Thursday, 30 April 2015

Eric Ravilious: 'Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes'

Eric Ravilious, Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes, 1935 (Tate)
As yellow tomatoes ripen on the vine above, twin lines of cyclamen in orange pots draw us through one open doorway then another, until we are faced by the final, closed door, so pale and faint it seems to float just above the centre of the picture. In startling contrast to the wide open spaces of his other paintings of 1935 – ‘The Waterwheel’ or ‘Downs in Winter’ – this greenhouse pulls us into an intense interior world. Not that this is an oppressive space. Light and spacious, apparently roofed with nothing more substantial than tomato plants, the greenhouse offers a pleasant dream of infinite regression.

Ravilious stumbled upon this horticultural treasure while exploring the village of Firle, one of eight greenhouses concealed within a walled garden built to supply Firle Place with fresh produce. Along the walls grew espaliered fruit trees, including the celebrated greengages first introduced to Britain in the eighteenth century by Sir William Gage, while the hothouses included a mushroom house and a rare Victorian strawberry house in which plants grew in the warm air close to the roof and were lowered by pulley for picking.

This fabulous kitchen garden was watched over by the bearded head gardener, Mr Humphreys, who had, as a young man, travelled up the Amazon on a journey of botanical discovery. Ravilious befriended him and went on to paint several of the greenhouses, creating a monument to these elegant structures.

You can buy tomatoes from the same greenhouse today, from a stall across from the Firle Stores, though the rest have all but disappeared. In 1944 a Spitfire brought down a doodlebug nearby and the resulting explosion shattered every pane of glass in the village; the walled garden never fully recovered. The great storm of October 1987 caused further destruction, plucking whole polytunnels from the ground and spiriting them away.

But this one greenhouse survives, lovingly maintained and tended by Firle native Jim Piper. He remembers what the garden was like when he was a boy, when his mother was nurse to the Gage family, but though in his seventies he is too young to remember Mr Humphreys. He does, however, tell a story of the venerable botanist’s old age. Old-fashioned in dress and outlook Mr Humphreys was the object of good-natured taunts from village lads, delivered from the safety of the churchyard beyond the garden wall.

‘None of you buggers knows anything about hard work,’ he liked to retort, ‘But when I snuff it you’ll have to work bloody hard because I’m going under that yew tree.’

Sure enough his grave can be found only yards from the garden, in the tough tangle of roots beneath the churchyard yew.

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by The Mainstone Press. The painting is currently on show at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Meanwhile, Laura Freeman has dug up further info on the Firle greenhouses, which you can read about here.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Angie Lewin: New Watercolours in Edinburgh

Angie Lewin, Spey Still Life & Yellow Book (artist copyright)
Just received some lovely pictures of new Angie Lewin watercolours, ahead of her exhibition in Edinburgh. Is it my imagination, or is there a hint of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in some of these flower paintings? The layering of translucent colours seems to be new, or maybe I'm just looking properly! As ever, the paintings are carefully composed, at once structured and loose, realistic in some ways and stylised in others. Lots of energy too - I love the way the pattern springs away from the Persephone bowl.

Angie Lewin, Calendula Study (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Dice Cup and Feather (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Cone Flower  (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Persephone Bowl (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Wild Garden Seedheads (artist copyright)

Angie Lewin, Auden Thalictrum (artist copyright)
These and other watercolours will be shown in Angie's exhibition 'A Natural Selection' at The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, during May. Gallery Director Christina Jansen comments:

"We are delighted to present Angie Lewin’s first solo exhibition with The Scottish Gallery. She is best known as a designer and printmaker whose sensitive patterns and motifs are inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement and the work of Bawden and Ravilious. She divides her life between homes in Edinburgh and Speyside and this geographic diversity is reflected in her plant observations and interweaving of the natural and domestic worlds.

"She walks, looks and draws; she collects and assembles and her studio is full of reference material, beautiful in itself witnessing a life lived in art and nature. Her chosen medium for this exhibition is watercolour, that most sensitive and difficult medium and her virtuosity is complete but should be no surprise in the context of her rigorous apprenticeship. The playful title for this show hints at her obsessive observing, refined through the artist’s editorial eye to make order out of chaos."

FFI: The Scottish Gallery

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ravilious in Pictures: Iron Bridge at Ewenbridge

Eric Ravilious, Iron Bridge at Ewenbridge, 1941-2, Fry Art Gallery

Beneath bare winter branches a bridge leads across a stream to open country beyond. For a rural footbridge this is an impressive structure, with iron railings and posts supported by elegant iron hoops, but on closer inspection it appears that the bridge was built not for human traffic but for sheep. The ground in front of the bridge is well worn, the hill beyond ideal for grazing. The name too is suggestive. Charles Strachey recalls that his family always referred to the farm as Ewenbridge and, despite a lack of hard evidence, believes that the site may mark an ancestral crossing place for livestock.

This was one of several watercolours Ravilious painted in lieu of rent (to Labour politician and author John Strachey); it is unlikely that we would have any pictures of Ironbridge – or, for that matter, any non-war related paintings from this period – if the arrangement had not been in place. And this is an exquisite piece, one that celebrates good, everyday design and workmanship while inviting an imaginative response. A fairytale troll might live beneath this bridge; a pilgrim might cross to the other side. The elegant ironwork suggests a faith in the power of good design to carry us safely into the future.

