Author: Julie Chamberlain

I'm a freelance journalist and PR writer living, writing and working in Coventry. One of my interests is art, and this is my blog about the art world of Coventry, Warwickshire and beyond - and occasionally the other good things in life. Follow me on Twitter @JulieinCov

Small artworks give a close-up view of Whistler’s talent for observation

TheMusicRoom,1859,JAMWhistler©TheHunterian,UniversityofGlasgow,2018

The Music Room, 1859, JAM Whistler @ The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Art where the greatness is in the detail is the focus of the new exhibition at Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire.

Entitled Whistler and Nature it looks closely at the work of James McNeill Whistler, the American-born but generally European-based artist who was active in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

However after looking round a lot of the exhibition it does raise the question of how closely the title relates to what is on show. In the catalogue introduction Compton Verney Chief Executive Steven Parissien says that Whistler’s “close observation of nature and its moods underpinned his powerful and haunting visions of nineteenth century life”. And there are many seaside scenes, but also the Thames River in built-up London, indoor paintings and parts that focus on people and nudes in particular, and it’s hard to relate the title that well back to the exhibition.

The show starts by telling us about Whistler’s background in a family of soldiers and engineers, and how he went to the military West Point Academy in 1851-54, and learned to draw maps. There are some examples of his topographical works on show.

In 1855 he moved to Europe, and lived in England amongst relatives including a half-sister. There are some charming early etchings from London, including the 1859 The Music Room, showing the family sat around reading or knitting, a collection of lines bringing them to life. A Greenwich Pensioner lounges on the grass in a top hat in another etching, and the grass is patterned in swirls in Greenwich Park from the same year.

A room is dedicated to etchings of the Thames, focusing we’re told on line and topographical accuracy. There are fantastic historically-interesting views of water, warehouses, and boats with tall masts. In Black Lion Wharf workers are rowing boats around, or sitting after some task. We are even shown how this particular image is on view in the background of the famous painting of Whistler’s mother on show at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.

BlackLionWharf,1859,JAMWhistler©TheHunterian,UniversityofGlasgow,2018

Black Lion Wharf, 1859, JAM Whistler @The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

The influence of Hiroshige is very apparent on Whistler, as on many international artists at the time, and there are a few of the Japanese artist’s works on show to make this clear. There is even a small, beautiful painting by Whistler of women looking over the smog-covered Thames with dresses and parasols which look like those of Japanese women.

In 1879 Whistler fled the fall out of a court case to go to Venice, and one room is dedicated to a small number of these works, and they are again detailed and charming, showing typical scenes but with his own style; one is unusually an upright view of a favourite view, and there is The Traghetto no2, people having a drink with a gondola only just visible in the background. One etching is highly detailed and floral, another is very pared back and powerful.

TheTraghetto,No.2,JAMWhistler©TheHunterian,UniversityofGlasgow,2018

The Traghetto, No2, JAM Whistler @ The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

There are two sections which don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the show. In Whistler in the Studio, we are invited to admire his draped figures, influenced by classical Greek designs and also Japanese art again, rejecting the earlier Courbet-inspired outside paintings and etchings. A later sections returns to draped figures and nudes, where he has obviously decided less is more, and drawn a veil over the details of his female models’ bodies. It is in the former of these sections that the largest painting in the exhibition is on show, a lovely painting of a woman striding along, her scarf billowing, painted in the styles that Whistler was practising, but by his friend Albert Moore. It’s a brave decision to include it as it overshadows some of the works nearby.

Whistler’s Travels takes us away to the 1880s-90s, and trips to France and the English coast, including St Ives, and lots of small watercolours and oils which are very successful. A few areas of colour or a few small lines portray ships, people and the landscape. In Grey and Silver – North Sea ships battle on beneath the grey sky, and the Bathing Posts, Brittany, show the sea where people were beginning to enjoy bathing.

Some lithographs of Paris are excellent, just a few lines bringing to life people in the Luxembourg Gardens, his wife gardening or people visiting.

