Thursday, 21 January 2016

Fun at the Fair

John Piper, Beach and Starfish, 1933/34, copyright artist's estate/DACS 2016

I was mildly astonished to see so many people coming into the London Art Fair yesterday evening, as Tim Mainstone and I were leaving. Most of the visitors seemed to be fairly young, and I wished I had a clipboard handy so I could pretend to be a market researcher and find out what they had all come to see. I could have taken notes on the show as well. As it is, I can only a remember a few of the things I really liked.

As museum partner, Jerwood Gallery set the tone with a mixture of interesting Modern British paintings and drawings with a coastal theme, offset by Marcus Harvey's startling bronze of Margaret Thatcher as a sort of hideous mermaid. A particular highlight was the John Piper collage, 'Beach and Starfish', which must rank near the top of the chart, Piper-wise. I hadn't really looked at it carefully before, and was struck by the reference to Nazis in the newspaper used for the cliffs, and by the shiny fabric flag.

Peter Clark, Handle with Care, collage, 2015, artist's copyright, Portland Gallery
Interesting to compare a Piper collage of Knowlton Church, Dorset, which was on the Portland Gallery stand; a sketch, almost, in cut paper, that captured nicely the geometry of Neolithic circle and Medieval church. This was set alongside contemporary collage by Peter Clark, whose work hovers intriguingly between the 1960s and the present.

It can be tricky when the old and the new hang side by side, as the former can seem rather drab and the former too shiny, by which I don't mean literally gleaming but untouched by time. If a painting from the 1930s has survived this long and is being exhibited with a five figure price tag then it must have some worth (reasons the art-overloaded visitor), whereas new work is much harder to evaluate. You just have to trust your instinct, I suppose.

Patrick Hughes, Paolozzi Robotski, oil on board, 2015, artist's copyright, Flowers
I was immediately drawn to Patrick Hughes trompe l'oeil painting 'Paolozzi Robotski' at Flowers, initially because it was fun and subsequently (on the second go-round) because it was beautifully crafted.

Colour and the smell of oil paint attracted me to the Long and Ryle stand, plus they were busily hanging a large painting. Nothing like a bit of bustle in a gallery to catch the attention. Chatting with the staff I learned that I've walked past the gallery in Pimlico a hundred times without noticing; I liked several of their artists, contemporary painters with a sense of history, an upbeat approach and lots of style.

Simon Casson, Eegrass, oil on canvas, 2015, artist's copyright, Long & Ryle
The award for most entertaining object probably goes to Pertwee, Anderson and Gold for 'Byron's Bong', which was pretty much what the title suggests. Apparently it had been sold for a price in the tens of millions, which is only right and proper for such an important historical artefact.

Finally, two very different galleries from Edinburgh made me want to take an art tour north of the border. While The Scottish Gallery had (among other things) a couple of lovely works on paper by JD Fergusson, who I would rate alongside any British artist of the 20th century, Arusha Gallery had possibly my favourite artwork of the night, 'Woman with flowers' by Romina Ressia - a photograph that looked like a painting, of a woman who might have stepped out of a Hammershoi interior.

Romina Ressia, Woman with flowers, photograph, 2015, artist's copyright, Arusha Gallery
The London Art Fair is at the Business Design Centre, Islington, until the weekend.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Eric Ravilious: 'Halstead Road in Snow'

Eric Ravilious, Halstead Road in Snow, 1935 (private collection)

Tyre tracks disappear down a snow-covered lane, beside an elegant Georgian house, as if the people who made them were here just a moment ago. We are in Castle Hedingham, at the junction of Queen Street and Sheepcot Road – also known as Halstead Road – and snow is falling, large flakes covering the picture surface and pulling the eye this way and that. Ravilious was fascinated by winter, relishing the light and colours peculiar to the season, and on this occasion he hurried over breakfast so as not to miss a morning snow shower, starting a drawing outside and then finishing it in his studio.

‘Scratching the spots all over the drawing later with a penknife was a change,’ he wrote to Helen Binyon, ‘And I enjoyed it. I have in mind a series of drawings of houses in this village because in Winter they are such a lovely colour.’

He was fortunate to live in a village with many fine buildings, some dating back to the 15th century. Sheepcot House, which can be seen behind the tree in this painting, was built during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and was the birthplace in 1682 of naturalist Mark Catesby. He became later in life a distinguished painter, so much so that his painting 'A blue grosbeak (passerina caerulea) and sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana)' was included in Tate Britain’s 2011 exhibition Watercolour, in which ‘The Vale of the White Horse’ by Eric Ravilious also featured.

Today the horse chestnut tree still stands on Chapel Green, as the patch of grass at the junction is known, but the lanes are not so quiet. The tracks shown here – loose, flowing lines in contrast to the hard geometry of the buildings - were made by bicycles and prams, and they remind us that pre-war Castle Hedingham was a predominantly pedestrian settlement. Local shops catered to most needs, while coal, bread and milk were delivered. On one occasion Ravilious wrote,

‘The milkman made me laugh today. We write up any money owing on the side of the door, and I asked if we owed tenpence. He put his head in and said, “Yes, the writing’s on the wall.”’