In September 1942, only months after completing this painting, Ravilious was reported missing off the coast of Iceland. Still weak from surgery, Tirzah now found the government reluctant to pay either her late husband’s outstanding salary or her widow’s pension. She was forced to argue her case repeatedly, until she finally received the money owed to her a year later and was able to concentrate on the business of living. She began painting in oils, and in 1946 married BBC man Henry Swanzy. However, her cancer returned and she died in March 1951, with Anne not quite 10 years old.

Here the story takes a twist in keeping with Ravilious’s optimistic nature. With the upheavals of the war, their old Hedingham friend Kay Goodden had parted from her first husband Robert, and by coincidence married Henry Swanzy’s brother John. On Tirzah’s death Kay and John took the Ravilious children in, and gave them a stable and happy home.

This future lay ahead, unseen, as Ravilious sketched the bridge. He was at Ironbridge on and off during the summer, as the farm became idyllic once again. In June he reported, ‘The river here looks lovely and I bathed today. The old man Brown who keeps the boats wears a battered old Panama and stinging vermilion football jersey in these grey green willows.’

He came and went, returning for the last time in August to find the children waiting. ‘The Baffy (James) and Anne were at Overall’s corner when I returned…’ he wrote, ‘James chasing a cat and Anne laughing with joy to see her Father.’

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', published by The Mainstone Press.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Introducing 'Ravilious in Pictures'

In a recent post about the catalogue for 'Ravilious' at Dulwich, a reviewer noted that there were perhaps some opportunities missed to discuss locations and other details relevant to particular paintings. This criticism may be valid but if you're looking for more in-depth discussion of individual Ravilious watercolours, don't despair!

Much of what I know about this elusive artist and his deceptively simple watercolours I learnt during the four years I spent working on the series 'Ravilious in Pictures' for the Mainstone Press. Actually there was never supposed to be a series. One book simply led to another, until we ended up with a trilogy of four books. Each is a kind of exhibition in book form, featuring twenty watercolours with accompanying essays, and a couple of other paintings for good measure.

The aim was to talk about Ravilious's work in ways suggested by the watercolours themselves, looking at social history and biography rather than art history per se. You can see a couple of sample essays here, and here.

When it came to writing the 'Ravilious' catalogue I naturally had different things to say, but the four books are well worth looking at if you've fallen under the spell of this alluring artist and want to know more about particular aspects of his work. All four books draw inspiration both from the paintings and from the artist's marvellous letters, as edited by his daughter Anne Ullmann, and published by the Fleece Press. The volumes and the paintings included are as follows:

Sussex and the Downs (a study of Ravilious's downland paintings, with reference to interwar social/landscape history, and some amusing interludes):
Firle Beacon, Furlongs, Interior at Furlongs, Waterwheel, Downs in Winter, Cement Works 2, Caravans, Chalk Paths, Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes, Mount Caburn, Wiltshire Landscape, Beachy Head, Cuckmere Haven, Tea at Furlongs, The Wilmington Giant, The Westbury Horse, Train Landscape, Vale of the White Horse, Chalk Figure near Weymouth, The Cerne Giant.

The War Paintings (focusing on his wartime career, and the places and people he encountered - some proper history in here!):
Observation Post, Warship in Dry Dock, Ship's Screw on a Railway Truck, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, Barrage Balloons Outside a British Port, Norway 1940, HMS Glorious in the Arctic, Ark Royal in Action, Ward Room No1, Coastal Defences, Coastal Defences (2), No1 Map Corridor, Bombing the Channel Ports, Convoy Passing an Island, Morning on the Tarmac, RNAS Sick Bay Dundee, Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, Corporal Stediford's Pigeon Loft, Runway Perspective, Hurricanes in Flight.

A Country Life (the most domestic of the books, exploring Eric and Tirzah's life in Essex):
Prospect from an Attic, Two Women in a Garden, The Attic Bedroom, Tractor, Garden Path, No.29 Bus, Back Gardens, Friesian Bull, The Brickyard, Hull's Mill, Butcher's Shop, Train Going Over a Bridge at Night, Halstead Road in Snow, Vicarage, Village Street, Salt Marsh, Late August Beach, Ironbridge Interior, Tree Trunk and Wheelbarrow, Ironbridge at Ewenbridge.

A Travelling Artist (following Rav's travels around Britain and beyond, in search of 'a good place'):
November 5th, Strawberry Nets, River Thames, Buoys and Grappling Hook, Channel Steamer Leaving Harbour, Newhaven Harbour, Greenwich Observatory, Wet Afternoon, Waterwheel, The Duke of Hereford's Knob, Geraniums and Carnations, Buscot Park, Room at the William the Conqueror, Lifeboat, Dungeness, Bristol Quay, Belle Tout Interior, Pilot Boat, Leaving Scapa Flow.

If you'd like to know more about any of the books, or their availability (I believe they're all in print as I write this), please get in touch via the email address on my Profile page, or visit The Mainstone Press. Thanks!