Whistler returns, as his wife lay dying, to depicting the Thames from the window of their room, showing people going about daily life beside the river, or crossing bridges, as his viewpoint remained little changed.

It’s overall a fascinating exhibition and a glimpse into the skilled smaller works of a painter better known for his larger, impressive paintings.
*The exhibition is on until December 16.

Advertisements

Struggles of the Great Depression are given a new close-up look

humandoc1

An amazing selection of black and white photographs have a great impact in a Warwickshire gallery, far away from their source.

Introducing America to Americans – The Farm Security Administration Project, 1935-1944 is the title of the exhibition at The White Room Gallery in Leamington Spa.

The photos may appear familiar if you visited The Human Document exhibition at the Mead Gallery at the University of Warwick back in autumn 2016 – they were previously part of that bigger exhibition.

However here in the smaller space it’s easier to focus on the detail.
In 1935, The Farm Security Administration Programme commissioned some photographers to document the plight of rural workers in America to enlighten the public and politicians about the living conditions of the working classes during the Great Depression. They brought an awareness of poverty to a much larger audience.

Amongst the photographers featured is Dorothea Lange, and her photograph of the 32-year-old ‘migrant mother’ of seven children, Florence Thompson,(above) with a baby and two young children in a pea picking camp, became a famous image, her tough life leaving her looking much older than her age.

Lange’s other photographs here include many people with the pain of poverty on their faces; a sharecropping family on the move, mum in a bonnet clutching her baby, a sad little boy and anguished father. There are black cotton pickers, who worked from 6am-7pm for $1.

Other photographers involved include Arthur Rothstein, whose works include School at Alako, where youngsters sit around a heater while a woman writes on the blackboard; learning still trying to take place amongst the struggle to survive. Russell Lee also photographed a mother teaching her children numbers to help them back to a better life. Lee’s photograph of a former slave woman pictured in 1941 is also shocking, a reminder that slavery was not so far into the past.

John Vachon’s pictures show the sad furniture of evicted share croppers sitting by the roadside.

Families have a whole street of furniture lined up one side of a roadside stream they cross with planks, a tragic place to have come to a stop. Amongst it all, children create their own playground from an old wagon wheel placed on something to become a merry go round.

There is just one of every image on sale at this moving and fascinating exhibition of silver gelatin prints, which is on until November 17.

Family life across globe features in Rugby Gallery’s exhibitions

Kurt Tong b

A view of Hong Kong from an exhibition at Rugby Art Gallery

A trio of exhibitions at Rugby Art Gallery & Museum is an odd but entertaining grouping.

The Eadons of Hillmorton Road is a collection of photographs from an Edwardian family showing their life from before the First World War. The photos on show come from 300 glass plate negatives taken between 1910-18, and passed on by Chris Eadon to his son David, and donated for this show.

There are scenes of relatives and friends posing for photos in the house and garden, and on holiday in a recognisable Llandudno with the beach, pier and Great Orme visible, along with minstrels from the town’s show on the promenade.

The show is also divided into sections, showing amazing fashion changes through this period, from young women in fashionable hobble skirts, to older people in what look like Victorian leftovers, with floor-length skirts and astonishing fox fur stoles.

There’s a day out at an airshow watching monoplanes watching aviation pioneer Bentfield C Hucks, taken at Lilbourne Camp near Rugby in 1913 and Eastlands show 1912.

A family member is seen on a Triumph motorcycle, which started to be made in Coventry from 1902. The war then intervenes and there are photographs of men, earlier carefree, on horseback and in uniform, and unknown women dressed as nurses.

It’s an interesting insight into a Rugby family’s lives.

Secondly, there is a small selection of work from the Rugby Collection, focusing on people and place. As ever there are good works on show; there is a yellow-themed Graham Sutherland landscape from 1940, and two contrasting but both attractive images of Paris by Sine McKinnon and Martin Norman Bell. Valerie Thornton’s The White Church shows a haunting white building through trees.

