Thursday, 28 November 2019

Eric Ravilious: Downland Man

Eric Ravilious, The Vale of the White Horse, 1939
Since researching 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs' a dozen years ago I've been wanting to curate an exhibition devoted to the artist and the landscape he studied from boyhood. And now I've been given my chance.

'Eric Ravilious: Downland Man' will open at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, in the autumn of 2020 and we have some fabulous loans lined up. I've come to the realisation that Ravilious wasn't really a landscape painter, let alone a topographical artist. Although he started out emulating the 18th century watercolourists he admired, he developed a vision that had little to do with nature and much more to do with artifice. And he found in the Downs a great deal that was man-made.

But enough of that for now. The Wiltshire Museum is not a wealthy institution and its staff are busily fund-raising so that the exhibition can go ahead as planned. Do have a look at their website if you'd like to find out more...

Monday, 19 August 2019

'Reflection' gets FOUR STARS in The Observer!

John Armstrong, Study for The City, 1952 (Ingram Collection)
After two years of planning and a hectic week hanging 130 assorted paintings, sculptures, works on paper, etc, my exhibition 'Reflection' opened at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, on Saturday. Subtitled 'British Art in an Age of Change' it brings together 20th and 21st century artworks from the Ingram Collection and the Ferens permanent collection.

Despite being held 200 miles from London the exhibition has had some astonishing press over the weekend. On Saturday it was reviewed in The Financial Times, and was Exhibition of the Week in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, with a 'Don't Miss!' mention in The Guardian. The Sunday Telegraph also awarded it Exhibition of the Week, then Rachel Cooke wrote a generous and thoughtful review in The Observer. The Yorkshire Post featured the show on its front page last Thursday.

Like all regional art institutions, Ferens Art Gallery faces considerable financial pressure at the moment. It doesn't charge an entry fee, even for special exhibitions, and to secure public funding needs as many people as possible to visit. That's why reviews/mentions in the press are so important. The show's open until January so if you're interested and you're able to get to Hull please go along and have a look.

There are some great pubs nearby, by the way, including The Minerva (overlooking the Humber) and The Whalebone (near the city's Banksy) - just in case you need an added incentive.

'Reflection: British Art in an Age of Change' is at Ferens Art Gallery until January 2020.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Rethinking Civil Society

One of the things I picked up from Peggy Angus when researching her life and work was her belief that art should be useful. She was interested in the subject of patronage, perceiving that artists at different periods in history have been supported by particular groups - the Catholic church, landowners, 19th century industrialists. Looking at art history in this way you realise that the dominant art form of each period reflects the needs and aspirations of patrons as much as anything else.

Looking around her in the 1960s and 1970s she came to the conclusion that the patronage on offer was supporting art that had little appeal outside a small circle of artists, collectors and industry insiders. She made a plea for a much broader kind of Creative Patronage which would see artists paid not only to produce art but also to teach others in all kinds of settings. To this end she established a Creative People's Workshop in Camden, London, which helped groups of older people make art and stage exhibitions.

Her motto of 'Art for Life' is one that has stayed with me, and it informed the way I put together the exhibition that opens at Ferens Art Gallery in August. 'Reflection: British Art in an Age of Change' brings together almost 150 works from the Ingram Collection and Ferens' own collection. It asks visitors to look at the paintings, sculptures and works on paper not in art historical terms but as artefacts that tell us something about their makers and the world they experienced, and about ourselves. I suppose you could say that we're putting the artworks to use, but at the same time we're encouraging people to look more closely at the works themselves.

When he heard about the exhibition, Tim Stanton of the University of York got in touch. He's leading a project called 'Rethinking Civil Society', which looks at the history of civil society and also considers its possible futures. He asked me to write down some thoughts about the role of art in civil society. With the shade of Peggy Angus hovering at my shoulder, I obliged...

If you're interested, you'll find it here...


Thursday, 11 July 2019

An Outbreak of Talent: the Film!

Paul Nash in 1924, photographed by Lance Sieveking
“Ten years ago I was teaching design at the Royal College of Art. I was fortunate in being there during an outbreak of talent, and can remember at least eight men and women who have made names for themselves since then in a variety of different directions: in Painting, Edward Burra; Applied Design, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, and Eric Ravilious; Textiles, Enid Marx; Pottery, Bradon; also William Chappel in Stage Design and Barbara Ker-Seymer in Photography.”

Paul Nash made these comments in 1935, looking back to his brief period teaching at the RCA (1924-5). Picking up this idea, the Fry Art Gallery held an exhibition several years ago that featured all of the artists named. More recently the Fry organised a symposium on the theme. Meanwhile, film maker Thomas Volker has been busy interviewing various people who know about the artists, and is planning to use the material in a film. Yes, it will be called 'An Outbreak of Talent'.

