ravilious loved weathervanes, shop emblems and junk of all kinds - you could put together a mini-folk art show from his prints and paintings. Edward Bawden too.

Eric Ravilious, 'Saddler' from High Street
And his model... white horse outside a Sudbury pub
But many of the most passionate artist-enthusiasts of the 20th century were women, notably Barbara Jones, Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx (authors of 'English Popular Art'), Olive Cook and Peggy Angus. Each no doubt had their own reasons for admiring folk art, but Peggy for one saw in it much more than quirky or original design. She believed that the beautifully decorated Romany caravans she saw in her youth represented the most authentic kind of art - art made not by specialists to be enjoyed by others, but by people for whom it was an integral part of life.

A work of art in itself... check out more wonderful illustrations here
Peggy taught art for more than forty years, gradually developing a curriculum that combined art history and practical training in a bewildering range of disciplines, and which took her pupils from the most primitive art forms, via the medieval and Renaissance periods, to the experiments of Modernism. Throughout she stressed the vital importance of patronage (which had been impressed on her when she visited the Hermitage Museum on a 1932 trip to Soviet Russia).

Great art, she would argue, requires both great artists and great patrons - people with taste, vision and money. At different periods and in different places patronage has been provided by monarchs, aristocrats, religious organisations and the state. Kenneth Clark pushed the British government into state patronage of the arts when he set up the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1939; Piper, Moore and Sutherland prospered.

Peggy's tile mural in the foyer of Lansbury Lawrence School, Poplar
These artists were employed for a purpose - to record the war in their own way (and provide propaganda images into the bargain) - and you could argue that the relationship between patron and artist is always like this. The artist has certain skills, and the patron a use for them. Whether we're talking about an anonymous carpenter creating a figurehead for a naval ship, or a famous painter depicting a bombed cathedral - or, as in Peggy's case, a designer creating a tile mural for a new school - this is the very opposite of 'art for art's sake'. 

Paintings & wallpaper by Mark Hearld, hung Peggy Angus-style at Towner
As far as Peggy Angus was concerned, art needed to serve a purpose. If you come along to the exhibition devoted to her life and work, which begins at Towner, Eastbourne, next weekend, you'll see the extraordinary things she achieved in her lifelong desire to be useful, from her unique art curriculum to tile designs for Heathrow Airport... And look out for hand-printed wallpaper, hung floor to ceiling in the gallery - much of it based on folk art designs. For a preview of what to expect, have a look at Rachel Cooke's feature in The Observer.

And when you've had a good look round her exhibition, head downstairs to Nathaniel Hepburn's elegant show 'Designing the Everyday', which brings together the work of numerous talented artist-designers. There are Ravilious ceramics that seem, on first sight, to be hovering against the wall with no visible means of support, some striking Shell posters, and, to bring us up to date, a room devoted to the talented designers of St Judes. Highlights include chairs upholstered in printed fabrics and Mark Hearld's wallpaper - the latter proof that, twenty years after Peggy's death, her spirit permeates British art and design.

FFI: Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter at Towner, Eastbourne, July 12 - Sept 21
'Peggy Angus: Designer Teacher, Painter' by James Russell, Antique Collectors Club.
Designing the Everyday at Towner, until 31 August
Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain, until 10 August
British Folk Art at Tate Britain, until 31 August

Friday, 13 June 2014

Ravilious and Bawden in Bloomsbury & Bedford

By coincidence I was just telling people about my talk next week at Higgins, Bedford, when I received this flyer from Pentreath and Hall. Both their show and my talk are about Ravilious and Bawden, who were great pals from their first day in the Design School of the Royal College of Art, until the former's death.

Both were gifted illustrators and masters of various media. Rav may have been more at ease in the world than Bawden, who was famously so shy that he would rather walk across London than board a bus, but they shared a waspish sense of humour and a love of the absurd.

They also shared a passion for watercolour, working together so closely that their names were often mentioned in the same breath. Bawden and Ravilious were something of a curiosity to their peers, radical technicians who looked to the past for inspiration, painters who tackled humdrum subjects from unusual angles and, significantly, sold most of the work they exhibited at a handful of pre-war exhibitions.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to exploring this personal and artistic relationship at Bedford next week, so do come along if you can.