Two new acquisitions are photographs by Andrew Jackson. Amy At The Window #1, Dudley, England shows his mother looking through the pane deep in thought, or as the accompanying information tells us she has dementia, maybe lost without thoughts.

The other image is The Sea #1, Montego Bay, Jamaica, showing just a huge area of sea, near the homeland the photographer’s mother has always missed and pined for.

Kurt Tong c

The third exhibition is The Queen, The Chairman and I, created by Kurt Tong, and featuring photographs he has taken, and old pictures from his family’s past. Tong was born in Hong Kong before the Chinese had it back, but has grown up in England and the exhibition (and its extensive written guide) explores the influence of Queen Victoria and Chairman Mao on his family.

His own photographs tell the story of this, and also show images of Hong Kong and their historical importance, and some quite astonishing tales come out of suffering and loss. Two family albums belonging to Tong’s maternal grandfather Chung Zak are also shown in full, to demonstrate as Tong said the change in the man’s life that was beyond his control; failed businesses, fleeing China, family life falling apart.

It’s a moving and revealing exhibition.

All three are on until October 27.

Kurt Tong a

 

Exhibition remembers Leamington’s contribution to First World War effort

Sergeant Geoffrey Gibbs driving a Warwickshire Yeomanry ambulance during the First World War

One of the many events on to mark the century since the end of the First World War is an exhibition at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, entitled Are You In This?

Ending significantly on November 11, the day hostilities ceased in 1918, the exhibition aims to tell the story of Leamington Spa and its people during the war.

Not only did 2,500 local men serve in the war, 500 of them were killed, and the town had troops billeted in the area. Injured soldiers were treated in local hospitals, and women temporarily stepped into what had traditionally been made jobs sich as train drivers, postal workers and firemen. Local firms, such as stove maker Flavel, turned over instead to making shells.

The exhibition includes this sort of information, including some local photographs, such as troops parading and injured patients.

There are medals which were awarded to local people for their bravery or service during the war, and cartoons by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, who served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment from 1914-15 before he was hospitalised with shellshock and hearing damage from the Second Battle of Ypres. He went on to create cartoons based on life in the trenches.

The exhibition also includes a number of First World War posters from the gallery’s own collection, though they are not generally specific to Leamington.

There are some interesting items and bits of information, but overall the exhibition feels a bit thin, and like there should be more stories to tell here.

Smallest and largest exhibits impress the most in summer automata show

elephant

An exhibition which focuses on automata is intriguing adults and children alike in Warwickshire this summer.

Marvellous Mechanical Museum at Compton Verney near Wellesbourne goes back in time to look at the automata exhibitions of the eighteenth century, from various countries, through to more modern inventions. The exhibition publicity talks about how through history automata have “allowed us to view ourselves and raise questions about our existence”, as well as entertaining and amazing people with simulations of life. All together there are 57 works dating from 1625 until now.

There’s certainly a lot of variety in the exhibition. The smallest exhibit, a four centimetre Silver Elephant Automata complete with rider (top)caught my immediate attention; the Fabergé item dates from 1900 and has been lent by the Queen.

Other early pieces are spectacular clocks operated via clockwork, where characters perform to tell the time.

There are a lot of references to Cox’s Museum, opened in London in 1772 which showed the new automata of the time. We’re also told about John Joseph Merlin who liked to dress as a waitress and race around on roller skates to promote his automata.

Later there is the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, developed in 1982 by Sue Jackson and now run by her daughter Sarah Alexander, which many of the contemporary artists exhibiting here are associated with. There is a display of their works in one section of the gallery. One tells the story of the Zennor mermaid, and in another a bather dives from a changing hut into the sea.

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

The most spectacular exhibit by far is also the biggest, the 15 metre A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, created in 1988-9 by Rowland Emmett, which is set to operate at periodic intervals and definitely worth seeing. Emmet was responsible for the creations in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film, and it shows here. There’s almost too much to take in in one go; a set of train carriages go along the tracks driven by a charming driver, as a woman leans out of the window with a bird or butterfly net, and a friend has tea while a man in a separate carriage plays his gramophone records. Lovely trees and nature is shown all around the carriage. It’s stunning and magical.