You can read more about the project here, and watch various clips from the interviews. There may be one or two familiar faces...

An Outbreak of Talent is a film by Thomas Volker.

Friday, 7 June 2019

NEWSFLASH!! 'Reflection' at Ferens Art Gallery opens August!

Eric Ravilious, Rye Harbour, 1938 (Ingram Collection)

Can art help with the national identity crisis in the time of Brexit? Opening in August at Ferens Art Gallery, Reflection: British Art in an Age of Change explores over a century of creative achievement by a diverse body of artists whose loves and fears, doubts and dreams mirror our own.

Featuring more than 130 works drawn from the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art and the permanent collection of the Ferens Art Gallery, Reflection presents a dynamic and diverse vision of Britain and British art which asks questions about identity and belonging. What does it mean to be British? How do we define British art? How do we present ourselves to the world?

As well as paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints, curator James Russell has selected works created over the last century that employ collage, photography and video – from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s charcoal on paper Standing male nude (1913) to Victoria Sin’s film Part Three / Cthulhu Through The Looking Glass (2017).

He says “It isn’t the medium or the date of the work that matters, it’s what the artist is saying about the world and their place in it. Works that are by turns troubling and funny, serene and dystopian, straightforward and strange – reflecting the very different views and experiences of the artists.”

Some of the most famous names of modern British art are included; from Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, John Piper and David Hockney to Bridget Riley, Barbara Hepworth and Elizabeth Frink. Frink’s Walking Madonna (1981) is one of several rarely-seen large-scale sculptures, which also includes Meat Porters by Ralph Brown (1959). Alongside exquisite watercolours by Eric Ravilious (Channel Fishers, undated, and Rye Harbour, 1938) and Paul Nash (Elm Trees in Garden Landscape, c.1930), visitors will experience the powerful vision of Peter Howson (such as Resurrection (1999) and Mr Great Heart (1996).

Portraiture is a particular strength of both collections and is well represented in the exhibition, with works by artists such as Wyndham Lewis (Self Portrait, 1932), John Bratby (Self portrait with yellow background, not dated), Bridget Riley (Woman at Tea-table, not dated) and Lucy Jones (Wheelie, 2012).

The seriousness of some works is leavened with humour elsewhere, with light-hearted paintings and drawings by Leonard Rosoman (Fattipufs and Thinnifers, not dated), Edward Ardizzone (General staff of the 3rd Grade, 1944) and Edgar Ainsworth (Blackpool, 1945).

Reflection also includes contemporary artists who address the subjects of identity and belonging in intriguing ways, among them Victoria Sin (Fun Bag, 2015) and Gillian Wearing (Self Portrait as my Uncle, Bryan Gregory, 2003). The inclusion of recent work demonstrates the remarkable vitality of art in Britain, but the exhibition as a whole reminds us that we have endured tough times before. 

James Russell again “Artists have always played a valuable role in expressing feelings and exploring doubts shared – but not necessarily articulated – by the rest of us. Many of the featured artists have found joy in our world, but a few have battled with despair. Some were born in Britain and travelled elsewhere through choice or necessity; others were born elsewhere and travelled here. Some worked a hundred years ago; others are just starting on their careers. Whether working in oils, bronze, pencil, collage, watercolour, printmaking or film, each of these artists has the capacity to help us look at the world afresh or to address difficult feelings – to reflect.

Ingram Collection Curator Jo Baring said “The Ingram Collection is committed to showcasing our museum quality art collection around the UK, increasing public access to and engagement with art. It is a privilege to work with the Ferens, whose permanent collection is of such high quality, and I’m really excited about the show that James is creating. It promises to be both a visual treat and a timely reminder that the issues artists were grappling with in the last century are once again relevant to contemporary audiences.”

Kirsten Simister, Curator of Art, Ferens Art Gallery “The Ingram Collection provides a wonderfully rich window into British modern and contemporary art that creates a natural foil for the Ferens holdings. We’re honoured to work with the Ingram team and freelance curator James Russell to celebrate our joint strengths and aim to bring visitors fresh insight into many of our less familiar and more rarely seen works as part of the exhibition.”

Reflection: British Art in an Age of Change opens at Ferens Art Gallery on August 17.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Symposium - An Outbreak of Talent

Paul Nash photographed by Lance Sieveking, 1924

“Ten years ago I was teaching at the Royal College of Art. I was fortunate to be there during an outbreak of talent, and can remember at least eight men and women who have made names for themselves since then in a variety of different directions; in Painting, Edward Burra; Applied Design, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, and Eric Ravilious; Textiles, Enid Marx; Pottery, Bradon (sic), also William Chappel in Stage Design and Barbara Ker-Seymer in Photography.” 

Paul Nash writing in Signature magazine, November 1935 

Paul Nash only taught part-time at the Royal College of Art during the academic year 1924/25, but he greatly influenced the careers of some of those whom he mentored. In this Symposium we hope to find out what it was that Nash found in these young artists which caused him him to single them out ten years later.