PS. Ed Kluz is a worthy companion to the pair, and if you've never been to Pentreath and Hall, it's well worth a visit.

FFI: Higgins, Bedford.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Edward Seago at Portland Gallery

Edward Seago, Low Tide, Strand on the Green, oil on board
When I was approached by the Portland Gallery to write a book about Edward Seago I had little idea of the adventure ahead. Having lived in Norwich for several years I was familiar with his East Anglian landscape paintings, which I associated with those of his predecessors John Sell Cotman and John Crome, but beyond that I was aware only that he had enjoyed a long friendship with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. So not entirely a blank canvas, but close to it.

Over the following two years a portrait of Seago – Ted, as he was always known by friends – gradually took shape, and I realised that this was no ordinary artist. His education, for a start, was far from conventional, since he was confined to bed for much of his childhood by a chronic heart condition. Yet he was impetuous and determined and, having made up his mind at an early age that he could only be an artist, he asked Bertram Priestman RA for technical help and sought patronage from Lady Evelyn Jones, daughter of the 4th Earl Grey.

Edward Seago, After the Ploughing Match, oil on canvas, 1936
With their support the nineteen year-old Seago held his first solo exhibition in London and was an overnight success, although these early paintings of horses and their riders owed rather too much to Alfred Munnings. This didn’t prevent him seeking advice from the great man, who suggested he apply to the RA schools. Instead, after only a term at Norwich School of Art, Seago went off to join a circus as a sort of artist in residence, and for the next three years travelled constantly.

As well as producing a remarkable body of paintings and drawings, Seago found inspiration for a lively autobiographical book, ‘Circus Company’, which he wrote with the help of poet laureate John Masefield. The pair went on to collaborate on several titles, including ‘The Country Scene’ – a sumptuous quarto volume filled with Masefield’s poetry and Seago’s evocative paintings – and ‘Tribute to Ballet’, at which point war intervened.

Edward Seago, Suffolk Village, oil on board

Edward Seago, A Sussex Fishing Village, watercolour
When Seago was commissioned to the Royal Engineers in the autumn of 1939 he took the opportunity provided by his first full time job to take stock of his career, which had so far perhaps given him more success than fulfilment. His first childhood sketches had been of the ever-changing sky, and he now perceived that his true vocation lay here, in the study of light and atmosphere. There would be notable achievements in portraiture, particularly two paintings of Queen Elizabeth II on horseback, but Seago otherwise devoted the second half of his life to landscape painting.

His vision was wide-ranging. Factories and building sites interested him as much as Norfolk beaches; he was inspired equally by sparkling Venetian canals and the dirty skies of a London winter. A great admirer of John Constable’s oil sketches, he painted rapidly, with expressive brushwork that he rarely attempted to conceal, and in later life worked from memory. Having trained his mind to recall the significant details of any scene, he astounded house guests with his ability to paint faraway places in his Norfolk studio. He was, as HRH the Duke of Edinburgh put it, like a conjuror pulling rabbits out of a hat. And, yes, his best work has a touch of magic.

Edward Seago, The Spritsail Barge, oil on board
An exhibition of Edward Seago's paintings, including many that have never been shown before, begins at the Portland Gallery next week. The paintings shown are all included, and each link will take you to the relevant page on the gallery's website. The text above is from the catalogue essay.

My book on Edward Seago is out now from Lund Humphries

The estate of Edward Seago is represented by the Portland Gallery.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Peggy Angus in Selvedge Magazine, July/Aug 2014

The editor of Selvedge kindly allowed me to post this sneak preview of the upcoming issue. To get hold of a copy or find out more, please visit the magazine's website. You should be able to zoom in to the page if you can't read the text.

'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter' is published by Antique Collectors Club this month, and in July the exhibition of the same name opens at Towner, Eastbourne. It should be pretty spectacular!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Eric Ravilious: Wiltshire Landscape

Wiltshire Landscape (1937)

The open road held 1930s Britain in thrall. Though Ravilious never learned to drive, his contemporaries were taking to the road in ever-increasing numbers, encouraged by advertisements and guidebooks that portrayed an idealised vision of the countryside. The Shell Guides, sponsored by the oil company and edited by John Betjeman, were aimed specifically at the new breed of car-driving metropolitan tourist, with highlights including Betjeman’s Devon (1935), Paul Nash’s Dorset (1936) and John Piper’s Oxon (1938). The worse London’s traffic jams became, the greater the appeal of open country.