Crimson Prince

Of the really recent works, Tim Lewis’s Crimson Prince is a pointy red velvet-clad arm, which seems to be telling us off as we watch it but is one of the modern additions to the show. As is Les Demoiselles, a 2017 work by Paul Spooner. Insert a coin and it goes into action. The five naked women, representing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painting, lounge there in wood, while characters fly through the sky above them, watched over by a nun. Other female characters hold tiny dancing figures below. It’s artistic and fun at the same time.

Les Demoiselles

Although this exhibition has had some other glowing reviews I didn’t personally find it making me ask questions about our existence. Those who are more intrigued by mechanics and how things work are likely to find more enjoyment in it, and for young people there’s the possibility of fiddling with lots of items to get them moving, which is also appealing.
*The exhibition is on until September 30.

 

Dramatic exhibition asks how much society has really moved on since the 80s

Before the Rain

Oh the irony. An exhibition of paintings criticised 34 years ago in a newspaper editorial as “smut not art” is now on show in the building where that editorial was written and printed.

What’s The Meaning of This? is the title of the ‘selective retrospective’ by John Yeadon, a show to mark reaching 70 and also look back at what may or may not have changed over the years. Is society more tolerant and open minded, is Coventry more enlightened and less provincial, he asks?

Leader article

The front page story of 1984 in which a Tory councillor raged against an exhibition of Yeadon’s paintings as “overtly pornographic” is put on show on the wall, alongside the editorial. The exhibition was called Dirty Tricks and was on at what Yeadon calls the high point of Aids paranoia and ‘gay blame’; he describes the works as allegorical Grotesque Realist paintings.

John says the exhibition of his works at The Herbert increased attendance 40 per cent afterwards. Some of the paintings from that exhibition are on show here in what was the paper’s last news room on its Corporation Street site, before it moved to smaller premises reflecting the decline of print journalism.

It’s a trip down memory lane for me after nearly 19 years spent working at the Cov Tel, though the newsroom moved within the Corporation Street building during those years so the critical editorial wouldn’t have been written in the same room where the paintings are now displayed.

However the room is perfectly proportioned for them, the largest ones fitting brilliantly almost floor to what was the ceiling; the low, oppressive false ceiling fellow journalists will remember has been removed to show the industrial spaces above and the blinds – always closed to stop glare on the computers – are now open. I’ve seen a lot of John’s works over the past 20 years but this earlier period of his was new to me and the dramatic works are stunning and mesmerising.

The Deluge

The Beach Party (before the rain) and The Deluge (after the rain) from 1981 and 82 (top and above) start the show, the first depicting men on a beach, frolicking and partying but in a strange contorted way, playing on a seesaw and dancing around, lots of them semi-naked. The Deluge is darker, literally and metaphorically, with one man being carried by others, their heads covered in bags; the fun is over.

Another painting from 1981, the year of the Charles and Diana royal wedding, the march for jobs and hunger strikes, is called The British Scene/summer 1981, and ironic British flags pop up all over the strange groups of people.

State Apartments       Boy Venus and Midnight of Freedom

Democratic Circus from 1982 features two panels, State Apartments and Assembly Rooms (above) , the official titles at odds with the depictions of men having sex, maybe showing what’s really going on behind the official scenes.

Suicide Street is another dark work, a man created from black intense swirls to show his outline and torso, with Zombie on Suicide Street written on it.

Boy Venus (Sunday Draws In) of 1987 shows a good looking naked young man starting straight at the artist, as another man enters the room through the curtains. Midnight of Freedom shows a naked black man crouched on a television, looking wary.

There’s also a whole corner of large paintings of naked men in various scenes.