I'll be talking about Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden... The Symposium is being run by the Fry Art Gallery, but it will be held at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge on 6 July 2019 - info and booking form on the Fry website.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

In Relation: Eric Ravilious & Tirzah Garwood

Tirzah Garwood, Hornet and Wild Rose, 1940s (Towner Gallery)

The story of Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood began in 1925 when the 22-year old Ravilious returned to his boyhood home to teach at the Eastbourne School of Art. Then in her late teens, a Colonel’s daughter and thoroughly respectable, Tirzah was already a student and observed the new staff member dispassionately:

‘He had a smart double-breasted suit and shy, diffident manners not unlike those of a curate and, with my family’s training behind me, I quickly spotted that he wasn’t quite a gentleman…’

Indeed, Ravilious was from a Chapel-going family, his father a small businessman whose fortunes were adversely affected by periods of religious mania. To Tirzah’s family, Ravilious was not at all the right sort; nevertheless a friendship gradually developed between the pair. He admired her drawings and wood engravings, in which she took what he had taught her technically but used the medium to explore her own subjects in her own way. As a student Ravilious had developed a distinctive approach to wood engraving, using pointed tools (scorpers) of his own devising to build up contrasting areas of pattern. Tirzah used a similar method here and there in her work, but a quick comparison shows that her interests were quite different; as she began exhibiting with the Society of Wood Engravers and gaining her first commissions from the BBC and the Curwen Press, she took great delight in producing caricatures of her family and various relatives.

By the end of the 1920s Tirzah had escaped the confines of respectable Eastbourne and was enjoying the artistic life in London (under the watchful eye of various Aunts), where Eric was also living. It was in a sense this unconventional, artistic life that she opted for when forced to choose between Ravilious and a far more suitable suitor: ‘a pipe-smoking husband’. She married into her new life in 1930.

Eric Ravilious, Tiger Moth, 1942 (Tate)

The couple moved into a flat on the Chiswick/Hammersmith border, almost on the bank of the Thames (and just downriver from Durham Wharf – see below), and in the spring enjoyed Boat Race parties with their neighbours. ‘We were very happy,’ Tirzah wrote, ‘and we both worked away at various jobs. Eric was illustrating Twelfth Night for the Golden Cockerel Press and I helped him cut away white backgrounds and take prints and I made chair covers and cushions…’  She also continued to make her own engravings, while Eric encouraged her to continue her education in London’s museums and libraries. And they quickly began evolving a shared aesthetic, visiting junk shops and collecting books, furniture and cactus plants. For a while cactuses were a favourite subject for their wood engravings.

The renting of a holiday place in rural Essex led in the mid-thirties to a permanent move to Castle Hedingham, but by this time the first thrill of marriage had worn off. Eric had one affair, then another, much more serious relationship with Helen Binyon, daughter of Laurence and (many years later) Eric’s first biographer. At one stage he left Tirzah and their first baby John, intending to move in with Helen, but returned. Tirzah meanwhile was in love with fellow artist John Aldridge. How on earth did they keep going? Honesty, it seems, was the key. Like the Bloomsbury set, they and most of their friends loathed the stuffy respectability of their upbringing and believed strongly in personal freedom. Neither Eric nor Tirzah kept secrets from each other, but discussed each other’s love problems with astonishing candour. Anyhow, they endured, so that when the free-and-easy days of peace were over and the difficult war years began, they were still together as a family. The warmth of Eric’s wartime letters is testament to their success. 

Eric’s achievements as an artist in these years are well-known, Tirzah’s hardly at all. By the mid-1930s she had more or less given up wood engraving (probably due to falling demand occasioned by the recession) and instead taken up marbling paper, becoming extremely adept at creating designs that were put to practical use as lampshades or endpapers for books; for very little money you can pick up Everyman editions from the late 1930s that carry Eric’s designs (in wood engraving) on the cover, and Tirzah’s endpapers.

She continued to draw too, demonstrating in her work a similar clarity to that seen in Eric’s watercolours and a similar gaze - at once innocent and a little mysterious, even disturbing. This vision of hers evolved rapidly after Eric’s death in 1942 when, in spite of having three young children, then a new husband and a long and eventually unsuccessful fight against cancer, she emerged as a quite remarkable artist. Perhaps she had been intimidated or in some way held back by Eric’s presence, or perhaps his death opened some door for her (as bereavement did for Paul Nash). But in her 3-D paper constructions of houses and shops, and in her oil paintings of birds and animals, insects and plants there are touches of brilliance. When she died in 1951 a remarkable talent was lost. 

