Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden: Prospectus

Widely admired today as an illustrator and printmaker, Edward Bawden (1903-89) is hardly a ‘forgotten artist’. Yet one aspect of his career has been neglected until now: his role in the 1930s as a critically-acclaimed modern painter.

The purpose of 'The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden' is to set the record straight by bringing together the largest collection of the artist’s pre-war watercolours ever assembled. Most were originally exhibited at one or other of Bawden’s major solo shows – at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1933 and the Leicester Galleries five years later – exhibitions that impressed critics and delighted collectors.

It has taken three years to assemble this remarkable collection of pictures, many of which were, as the title of the book suggests, lost. Privately-owned artworks can be hard to find after eighty years, but in this case even paintings in public collections were sometimes hidden thanks to Bawden’s choice of obscure fragments of verse or concise descriptions of time and place as titles for his work. These were often replaced by descriptive names. Thus (for example) ‘My heart untravell’d turns to thee’ became ‘Derelict Cab’, making the researcher’s task rather tricky.

The remarkable quest to find and identify Bawden’s pre-war watercolours is described by publisher Tim Mainstone in an amusing, informative essay, which forms the third part of this richly illustrated volume. The Mainstone Press has once again teamed up with James Russell, author of the popular series ‘Ravilious in Pictures’ (and curator of the 2015 blockbuster ‘Ravilious’), who sets the ball rolling with an introductory essay exploring Bawden’s life and career in the 1930s. Scholarship is leavened with humour here, as it is in the wide-ranging captions accompanying the most important element of the book: the watercolours themselves.

These are grouped by exhibition, with additional sections of works from the mid-30s and from the decade’s end. Having photographed many of the watercolours in high resolution specifically for the book, we have chosen a format that allows us to maximise the size of the images. There’s a good reason for this. As one critic observed in the 1930s, these are paintings that deserve more than to be looked at. They deserve to be looked into.

For full specifications of this limited edition book, please see The Mainstone Press website. An illustrated prospectus is available from the publisher.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Edward Bawden: Larchwood

Edward Bawden, Larchwood, 1933-5, Graves Sheffield (artist copyright)

Looking through his friend’s new work in the early summer of 1935, Ravilious was struck by its freshness, and this may well have been one of the pictures Bawden carefully pinned up for him to enjoy. The motif of the lane disappearing enigmatically into the woods is one that has attracted numerous modern artists of a Romantic disposition, from Paul Nash to David Hockney. Bawden’s treatment of the subject is extraordinary, the palette colourful but crisp and the woodland to the right veiled in diaphanous scratched lines which suggest shadow and mystery without attempting to represent directly the dim space beyond the trees.

As so often with Bawden, the originality of the painting lies in his uncanny ability to communicate graphically both the appearance of a place and his feelings. Across the lane – probably looking south from Beslyns [near Great Bardfield]– the bare trees face one another, hinting in their pallor at the lances borne so decoratively by the knights in Paulo Uccello’s celebrated painting ‘The Battle of San Romano’ (1438–40).

This is an excerpt from 'The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden', out soon from The Mainstone Press.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Edward Bawden's Greenhouse

Edward Bawden, My vegetable love (aka The Greenhouse), 1932, Manchester Art Gallery (artist estate)

Cucumber plants fill a greenhouse, pressing so close together there is barely room to squeeze between them. Darkly veined, variegated and disorderly, they seem more alive than they ought to be, an impression enhanced by the contrast between the twisting plants and the pale, angular timbers of the greenhouse roof. Whereas the plants in Eric Ravilious’s later paintings of greenhouses seem to be trapped for ever in a particular moment, these cucumber plants appear to be growing before our eyes; at any moment they might burst out of the picture. Ravilious was, by his own admission, no gardener. Bawden, on the other hand, cared so passionately about horticulture that he rushed home from the Private View of his Zwemmer exhibition to unpack a parcel of plants sent to him by his old friend Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn. It was perhaps through his love for all things vegetable that he met Mr Clapson, the local market gardener who owned this greenhouse and tended these vigorous cucumber plants.

