An Artist’s View of Sussex, Life and Music

Alison with Jeremy and Nick
From left to right: Jeremy Knight, Alison Milner-Gulland and Nick Toovey standing in front of the painting ‘Deep in the Downs’
The Waiter and The Musician
‘The Waiter’ and ‘The Musician’
Alison Milner-Gulland in her studio
Alison Milner-Gulland in her studio
Deep in the Downs by Alison Milner-Gulland
‘Deep in the Downs’ by Alison Milner-Gulland

This week I am back at Horsham Museum & Art Gallery with my brother, Nick Toovey, for the opening of a new art show, which celebrates the work of Washington-based artist Alison Milner-Gulland. This selling exhibition runs until 29th March 2014.

Nick has long championed the work of Sussex artists. His self-representing contemporary art auctions were the first of their kind ever to be held in the UK. “They were groundbreaking,” Nick enthuses. “Artists entered their own work into the auctions and I made sure that the successful sales were picked up by the leading international fine art indices. This helps to establish an artist’s long-term credibility, giving art collectors confidence to buy, not just at my auctions but at exhibitions and galleries as well.”

I ask Nick about Alison’s work. “I love how Sussex has inspired her palette and subject matter,” he replies. “At first glance her work is accessible and uncomplicated, but over time the work reveals layers, subtle details and evolving depths, highlighting her talent. It is often infused with classical, mythical or natural inspiration.”

From her teens until only a few years ago Alison regularly rode on the South Downs, committing to memory the play of light and the elements on the landscape with the movement of her horse. The elevated perspective that riding affords is evident in many of her landscapes. Through her eyes we see the sweeping chalk curves, ancient tracks, rolling hills and far-reaching views of the Downs. Later, in her studio, she would transfer these thoughts and images to paper and canvas. The ancient quality of the South Downs is perfectly captured in ‘Deep in the Downs’, shown here with exhibition curator Jeremy Knight, Alison and Nick.

Alison’s studio nestles at the foot of the South Downs in the small village of Washington. Nick describes what the visitor encounters: “It is an amazing space – well-organised chaos! Framed works are hung wherever wall-space permits or stacked on the floor. After being greeted by the family’s Jack Russell terrier and navigating a maze of pictures, mounting materials and packaging, you come to the main work area of the cottage studio. Here an architect’s chest conceals numerous unframed prints; stacked on top of this are further prints, oils on canvas and works in progress beneath works drying on a washing line. Occasionally the sound of nearby chickens, geese, guinea fowl or sheep are heard from outside. Negotiating the livestock and braving the elements, you come to a separate studio, dedicated to Alison’s work in ceramics. This is a colder but brighter and neater space, inherently slightly dusty from the powders, glazes and clays used to create the work. Along two walls are shelves displaying recent vessels, the majority figurative or inspired by music with a few trial abstract landscape designs scattered amongst them.”

Alison’s ceramics give expression to her creative voice. The two slab vases illustrated capture the musician and the waiter with a Mohican hairstyle wonderfully. “I felt moved to draw the waiter in the restaurant,” Alison says. “He had a particular confidence, which caught my attention, and that marvellous hair. I hadn’t got anything to draw on, so I sketched on a napkin held under the table!” Unsurprisingly, they were amongst the first pieces to sell at the exhibition.

Russia has provided a rich seam of inspiration and the landscape depicting a silver birch wood has grown out of this. “My paintings develop and evolve as I continue to work on them until they are sold,” Alison explains. This perhaps, in part, explains the layers and depths which Nick describes, but it is also the depth of connectedness with the world around her which gives her a particular and distinctive artistic voice.

Toovey’s are delighted to be sponsoring this exhibition, aptly titled ‘Alison Milner-Gulland: Constantly Updating’, and the works are selling well. Jeremy Knight and his team are once again deserving of our thanks for an excellent show of work from this insightful Sussex artist.

Nicholas Toovey is always pleased to advise and share his passion for contemporary artists, especially from Sussex. He can be contacted at Toovey’s.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 19th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Amber: Prehistoric Treasure in Demand Today

Amber – prehistoric treasure in demand today
Amber – prehistoric treasure in demand today
A necklace of forty-nine butterscotch amber beads, sold at auction for £11,000
A necklace of thirty-eight butterscotch amber beads, sold at auction for £10,000
A necklace of forty-seven brown and butterscotch amber beads with tassel pendant, sold at auction for £3,800

When collectors from China, India and the Middle East simultaneously decide to pursue the same collectors’ items, the effect on prices can be sudden and dramatic! In recent times the market for amber beads has been transformed with many thousands of pounds now being paid for the most sought-after examples.