Range of pics

John’s series of paintings of his family and his ventriloquist dummies aren’t included in this selective exhibition, nor his digital pieces concentrating on food and obesity (which also gathered negative press attention), but there are a number from his Englandia series, showing pleasant small paintings; a duck house to again reflect a political scandal of a few years ago, plus pastoral fields of English countryside, and other fields with human invasions of pylons and powerlines, railway tracks and windfarms.

Even more recent paintings – a Control Room at Sellafield, showing one man in charge of a bank of screens and buttons, and It’s Alive!, his 2017 version of a much older paintings of the WITCH computer at Bletchley – also feature.

I wouldn’t even think of trying to answer John’s questions about society and Coventry in particular and how it’s changed over the years. But after what will probably be more than half my working lifetime spent at the Coventry Evening Telegraph building it was interesting to visit for the last time before it’s conversion to a hotel and see in particular some works from an exhibition I wasn’t in Coventry for the first time around, and hope that such an editorial would never be written today.

Fascinating paintings to see too if you’re only familiar with John’s works from the last couple of decades – the show is on until June 14, Mondays to Saturdays 12-4pm.

Behind the scenes at the museum …. for real

An opportunity to learn about what’s not usually on show, as well as see some things for the first time, is offered by a Warwickshire gallery.

Unlocked! Behind the Scenes at the Art Gallery & Museum is the current exhibition at Leamington Spa’s Art Gallery & Museum.

It is billed as a chance to see items that are rarely displayed, and others that are undergoing conservation work.

It seemed strange then that the first painting you see is The Three Generations by Sarkis Katchadourian, which featured in a recent exhibition of works donated to the gallery by Alderman Holt. It is justified though by its appearance in a book of 1,000 paintings to see “before you die”, and the fact that this means the gallery gets requests to see it. And the painting of three Muslim women in varied looks means it is a highlight of the Leamington collection.

The first item listed in the gallery’s collection was a copy of The Antiquities of Warwickshire by Sir William Dugdale, but the real first item is thought to be a mug commemorating a boxing match in the 1860s, when the collection began. It now amounts to 12,500 items, acquired through a mix of donations and some acquisitions. The most recent acquisition is the stunning Satellite II by Noémie Goudal, a large photographic print combining real and imaginary scenery which is on show in the main gallery.

The exhibition moves on to show ethnographical items from around the world, donated over the years (and no longer accepted as gifts), all rather incongruous and not forming a coherent collection, plus ceramics from different eras and countries.

One fascinating item is a Buddhist text in a long scroll, held together with string and a wooden front to it; but in a mixed eclectic collection like this there’s bound to be something to please all tastes.

The Dancing Bear, a painting by William Lee Hankey (1869-1952), is used as an example of conservation work, with what looks like tissue paper currently stuck to parts of it as an element of the work.

Natural History and Archaeology is seen as an orphaned collection, with no new items being accepted, and featuring both local and national pieces. It includes a lovely book showing a drawing of a Blue Heron and Little Egret.

More up to date there’s a photograph of a work created by former artist-in-residence Gerard Mermoz, taking a damaged old portrait and superimposing a comptometer machine on top of it to create a new work, in his familiar style of bringing two things together to create a third.

One area looks at how things have changed over the years; there’s Simeon Solomon’s 1870 painting of The Sleepers and the One That Watcheth, three people embracing, plus Ralph Nicholas Chubb’s Contemplation, and Reclining Nude, the latter featuring a naked young man painted from behind laying in a field where rabbits gambol, both from the 1920s. They all hint at a love that could not then speak its name.

A well-known image of Leamington graffiti, Avoid Cider, features amongst several photos from a Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane exhibition.

It’s interesting to see what’s in the stores and also slightly disappointing there’s no amazing new surprises – but then if there were it would be a scandal they had been hidden away so long. An enjoyable visit, and interesting to learn more about collecting policy and conservation and storage work.

The exhibition is on until July 15.

Seeing faces behind the art brings new look to annual exhibition

LS Lowry, Head of a Man (copyright The Lowry Collection, Salford)

The Rugby Collection is on show again at the town’s art gallery, curated as every year around a different theme – and this year with some additional loans to add more lustre.