This is an extract from 'In Relation: Nine Couples who Transformed Modern British Art', available from Sansom & Co. Eric and Tirzah feature in my lecture 'Lover, Teacher, Muse... or Rival?' which I'm giving at various places over the next few months - see side panel for details >>>

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In Relation: Laura & Harold Knight

Harold Knight, Laura Johnson aged 14,1891 (RA)

When she died in 1970, at the age of ninety-two, Dame Laura Knight RA was the epitome of a national treasure – an establishment figure whose art was reassuringly approachable and unthreatening. It was hard to imagine her upsetting the Royal Academy or having work dismissed as ‘vulgar’, yet Knight’s long battle to express herself freely as an artist, on the same terms as her male contemporaries, did involve challenging the status quo and offending its guardians. Her husband Harold stood beside her throughout.

The couple met in 1890, at the Nottingham Government School of Design. Laura Johnson was thirteen. Her father had abandoned the family when she was young, leaving the family in dire financial straits, but her mother taught part-time at the school and secured her a place as an ‘artisan student’, free of charge. On arrival Laura was entranced by the seventeen year-old Harold Knight, an architect’s son and the school’s star pupil. Laura herself was a live wire, bold and unconventional, criticized by other women for her heavy-handed – mannish, as they saw it – approach to drawing. A year later Harold painted her portrait.

‘While he was painting it,’ Laura later wrote, ‘I first got a hint that I meant as much to him as he to me.’

As their friendship blossomed it was underpinned by the shared conviction that their lives should be devoted to art. Success as a portrait painter came quickly to Harold, enabling them to marry in 1903, although it was Laura who proposed. Far from settling down they set off travelling together. Having experienced the art colony at Staithes, they travelled repeatedly to Holland (showing their work at joint exhibitions in London) before eventually finding their way to Cornwall. While Harold’s portraits put food on the table Laura gradually discovered her vision, moving away from her husband’s solid, studio-based technique towards a much freer style. Working outdoors, she sought to capture the world as she saw it - animated, in motion. The move to Newlyn brought light flooding into her canvases, and she was away.

Already long established as an art colony, Newlyn boasted a small but lively population of young artists, among whom Laura’s exuberant personality found full expression. There were dances and parties with friends like the Procters, and while the more conservative Newlyn residents were horrified by the artists’ free and easy ways the colony gave Laura the opportunity and licence to explore a subject forbidden to her according the conventions of the day. As a student she and her fellow women were denied the opportunity to study nude models, and it was partly in reaction to this that she painted ‘Self-Portrait’ (1913), which shows her at work painting her friend Ella Naper, who is naked. The painting was shown and admired in Newlyn, but rejected by the Royal Academy; when it was shown elsewhere in London one critic commented that it should have been better left in the studio.

Laura Knight, The Coil of Hair (Dover Museums)

Laura’s extrovert personality and interest in painting women has given rise to speculation about her sexuality. Perhaps she was attracted to women, or perhaps she simply liked painting them. It’s unlikely anyone will ever know, so in the meantime let’s consider her relationship with Harold. According to some authors he found Laura’s increasing success and relentless joie de vivre hard to handle; he’s presented as withdrawn and grumpy. According to others he was just quiet, a stable presence in Laura’s life. A man of iron principle he insisted, when called up for military service in 1916, on registering as a conscientious objector, despite the frailty of his health and the inevitable abuse he suffered as a result.

Yet Harold remained a popular and successful portrait painter, and in 1926 he was commissioned to produce a series of portraits at John Hopkins Hospital in the US city of Baltimore; as soon as he had some dollars in his pocket he paid for Laura to join him. A year later it was Laura who was enjoying success, becoming only the second woman to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. They continued to exhibit together, with shows at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle (1933) and the Castle Art Gallery (1934) and later in the decade became full members of the Royal Academy; the first married couple to achieve this feat. On her election, however, she became the first woman in history to sit on the Selection Committee for the RA Summer Show, and it was this kind of thing that made the news. Already a Dame of the Order of the British Empire, Laura loved playing to the gallery, yet her choice of subjects – fishermen and their families, circus people, gypsies – suggests that she was more comfortable among people who lived on the margins of conventional society. Among educated people her lack of polish perhaps made her uncomfortable.

Harold Knight died in 1961, when he and Laura had been married fifty-eight years. Neither had ever wanted to children. Instead they had embarked with youthful enthusiasm on a lifelong adventure in art, supporting one another throughout. Writing about her life, Laura recalled how in 1933 she fell at home and broke her leg. The doctor insisted she would be crippled for life but Harold disagreed and set to work on her rehabilitation, ‘giving up his time to support me, step by step, eventually giving me the courage to walk again.’

This is an excerpt from my book 'In Relation: Nine Couples who Transformed Modern British Art' (Sansom & Co), which was the catalogue for my exhibition at the RWA Bristol last year. The Knights feature in my lecture 'Lover, Teacher, Muse... or Rival?' which I happen to be giving today...