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!


  1. What a wonderful 'portmanteau' post. I can't wait to see the Peggy Angus show -- a trip planned soon!

  2. Not an exhibition but a new book (which includes Bawden and Ravilious designs) "Puffins Progress" issued to members by the Penguin Collectors Society and full of captivating images of artwork from 1940s on as well as thoughtful text. ISBN 978 o 9558395 9 7 if you haven't already got hold of a copy.