The theme this year is portraiture, and the exhibition is split into three themed areas: A Face Behind the Name, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum Portraits and Inside Stories, featuring figurative works that have a narrative.
The first of these includes loans from the National Portrait Gallery and The Lowry, which are all portraits of artists whose work is included in the Rugby Collection, with the works shown together.

Most striking of these is Head of a Man (With Red Eyes) by LS Lowry from 1938 (top), showing the artist with blood shot eyes, matching red scarf and a troubled forehead. It was completed during a worrying time in his life, when his father had died and he had become responsible for caring for his ailing mother, who was dying after his six years of care, as his career was taking off. He started the self-portrait, and found that an unsettling process too. It is shown alongside the Rugby Collection’s Monday Morning, an oil from 1946, showing a lot of people trudging to work in a factory which is already throwing out smoke from the chimneys.

Also borrowed, is Leon Kossoff’s self portrait from 1981, showing a rather miserable look through the heavy impasto, and also looking very much like the mirror image of Head of Father from 1978, which is on show from the town’s collection.

A Lucian Freud self portrait painted in 1963, and on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, is in his recognisable style, whereas The Fig Treet, a chalk drawing from 1943, is less recognisable and dates from a trip to Greece where he drew lot of trees and landscapes.

Edward Bawden’s self-portrait shows him very much as an artist, a board up blocking our full view of him drawing himself in pen and watercolour in 1986, and the gallery’s own Glenties, The Old Graveyard, shows a colourful scene of tombstone and sky from 1962.

Richard Hamilton’s self portrait from 1970 is a screen/collotype, showing the artist unrecognisable through distorting his features. His print from 1993, Just what is it that makes today’s homes, so different? Features disparate images all in one room, including a female bodybuilder with a lollipop sign, and microwave decorating a table.

There are others too, all worth seeing to observe the person behind a work that has probably featured in a Rugby Art Gallery & Museum show before.

Joseph Herman, Head of a Miner (copyright Joseph Herman, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Rugby Borough Coun

The section of Rugby Collection’s own portraits not surprisingly features a large variety of works, including Josef Herman’s Head of a Miner (above), painted in oil on a range of brown and ochres, showing the angular figure looking sideways.

Winston Branch, West Indian (copyright Winston Branch, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Rugby Borough Council)

By contrast, Winston Branch’s West Indian from 1973, shows the man in a pink spotted hat, surrounded by a huge variety of colour.

Paul Richards, Portrait of Michael Burley, 1988 (copyright Paul Richards, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Rug

Paul Richards’s Portrait of Michael Burleigh from 1988 shows the author and historian in a blur of yellows, greens and blacks apparently mixed directly on the canvas, giving the image a vibrant, busy look but recognisably human.
In the Inside Stories section, works are again varied, but including The Bride’s Secret Diary, a wild oil painting by Paula Rego from 1981 featuring hints of skulls and folklore characters, and The Wild Duck, a sinister 1990 etching of a young girl sat on a man’s lap, being watched by characters in the shadows.

Other contrasting works include Two Beach Babies, 1933 oil by Wyndham Lewis, showing two women featuring elements of Cubist and Futurist influence, and Cockerel in a Landscape, a 1948 lithograph by Michael Rothenstein, showing the bird in the foreground apparently fleeing its owner at her cottage.

The exhibition includes lots of excellent lengthy introductions to the different sections, and captions, plus a lovely colour catalogue, and is well worth a visit to see the Rugby Collection’s latest re-invention. The show is on until June 16.

Beach-found items feature in new art show conjuring up sea images

Echoes of the seaside feature in the new exhibition at The White Room Gallery in Leamington.

Entitled Land and Sea, the show in the Regent Street gallery includes a lot of works by Philip Goddard, with some works by other artists too.