Ravilious himself produced numerous wood engravings to advertise London Transport and its offshoot Green Line Buses, and in 1936 made engravings for the first two books of Country Walks, which described and mapped forty walks accessible by bus or coach from central London. Not that the artist had an aversion to cars. He once told Helen Binyon, he wished they could drive fifty miles as fast as possible then go dancing afterwards. And in March 1937, shortly before painting ‘Wiltshire Landscape’, he noted that ‘Tirzah is buying a year-old Morris for £70 tomorrow from the local garage, and it seems to my eye to look as good as new. May it start up in cold weather.’

While contemporary guidebooks and advertising focused on sights to be seen along the road, this painting shows the road itself, from an odd, slightly raised perspective. The spring countryside is peripheral, and instead one’s attention focuses on the junction ahead and the red van approaching from the left. In fact Ravilious did not see this vehicle on the road but spotted it in a Post Office magazine when he got home and added it to the composition. Imagine the picture without it and the mood is rather different, the road stretching ahead perhaps less a route to freedom than a journey to be endured; hemmed in by endless green verges, only the turning to the left offers respite.

A similar melancholy pervades ‘The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs’, the other painting from this short trip. As a non-driver Ravilious relied on public transport or the good will of friends, and in April 1937 Helen Binyon was his driver and companion. They stayed near Andover and drove out across Salisbury Plain, but it was not the kind of great adventure they had enjoyed in the past. Binyon was silent and distant, Ravilious said afterwards, which made him uppish and out of hand; only a month later he was to end their affair, though they remained close friends.

But this is still an image of the open road - the kind of byway that city dwellers dreamt (and dream) of. The clouds may be grey and stormy but the road ahead gleams silver.

This is an extract from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by The Mainstone Press. 'Wiltshire Landscape' will be auctioned at Christies on 26 June 2014, alongside work by Lucian Freud, John Craxton, Graham Sutherland and Walter Sickert. I hope it is bought by a public collection...

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Nicholsons come to Dulwich

Winifred Nicholson, Tippacott, w/c, 1920, private collection

Eighteen months ago I wrote a post about Winifred Nicholson, whose work was being shown in a small exhibition at Kettle's Yard. At the time she seemed rather a forgotten figure, a woman artist sidelined from the the all-male saga of Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood's fruitful artistic relationship with Alfred Wallis, but her grandson Jovan assured me that this was about to change.

Now I can see why he was so confident. His beautiful exhibition, 'Art and Life 1920-1931', brings together work by all four artists, along with the ceramicist William Staite Murray, allowing us to see the fascinating inter-relationships between them. I saw the show at Kettle's Yard last month, and am looking forward to seeing it again at Dulwich Picture Gallery in June.

Ben Nicholson, Tippacott, pencil, 1920, private collection
Few exhibitions offer such a rich weave of personality and influence. When Winifred Roberts met Ben Nicholson in 1920, the couple embarked on an intense creative relationship that outlasted their decade-long marriage. The son of a fine painter, William Nicholson, Ben suffered asthma and so avoided military service; he spent much of the Great War in America and, on returning to England, immediately began looking to Europe for inspiration.

Winifred's family were wealthy and artistic. She and Ben had both the inclination and the opportunity to travel, and a European tour in the early 1920s alerted them to the brilliance of Picasso and other moderns.

Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria, oil, 1921, private collection
The earliest pictures in the exhibition suggest that Winifred's vision formed early. She saw a world not only full of colour, but made of colour. From the start she painted flowers with an apparent effortlessness that belied the intense preparations she made before launching into the picture; critics and collectors fell for her early on, and not simply because her work was pleasing to look at. Winifred's use of colour was profound, and she had surprising and original things to say about painting, landscape and the people around her.

Ben Nicholson 1930 (Cumberland Farm), oil, Brighton & Hove Museums
Ben, by contrast, was a rather slow learner, and admirers of his heroically austere 1930s reliefs may scratch their heads at the naive Cumberland landscapes shown here. Where Winifred saw colour, Ben saw form and line. Looking at these early landscapes we may notice first the clumsily drawn horses, trees and buildings, yet look beyond these details and the emerging vision is there in the simplified forms of the landscape and the pared-down palette. At a time when landscape painters with modernist pretensions looked to Cezanne for inspiration, Ben painted northern visions on heavily textured grounds the colour of British weather.

