Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Wanted: Artist's Face for £20 Note

Laura Knight with model, self-portrait, 1913, copyright artist's estate
So the Bank of England is looking for a new face for its £20 note, the face of a visual artist. We the public are being asked to make suggestions, a handful of which will eventually be presented to a committee including a trio of experts - among them Andrew Graham-Dixon - for a final decision. Given that the artist concerned has to be dead to qualify, we can't nominate Tracy Emin, Banksy or Grayson Perry. So who does that leave? Which no-longer-living artists still matter to people at large? Turner? Constable? Ravilious???

Barbara Hepworth, photo copyright Peter Keen, 1950s, NPG
These are all men, obviously, and here we have the first potential source of conflict. Today we are used to men and women sharing the white cube of the contemporary art space, but this relative equality is a recent phenomenon. Before Laura Knight's generation successful women artists were few and far between, and even during the 20th century there were not many household names. Come to think of it, Dame Laura would be a good choice, not a modern like Barbara Hepworth but a painter whose work has given pleasure to many.

I can't see AGD plumping for anyone from the last century. His History of British Art got through the interwar years in just a couple of pages. But Modern British is in the ascendant, and the auction houses would love to see Hepworth's face printed on the piles of money the publicity would generate. She has a good face for a banknote, a serious face with plenty of character. Then again, choosing Lucien Freud might give the Queen an opportunity for revenge; large HM on one side, tiny Lucien on the other...

JMW Turner, self-portrait, Tate
Is it unusual for a banknote to have potential as a marketing tool? I don't think the current incumbent of the £20 note, Adam Smith, makes anyone much money, does he? But an artist's image would surely do wonders for sales, especially if it's someone whose reputation could use a bit of a boost. Sir So'n'so Somebody, as featured on the new £20 note. Will there be lobbying by Interested Parties? What about artist in the Bank's own collection? It could all get rather murky.

Tim Spall as Turner, in Mr Turner, 2014
No doubt the bookies' money will be on one of the big names from the glory days of yore. Turner must be the front-runner, although people might not recognise him unless Timothy Spall reprises his movie role for the occasion. But there is a self-portrait in the Tate which would be perfect; the note could be launched at TB, alongside the mother of all Turner exhibitions. As well as the actual notes (Gift aided for the occasion?) we could buy postcards of the notes, not to mention teatowels, pencil cases and what have you.

Thomas Gainsborough, self-portrait, NPG
Gainsborough would make a rather more elegant subject. Although he hasn't been portrayed on the big screen lately, he would be no more obscure than Sir John Houblon, the 17th century banker who presently adorns £50 notes. His self-portraits are suitably dignified, whereas Turner may be a bit wild for a banknote. Stubbs is another option, perhaps represented by one of his horses. Hogarth is a contender too. And William Morris, though I'm not sure how he felt about the banking system. And Rossetti...

But the winner will no doubt be Turner, which is a shame. It would be fun to have the kids asking, 'Dad, lend us a Grayson.'

Monday, 18 May 2015

Ravilious, Auerbach, Englishness

Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, 1938, painted at Capel-y-Ffin, Wales; described by ER as 'a bit Chinese'
I had a phone call last week from columnist Ian Jack, who wanted my opinion on the subject of Eric Ravilious and Englishness; his typically nuanced and thought-provoking article is here. The fact that Ian is Scottish made our conversation particularly interesting, from my side at least. My father was from north of the border, and bar the accidents of fate I might have grown up in Edinburgh. If I now think of myself as English it is perhaps because 'British' carries echoes of the imperial past, although it may have more to do with cricket.

Currier and Ives, Champions of the Mississippi, 1866 lithograph: a similar print hung above ER's mantlepiece
The Ravilious name is not especially English-sounding (it's probably Huguenot), and during the war he sometimes found himself rather desperately identifying himself to bayonet-wielding sentries. As Baptists Eric's parents were part of the Non-Conformist movement that opposed the authority of the Church of England; he abandoned Chapel but retained a fundamental belief in personal freedom. This is reflected in his refusal to join the various movements on offer (Surrealists, Unit One, etc), in a lack of enthusiasm for party politics, in his (and his wife's) complicated romantic lives, and above all in his determination to follow his own vision. Conflict with wartime superiors was one result of this attitude.

Was that vision particularly English? There are paintings on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery which were created in Scotland, Wales, France and Norway, as well as England, but Ravilious was perhaps most inspired by the South Downs. The simplicity of the landscape, the chalky soil and the pale light appealed to him; horses and giants carved into the chalk resembled wood engravings, and so were perhaps more attractive still.

Georges Seurat, The Channel of Gravelines, 1890 oil, Indianapolis Museum of Art
It doesn't follow, however, that his choice of particular subjects reflected a nationalist or even patriotic impulse. True, Ravilious and his friend Edward Bawden were influenced by English artists of the past (Palmer, Cotman, Towne) but their interest in the local and particular was fuelled by exposure to the work of Van Gogh, Seurat and sundry other European painters (some of whom had been inspired, circuitously, by Constable). Did Van Gogh paint in Arles because he was on a retainer from the local tourist board? Was Monet out to boost Rouen Cathedral?