Birmingham-born Goddard studied at The Slade School of Fine Art and Chelsea School of Art, and has been a White Room favourite since the gallery opened 15 years ago. In his collection in this exhibition, The Constructed Landscape, he uses found objects from along the Kent coast where he once lived, paint and other materials to conjure up images of a landscape or coastal scene.

There are small bits of wood, and lots of mesh metalwork, sometimes painted over or painted through, with some constructions looking like part of a boat, or a distant boat afloat. There is lots of blue and yellow paint, and constructed landscapes in box frames. There are monoprints again using the mesh pattern, and some with a dark stripe to one side looking like a flag. They are refreshing to look at and definitely bring a feel of the sea to the Midands.

Other artists in the exhibition include Adrian Bradbury, who studied art at Goldsmiths and went on to work for Bauer, DuPont and others, and who is showing a set of prints entitled Coast, which feature layers of colour.

Tim Southall is a regular exhibitor at The White Room Gallery, and is showing some more of his drawings in this show. It also features works by his great uncle, Sir Frank Job Short, who was born in 1857 in Stourbridge and trained as an engineer, but his passion was for art. He became Professor of Engraving at The Royal College of Art in 1913, and this exhibition shows several of his etchings, lovely scenes of long-ago life; seaside folk on a quay, a windmill, a village with churchtower and a man at work.

In the centre is Coming Home, by Tim Southall, showing someone in a lit-up night walking towards a house.

The exhibition is on until May 25, and worth visiting for the variety of works by a number of talented artists.

Eric Ravilious and his talented circle are rightly celebrated in this densely-packed exhibition

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

A fascinating artist and his circle of talented friends are the focus of an excellent new exhibition at Compton Verney art gallery which you really must not miss.

Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship is a densely-packed exhibition, with dozens of paintings and engravings, plus textiles, ceramics, book covers and illustrations by the circle of artists who were active in the early 20s.

Curated by Andy Friend and Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, where Eric Ravilious grew up and which houses the largest collection of his work, it consists of more than 400 items, with 90 of them not seen before. They are shown chronologically so you can follow through the artists’ stories, and see where they interact, with their artistic influences, political involvements, friendships, marriages and affairs.

The exhibition opens with Ravilious’s The Greenhouse: Cyclamens and Tomatoes which illustrates his mastery of colour and style, with the rows of identical ceramic pots filled with pink flowers, and plants hanging heavy with green tomatoes overhead.

It then backtracks to the Royal College of Art, and the many artists Ravilious interacted with professionally and personally. It includes the influence of Paul Nash on the development of his wood engraving, and his prolific output, with a later mocked-up bookshop containing nearly 100 books, covers and illustrations by Ravilious, Paul and John Nash, Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman to show the influence they had in the 1920s and 30s, and the incredibly stylish work they produced.

 

Eric Ravilious, Boy Birds-Nesting, 1926. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

Eric Ravilious, Boy Birds-Nesting, 1926, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

 

Their work was transferable to other materials as well, with a huge bowl created for Wedgwood by Ravilious to commemorate the Boat Race also featuring, and looking more like an item from the 1950s than 30s.

There are paintings from brothers John and Paul Nash, with Whiteleaf from 1921 by the former showing a dark brown countryside with movement in the trees, and Paul’s The Shore, Dymchurch, a recurring subject appearing twice in the exhibition, with variations on the distant sea, birds aloft and breakwaters. Other paintings by Barnett Freedman show his developing painting work throughout the 1920s.

Waterwheel, a watercolour of 1934 by Ravilious, shows his style of muted colours, and clear texture, though apparently he’d artistically ‘moved’ the wheel in question to fit in with what he wanted to paint. Westbury Horse of 1939 is equally attractive, though a freight train rushes by the ancient English scene, showing new developments and possibly a portent of war.

