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...

Thursday, 10 January 2019

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50 50: Barbara Jones

Barbara Jones, The Resort, 1950
A time traveller visiting mid-20th-century Britain would discover a painted world. Restaurants, department stores, schools and hospitals were filled with murals painted by the best artists of the day. Aside from a few celebrated examples (think Rex Whistler at Tate Britain) the most of these have disappeared, and in many cases not even a photograph survives. This is true of the numerous murals painted by Barbara Jones, but occasionally we find a treasure that has escaped the general destruction, whether a mural itself or a study, as this seems to be. The painting of The Resort may have been related to Jones’s preparations for the Festival of Britain in 1951, but almost seventy years later it stands by itself as a work of great individuality and charm. Jones was taught by Eric Ravilious, and there are hints here of her teacher’s preoccupations with nautical design, improbably delicate structures and idiosyncratic wheeled vehicles. Her imaginative world has its own style, however, and its own distinctive palette. As so often with Jones we see perspective and scale treated with a child-like playfulness, but it is clear that a sophisticated visual intelligence is at work. There’s a constant back and forth of dark against light, light against dark, and a beguiling clarity of vision. We sense that the scene, though in no sense realistic, is real, and we share the curiosity and awe of the children admiring the deep sea diver as the ice cream seller looks on.

I wrote this for the exhibition catalogue 'Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists, 1900-1950' (ed Sacha Llewellyn). The exhibition runs until March at The Mercers' Company, London EC2R 8AB. Info here

Thursday, 3 January 2019

A Dance to the Music of Time

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, c1635, Wallace Collection
For a long time I've been meaning to re-read Anthony Powell's waltz through the 20th century, and now I have the perfect excuse. I mean what better way can there be to avoid real life for the next few months than by immersing oneself in a twelve-volume series of books? Although, having said that, I will probably have a much clearer idea of the forces powering Brexit after I've finished. Halfway through book two now and loving the unhurried pace, not to mention the deliciously dry humour. A hundred pages to describe one evening, and gripping all the way...

See you on the other side!