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928, oil, Kettle's Yard
When the couple met Christopher Wood in 1926 there was an immediate and powerful connection based in part on their mutual love of Picasso. There were similarities in their work too: a desire to paint directly, in a deliberately naive, expressive manner, and a shared interest in landscape and still life. Boyish, enthusiastic and unstable, Wood inspired his friends to paint boldly; in turn he learned from Ben the art of selection, and from Winifred the power of colour. Yet Wood was different again from the colourist and the draughtsman. His was a poetic vision.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, c1926, oil, private collection
The three artists were painting in Cornwall in 1928 when they encountered Alfred Wallis, who was to affect their lives so profoundly. Winifred had perhaps the least to learn from him, although a couple of paintings in the exhibition show his influence on her. For her husband, however, Wallis was a tremendous catalyst, not in terms of subject - Ben painted only a few nautical paintings - but but because of his unique approach to his craft.

Directness and sincerity had long interested him more than convention, and Wallis was an unconventional, self-taught painter who worked with the utmost directness. Setting aside traditional ideas of perspective, the old sailor composed pictures that didn't describe external reality but expressed the ideas in his mind. Boats, lighthouses and other motifs were arranged to create the most effective composition; maps in Jovan Nicholson's admirable exhibition catalogue show the liberties he took with the topography of St Ives.

Alfred Wallis, St Ives Harbour... c1932-4, oil on card, private collection
A Wallis painting was not a representation of reality but something self-contained, and this was true not just in his compositions but in the way he went about painting. Famously he would paint on anything suitable that was within reach when the urge to paint possessed him - pieces of wood, furniture, cardboard, the nearest wall... If offered a piece of wood he would paint all over it, on the back too, making an artwork of the whole three-dimensional object.
Ben Nicholson 1929 (Fireworks), oil on board, Pier Arts Centre, Orkney
So while Ben only painted Wallis-style boats on a few occasions, he began painting on pieces of board, then cutting into the board, making the reliefs that made his international reputation. And while there is little obvious relation between his arrangements of geometrical forms and Wallis's compositions, the Cornish painter's example perhaps encouraged him on his journey away from surface reality into the essence of things.

Ben Nicholson, 1935 (White Relief), oil on carved board, Scottish Nat Gall of Modern Art
For Kit Wood meanwhile, Wallis offered a way into a world of myth and symbol. In St Ives and, even more so, on the coast of Brittany, he immersed himself in the culture, religion and everyday life of the fishing port, producing in this charged, superstitious environment a series of similarly charged paintings. As Jovan Nicholson points out, most of Wood's best work was created in the company of his Russian lover Frosca Munster, but how she influenced him we don't know, and probably never will.

Christopher Wood, The Fisherman's Farewell, 1928, oil, Tate
'Art and Life' opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 4 June 2014. If for some reason you can't go, then I would thoroughly recommend Jovan Nicholson's catalogue, which is lively, informative and beautifully illustrated.

Copyright for Ben Nicholson images rests with Angela Verren-Taunt/DACS, and for Winifred Nicholson with The Trustees of Winifred Nicholson.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Red Lodge

Don Quixote de Bristol?
Fleeing the crowds in Park Street yesterday (they'd come to see Luke Jerram's fabulous Park and Slide), we ducked into Red Lodge, the Tudor house on the hill above Colston Hall. As ever, the house was cool, calm and full of surprises, my favourite things this time around being the fireplace in the Print Room with its 18th century tiles, and the Skinner chair.

A bit of a mish-mash, period-wise, but I love the tiles


Not at all sure what this is supposed to be, a sort of duck-billed horse?

Details of the carving on late c17 chair made for Bishop Skinner, showing Actaeon being turned into a stag by Artemis

Here she is, looking quite fierce

Actaeon about to be eaten by his own hounds. Prince Albert once sat here, apparently

Detail of stone carving in awesome Great Oak Room

Red Lodge was a guest house when Elizabeth I came to stay at the Great House down the hill, where Colston Hall now stands. Nowadays it's a welcome retreat for people undergoing treatment or supporting loved ones through illness at the hospitals down the road.

FFI: Bristol City Council