Women artists feature well in the exhibition, and there are designs on show by Enid Marx (who also features heavily in Compton Verney’s excellent and re-hanged Folk Art collection), including a headscarf in Spanish Republican colours, and designs by Diana Low. A wood engraving by Helen Binyon, The Wire Fence, of 1935, shows the odd subject matter of a woman climbing through a fence, in a similar pose to Ravilious’s Boy Bird Nesting from 1926. Later, Diana Low became close to the 40-year older William Nicholson and they painted each others’ portraits; she is shown standing, attractive and vibrant, but she paints him looking portly, laying full out on a sofa.

Ravilious went into teaching after the Royal College of Art, in his early 20s, and one 17-and-a-half-year-old student made a particular impression on him; he apparently spent several years sure of his feelings for Tirzah Garwood, but not sure if they were reciprocated. There is a fantastic engraving of the bleak attic room she lived in while studying, The Boxroom of 1929, where he used to visit her, with a woman pictured laying on the bed under some drying washing. It contrasts with another fantasy engraving of a woman on a sumptious bed with fantasy-forest wall hangings surrounding her.

A striking portrait by Phyllis Dodd shows Tirzah in a green coat and hat, looking like a woman who knows her own mind; Ravilous and Tirzah later married and there are paintings and other works by her on show too, demonstrating her clear style and interest in different subject matter to Ravilious’s landscape passion. Her work include paintings of the Four Seasons, with spring seen as spring cleaning, and others showing the good people of Eastbourne, some more as caricatures than characters.

New areas of countryside and coast, and house moves, inspired Ravilious and visiting friends at different times, as selections of their work shows. There is his only known surviving pastel work, Study of a Sussex Woodland from 1924, showing shade under a low canopy of trees. He went on an Italian tour, and the engraving of San Gimignano from 1925 includes its recognisable towers, though his image of a Sussex Church, framed between trees, is just as beautiful.

Helen Binyon painted watercolours of Furlongs, East Sussex, when the Ravilious’s lived there in the early 1930s, and there is Furlongs by Ravilious, showing horses pulling towering carts of hay. He subsequently had an affair with Binyon, depicted by her friend Peggy Angus in 1940, with him looking pensive at the bottom of the stairs, she with her chin in her hands and a cup of tea beside her.

The exhibition also includes a design shop made to look like Dunbar Hay, a London retailer which sold works by Ravilious, Enid Marx, Tirzah, Bawden, Diana Low, Peggy Angus and others, with them designing for organisations such as the BBC, London Transport, Wedgwood and the GPO.

 

Eric Ravilious, Sussex Church, 1924. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

Eric Ravilious, Sussex Church, 1924, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

 

As the Second World War approached, the Artists’ International Association was formed, flirting with communism, and led by Helen Binyon, with other artists taking in refugees. Her affair with Ravilious had ended but they remained close and there is a letter praising her illustrations for Pride and Prejudice. A poignant 1939 lithograph by Binyon called The Flower Show is said to be based on an Eastbourne event, and to show a man who looks like Ravilious carrying a small child.

There is a selection of Ravilious’s pre-war watercolours showing scenes such as Beachy Head and Rye Harbour, next to his work as a war artist; the same colours are there, but there’s suddenly the jarring notes of barbed wire on the beaches and barrage balloons above. Corporal Stediford’s Mobile Pigeon Loft is a different subject matter for Ravilious, showing lots of the birds.

Ravilious went on an RAF reconnaissance flight off Iceland on 2 September 1942, and disappeared; a few days later a jolly letter he had written to Tirzah arrived at her home, including instructions for her to draw round her hand so he could buy her gloves. Left alone with three children, she had already survived cancer once, but went on to remarry a few years later before succumbing to the disease. The exhibition closes with her painting The Springtime of Flight, showing a plane in a brilliant blue sky over a sea of colourful flowers.

This really is an exhibition not to be missed, packing in fantastic paintings by Ravilious and the Nashs in particular, plus more of their contemporaries and lots of great engravings, ceramics and textile works too. It continues until June 10.

Eric Ravilious, Portrait of Edward Bawden, 1930 (c) Royal College of Art

Eric Ravilious, Portrait of Edward Bawden, 1930 C Royal College of Art.