Ravilious had plans at different times to visit the United States, Greenland and Russia, among other places. Had he survived the war perhaps he would have beaten David Hockney to California. His favourite book, after all, was 'Huckleberry Finn'.

Hokusai, Ocean Waves, c1830
Having said all this, is there something peculiarly English about the way Ravilious approached his subjects - in his style? Again, there are no simple answers. He began his career as a draughtsman who tinted his drawings, and as such was following a very long insular tradition of line drawing, one that Paul Nash related back to Celtic design and medieval book illustration. (Nash, incidentally, talked in terms of British art, not English.) There's a brightness and clarity about his watercolours that, again, seems to have insular roots, although these are equally features of 19th century Japanese prints - which also display a marvellous use of line. You could probably argue that much of the Englishness we see in Ravilious comes instead, indirectly, from Asia.

Eric Ravilious, Storm, 1941, British Council

It's a tangled business, this, and to illuminate I'd like to introduce Frank Auerbach, the German-born British painter who has a retrospective at Tate Britain this year. Reading an interview in The Guardian yesterday I was struck by his humour, modesty and good sense. In particular he had this to say about art history:

“Aesthetics is more interesting than history. I wonder sometimes if people who are taught art history were asked to describe pictures, rather than put them in various sociological or historical settings of influence, how much they could say that would make somebody else see more in them. Does the quality of appreciation somehow atrophy when they assume that everything is part of a general story, rather than the general story being a vast mass of the mediocre and a few really great pictures which make the whole activity worthwhile, and which have a curious fellowship throughout the ages? Finally what matters is whether the picture works, and that could be Giotto or Fragonard or Monet, and finally the criteria as to why it works are the same. In a way I think of a Cézanne and a Giotto being closer to each other than a Cézanne and a Pissarro.”

So we can discuss Ravilious in all sorts of ways, and reach all manner of conclusions. But in the end it's the pictures that matter.

Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert is published by Thames & Hudson on 25 May, priced £19.95. The exhibition will be at Tate Britain, London, SW1P from 9 October.

Ravilious continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until August 31. I'm doing a series of three talks at Dulwich, starting this week (info in sidebar, over that way -->)

Monday, 11 May 2015


I travel quite a lot doing research and giving lectures, but it isn't very often I come across a town like Hastings. Admittedly I was only there one night, but the place made an impression. I was there to give a talk on Eric Ravilious at the Beacon Arts Centre, an eccentric and altogether delightful institution that I would recommend as a place to stay; unusually for an arts venue, it also does B and B.

A former boarding school, the Beacon is, as its name suggests, perched on a hillside overlooking the town, with a garden surrounded by trees that made me feel as though I'd wandered into a Paul Nash painting. The audience for my talk was so lively I wondered at first whether I'd be able to get a word in; I also recorded my youngest lecturee, an exuberant 9-month old baby.

The next morning I set off down the hill into Old Hastings, negotiating a maze of alleys and stairways between houses and gardens. With its junk shops, cafes and characterful old buildings the place is a bit like Rye, but more real and less postcardy. In a particularly notable shop called Robert's Rummage I found a copy of 'Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Glory and the Grief' with photos by Edwin Smith; the proprietor described how, on a recent visit to Pompeii, he had stood for hours in a queue for the brothel.

'Crazy,' he said, 'The place had been shut for 2,000 years!'

On down the hill to the seafront, which has been known since pre-Norman days as the Stade. I'd planned to have a look at the Jerwood Gallery before catching the train home, but ended up wandering round for hours. There can't be many other stretches of the south coast where so much is going on, from an impressive array of seaside entertainments - gokarts, crazy golf, etc - to the bustle of an extremely active local fishing industry.

I remembered reading a few years ago that the siting of Jerwood on the Stade had been unpopular with the local fishing community, but I had no idea quite how close the new building is to the fishermen (about twenty yards) and quite how striking the contrast is between the workaday sprawl of huts, boats and gear, and the elegant gallery.

The Jerwood really is a fine building, rather unassuming from the outside and nicely proportioned within to fit a collection of Modern British Art that is generally on a modest scale. There was a small but invigorating exhibition of Edward Burra watercolours upstairs - including two beautiful 1920s landscapes - and a rather grander show of Scottish paintings that featured some lovely work by Anne Redpath, John Bellany and Craigie Aitchison, among others.

Edward Burra, The Harbour, Hastings, 1947 (copyright Burra est/Lefevre Fine Art)

One or two fishing boats had made it into the Burra show, but there were many more out on the shingle, showing great variety in age and design but sharing a robust fitness-for-purpose. With a brisk sou'westerly blowing and the sea crashing on the stones below this was the sort of scene that inspired a number of the artists on show at Jerwood. Let's hope both the gallery and the fishermen enjoy a prosperous future.

PS If you enjoyed this post, then you may well enjoy the one over here.