And then there was the postman, on whom Ravilious relied almost totally for communication with the world outside the village. With telephones still comparatively rare and unreliable, all arrangements, commissions and payments were made by post, and waiting for the postman was a national pastime.

‘I woke up with a feeling that I wouldn’t sleep any more and might as well get up,’ Ravilious reported one winter morning, ‘And saw the aged postman down the street. He took his time of course – he has a zigzag course and a shuffle that has all time before it – and until each letter has been looked at carefully with a lamp you don’t get it.’

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

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

'Don Quixote' in Pictures

Beggarstaff Brothers (William Nicholson & James Pryde), Don Quixote, 1895
I love 'Don Quixote', though I've only read the book in translation (Edith Grossman's version is my current favourite). What makes it so extraordinary is, to my mind, the fact that we as readers admire the strange old would-be knight despite knowing that he is delusional. We inhabit his fantasies even as we simultaneously share his fellow characters' amusement.

This unlikely co-existence of different perspectives makes the illustrator's job particularly tricky. The book may abound in visually striking incidents - jousting at windmills being perhaps the most famous - but how do you communicate in a picture the layer of reading experience in which the old man's warped vision of reality is noble and true? In fact many artists have responded to the text by presenting Don Quixote as the knight he imagines himself to be; I had a picture of the Beggarstaffs poster when I was young and it gave me the (offputting) impression that this business of knights and windmills was rather solemn.

On the other hand, some of the 17th/18th century illustrations are too obviously comic. The old man's journey is one that takes him through physical hardship, many beatings, near starvation and humiliation. His refusal to give up his noble quest is noble, even though his actions are ridiculous.

Don Quixote reading, Adolf Schwedt, C19

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote Reading, 1868

Svetlin Vassilev, Don Quixote Reading, 2003

Honore Daumier, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 1870, Courtauld

Angelo Agostini, Don Quixote (magazine cover), 1880s

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955

Edward Hopper, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 1899

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 1868

Svetlin Vassilev, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, 2003

Charles-Antoine Coypel, Don Quixote Fighting the Wineskins, early C18

Roc Riera Rojas, Don Quixote Jousting Windmills, 1968

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote Jousting Windmills, 1868

Print after Coypel, Don Quixote at the Enchanted Inn, early C18

Roc Riera Rojas, Sancho Panza tossed in a blanket, 1968

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote charging sheep, 1868

In the end I think Gustave Dore remains the one to beat: his vision of 'Don Quixote' is deranged, serious, noble and absurd, all at the same time. I imagine his illustrations will be included in the British Library's exhibition devoted to the subject, which is scheduled to open soon.

Having said that, I really like the work of Svetlin Vassilev, who is Bulgarian and lives in Greece. More about him here

Monday, 11 January 2016

Ravilious Talk Dates 2016

Eric Ravilious, Cuckmere Haven, 1939, Towner
I've been doing a bit of planning for the year and can confirm some Ravilious lectures that I'll be giving over the next few months. If you haven't been to one of my talks before they tend to be fairly relaxed events, entertaining (I hope!) and illustrated with images as large and clear as I can make them.

In February I'll be giving a talk for the Art Fund in Bristol, followed by a hop across the Severn in early March to address the Welsh Contemporary Art Society. Just after Easter I'm heading to Wimborne (in Dorset) to give a lecture to the local NADFAS group, and then in May I'll be honing my navigation skills with talks at the Lexden Arts Festival in Suffolk and for NADFAS groups in Hereford and Appleby-in-Westmorland (Cumbria).

Last time I gave a talk to NADFAS in Hereford my train was stopped in its tracks by a landslide, although I did somehow arrive almost on time. I'm hoping nothing that dramatic happens this time around.

In June I'll be with NADFAS again, this time in North Yorkshire, the in early July I'm taking part in a symposium in Cambridge entitled 'Rural Moderns?' and devoted to the work of Ravilious, Bawden, Michael Rothenstein and other Bardfield artists.

You can find details in the sidebar, with links to the host organisation/venue where one is available.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Ravilious / Shakespeare

Twelfth Night, illustrated by Eric Ravilious, Golden Cockerel Press 1932

At the Royal College of Art, Enid Marx later recalled, she and Ravilious performed in a medieval Christmas play. ‘We wore medieval costumes, Ravilious in parti-coloured tights. I do remember he looked rather like a figure in his own engraving (Shakespeare for Golden Cockerel).' Perhaps he drew on the memory of college days when working on 'Twelfth Night', the last of Robert Gibbings' great Golden Cockerel productions.

Planned as a lavish successor to Gill's 'Canterbury Tales', the book was initially priced at five guineas, but as the recession deepened Gibbings wrote to Ravilious,'I do not think there is a dog's chance of selling more than 250 copies at three guineas...' Other publishers might have abandoned the project altogether, but Gibbings was made of stern stuff. Ravilious agreed to a reduced fee, and 'Twelfth Night' appeared in 1932.

In one scene Viola asks the Clown, 'Dost thou live by thy tabor?' Ravilious had a lot in common with the Clown, professing to Gibbings, 'I'm in pretty low waters myself financially...' but carrying on regardless.

This is an extract from 'Ravilious: Wood Engravings', published by The Mainstone Press.