Since the Neolithic period amber has been celebrated for its colour, beauty and supposed healing properties. In classical times, the Greeks called amber ‘electron’. According to myth, after the death of Phaethon, the son of Helios (the Sun), his sisters wept for him unceasingly and were changed into poplars. These trees continued to ooze tears, which were hardened by Helios into amber. This classical articulation of the origin of amber is not so far removed from our own understanding of amber as fossilised tree resin.

This sticky resin often captured insects and plant material, which can be seen in some examples of amber. The image of trapped insects in clear, golden amber found a place in contemporary culture at the heart of Michael Crichton’s novel ‘Jurassic Park’ and the subsequent film of the same title. Film fans amongst you will remember that in this story DNA extracted from the blood of a prehistoric mosquito preserved in amber was used to recreate dinosaurs.

Examples of amber with insect and plant inclusions were highly prized by Victorian collectors and aesthetes and until quite recently this transparent amber remained the most sought-after. But a recent change in fashion has resulted in another type of amber realising astonishing prices. It is less translucent with an almost milky quality to its appearance. ‘Butterscotch’ amber, as it is known, and its variants became fashionable in modern times during the 1920s. Interest has ebbed and flowed over the ensuing decades. Today this specific type of amber has captured the eye of collectors from the emerging economies of China, India and the Middle East, creating demand on a scale which was unimaginable only a short time ago.

This extraordinary change in the market has brought a good number of old amber necklaces to auction. Take, for example, the necklace arranged in the photograph as a heart. Comprising forty-nine mottled yellow butterscotch amber beads, weighing 278g and measuring 136cm in length, it sold in Toovey’s New Year’s Eve auction for £11,000 with competition from across the Near and Far East. The thirty-eight bead necklace illustrated, weight 255g, length 110cm, featured vari-coloured opaque and semi-translucent butterscotch amber beads and realised £10,000 in our January specialist jewellery sale a fortnight ago. The necklace of forty-seven brown and butterscotch amber beads, which realised £3,800 in November last year, was a favourite of mine. The beads had a flame-like quality to their appearance and were complimented by the charming tassel drop, finished with smaller beads.

Differences in prices paid for amber necklaces are largely attributable to the colour, number and size of the beads. They are not all as expensive to buy as these three; a reasonable example can still be found at auction for about £700. These days, though, you are as likely to find yourself up against a bidder from Mumbai or Beijing as you are against a bidder from London or the home counties. With global internet marketing providing a truly international shop window, these pieces are only a mouse-click away for specialist buyers across the globe and many in the emerging economies have deep pockets indeed at present. Another group of amber necklaces will be offered in our next specialist jewellery auction on Wednesday 26th February 2014.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 12th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Remembering the Great War

Left to right: Jeremy Knight, Exhibition Curator, Jonathan Chowen, Horsham District Council Cabinet Member for Arts, Heritage & Leisure, and Philip Circus, Horsham District Council Chairman, beside ‘Poppies’, made by students of the Camellia Botnar Foundation

Horsham Museum & Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘The First World War 1914-1919 Memories and Memorabilia’ begins a year of commemorations in remembrance of the outbreak of the Great War on 28th July 1914. Three generations were united by the experiences of the First and Second World Wars, wars which for the first time brought industrialized might to the battlefield with terrible consequences.

Jonathan Chowen, Horsham District Council Cabinet Member for Arts, Heritage & Leisure, and Philip Circus, Horsham District Council Chairman, seen here with exhibition curator Jeremy Knight, are passionate historians. Winston Churchill was always influenced by the long shadow of history, mindful to heed the warnings the past offers to the present. Jonathan Chowen also understands the importance of history. “It is so important that each generation learns from history,” he remarks, “especially the First World War and the dire consequences of conflict. Acts of remembrance, like this exhibition, maintain our common narrative as a nation.”

First World War troops in the trenches on the Western Front
First World War troops beneath a pyramid in Egypt
‘Middle East in Convoy W.W.II’, a watercolour by Geoffrey Sparrow

The images of the Great War still have the power to shock a century later and they inform our perspectives and understanding of this period. Amongst sorrow, suffering, sacrifice, courage, duty and hope, however, there are the very human and personal stories. This excellent exhibition seeks to give us fresh insights. I grew up with men who had fought in the trenches, men who had experienced gas attacks and the heat of battle and their stories have stayed with me. During the 1970s Jane Bowen interviewed and recorded the recollections of a number of soldiers, which have been transcribed for this exhibition. I had pictured troops in the trenches for months at a time whereas these recordings reveal that troops were in fact rotated on a regular basis. On average, a battalion could expect to spend ten days a month in the trenches and four to five days a month continuously in the firing line. Such care for our troops stands in contrast to the huge loss of life at the Battle of Mons and elsewhere. Their recorded memories give a very human account of the realities of life in the trenches.

