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.