This is an extract from 'The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden', coming soon from The Mainstone Press.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

V&A #MUSEUMOFTHEYEAR Right Place, Wrong Time?

If I was a betting man I would have put a pony on the V&A winning Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016, a contest with only one likely victor, given that the stated criteria for the museum's success - a globally significant exhibition programme and major investment in the permanent display galleries - were ones in which the Arnolfini, York Art Gallery and the rest could not compete. According to a write-up in The Guardian, judges said that 'the sheer number of visitors to the V&A was impressive'. Again, no contest.

I don't wish to criticise either the V&A or the judges. I have great respect for the Art Fund as well, but something is not quite right here. It's all, well, a bit too London. It was fine when the British Museum won the award five years ago, but things were different then.

Over the intervening period regional museums have seen funding cut and cut again. In towns and cities around the country are museums staffed by absurdly small numbers of passionate individuals, who work against the odds to maintain collections and put on exhibitions. I've met numerous curators of small museums and they are universally helpful, positive and full of ideas for exhibitions and improvements. A thriving museum can offer so much, but no museum can thrive on idealism alone.

Given the voting pattern in the recent referendum, and the strong suggestion of an economic, cultural and political divide between the capital and the regions, I wonder whether any of the Art Fund judges suggested awarding the prize to an institution outside London - as a cultural olive branch, if nothing else. But then, how on earth would you justify not giving it to the resurgent V&A?

OK, I'll stop grumbling and accept that the best team won (been doing a lot of that lately). Besides, there is much to be learnt from the V&A's victory. Look at those numbers, first of all. Almost half a million people went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibition, which suggests that we are hungry for culture. That rogue one-man art corporation Banksy has shown more than once that people will travel a long way if you offer them something new or exciting enough - to Weston-super-Mare, even. It's up to curators everywhere to think creatively, break down boundaries between art, fashion and pop culture - and really put on a show.

PS If you like a flutter, I'd put my money on Tate Modern for next year's prize.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Century: 100 Modern British Artists

Dora Carrington, Iris Tree on a Horse, c1920s (Ingram Collection)

Monday got off to a good start with the press release for 'Century', the exhibition I'm curating at The Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, in October. Somehow I've managed to choose more than a hundred works, spanning a hundred years, by a hundred different artists - I hope it will be not only the most-wide ranging Modern British show in years but also an adventure in art - by turns funny and moving, quiet and boisterous, technically dazzling and delightfully simple.

I've chosen what I feel to be the strongest works from the Jerwood and Ingram Collections, focusing particularly on artists of historical importance and/or those who are well represented in one or both collections. I hope people will come away feeling that Modern British art is lively and fun.

Highlights of the exhibition include Dame Elisabeth Frink’s 'Walking Madonna', Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1988 self-portrait sculpture, the delightful 'A Curious Cat' by Ruskin Spear RA and David Hockney’s 'My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean'. The show introduces artists as individuals, but also explores the movements and groups to which they belonged; with a room devoted to the Pop Art and collages of John Piper, Gerald Laing and Sir Anthony Caro.

Women artists are represented with works by Dame Laura Knight, Mary Fedden, Eileen Agar, Rose Wylie and Dod Procter given co-starring roles amongst the box office draws of Dame Elisabeth Frink and Dame Barbara Hepworth. In the case of Hepworth, her reputation is enjoying a renaissance and 'Century' gives Jerwood Gallery visitors a chance to see why.

'Century' also includes works drawn from local artists, as Jerwood Gallery Director Liz Gilmore explains: “We are particularly pleased to be displaying outstanding works by so many artists who lived and worked in East Sussex: including, John Armstrong, Frank Brangwyn, John Bratby, Edward Burra, Eric Gill and Eric Ravilious.”

The show ends with a room which is slightly crazy, which I hope will send people away with the feeling that they’ve had an adventure. It will feature Dora Carrington’s charming portrait 'Iris Tree on a Horse' realised in oil, ink, silver foil and mixed media on glass (see above).

'Century' opens at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, in October. For further info, please contact the gallery.