Christ’s Hospital school has generously loaned the uniform of Edmund Blunden, the celebrated war poet and a former pupil of the school. Blunden cycled from Horsham to Chichester to sign on and the war played a key part in his life and poetry.

Along with such memories there is a remarkable selection of objects, which provide a tangible connection with the past. These include a First World War periscope, valentine cards, silk handkerchiefs, uniforms and knitwear. There are also the medals awarded to Dr Geoffrey Sparrow, who settled in post-war Horsham, along with a rare copy of On Four Fronts, his account of the war. The watercolour of a convoy in the Middle East, painted by Sparrow during the Second World War and auctioned at Toovey’s last year, adds richness to the photograph of troops beneath an Egyptian pyramid, taken during the Great War, which is included in the exhibition.

Jonathan Chowen concludes, “I am keen to encourage and make visible the extraordinary number of acts of remembrance which are taking place across the Horsham District. The outbreak of the Great War one hundred years ago will make Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day particularly poignant this year.” I agree. I have not been called to serve my country on the field of battle. I feel a debt of gratitude to those who fought in the two World Wars and those who serve in our armed forces today, so that we may live in relative peace and security.

This is an exceptional exhibition and thanks must go once again to curator Jeremy Knight.

‘The First World War 1914-1919 Memories and Memorabilia’ runs at Horsham District Council’s Horsham Museum & Art Gallery until 29th March 2014. For further details contact Jeremy Knight at the Museum.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 5th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Chinese Republic Porcelain in Sussex

The Forbidden City, Beijing

Mercantile trade was at the heart of British prosperity and overseas interests from the 18th to the 20th centuries. By the 18th century Britain had become the greatest European power in the East. This success was predominantly bound up with the government-licensed British East India Company, which had become the leading trading and political force in India.

A Chinese famille rose porcelain vase, early 20th century Republic period, auctioned for £76,000
A Chinese porcelain vase, early 20th Century Republic period, auctioned for £650
The Great Wall of China

In the late 18th century attempts were made to establish official relations with China by Lord George Macartney. The lavish embassy sent to Beijing as part of this British Government-backed mission was interpreted as humble tribute-bearing by the Chinese. The response to George III from the Qianlong Emperor noted that trade was out of the question, since Britain possessed nothing for which China had the slightest need. There were, however, many Chinese traders who were prepared to do business unofficially with foreigners. The trade in opium from India, the Opium War and ensuing British military expedition in 1840 resulted in the Qing government ceding compensation, Hong Kong Island and the opening of five ports to British traders. Twenty million people died in the bloody Taiping Rebellion in southern China, a massive civil war against the ruling Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1850 to 1864. Invasion by Japan in the late 19th century and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 left the Qing dynasty severely weakened. A Chinese army rebellion in Wuchan sparked a series of mutinies culminating in the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, which would last in a series of guises until 1949. The last emperor, Puyi, was allowed to remain living in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The formation of the Chinese Republic brought to an end the Qing Dynasty and 2000 years of imperial rule.

As invasion and revolt continued to blight China during the early 20th century, porcelain of the most extraordinary quality continued to be made in Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province. Some connoisseurs note this period of porcelain manufacture for its revival in quality, which they attribute to a number of schools and artists that emerged at this time. Chinese porcelain objects from this period often have inscriptions, usually in black enamel, which may include a combination of a poem, a signature or a cyclical date. Private workshops proliferated and flourished. The wares produced imitated designs from earlier periods, interpreting imperial designs to feed demand from American and British collectors like Sir Percival David. David’s collection includes many original examples of Chinese porcelain from the imperial collection, which can be seen at the British Museum in London.

We often discover Republic period Chinese porcelain in Sussex, which is finding increasing favour amongst collectors because of its quality. The early 20th century Chinese famille rose porcelain vase illustrated is from this period. The elongated ovoid body and flared neck are painted to one side with three birds perched on blossoming branches, to the other side with a gathering of children, elders and attendants beneath a pine tree. Note how these decorative panels are surrounded by lines of black text and red seals, typical of the Republic period. The vase is believed to have been painted by two leading artists from Jingdezhen. Measuring 60.5cm high, the vase sold at Toovey’s for £76,000.

Not all Chinese porcelain of this period is so highly valued. The smaller Republic vase shown here, height 17cm, sold for £650. It is enamelled with a riverscape with a fishing boat by an island and has the typical text on the reverse.

This flourishing and revival in Chinese porcelain manufacture in the early 20th century allows us to once again glimpse the energetic and creative gifts of the Chinese people, which has gained them cultural prominence over millennia. Perhaps it is a rediscovery of these gifts which is allowing a revival of Chinese interests in the world today; only this time they are looking out into the world and reacquiring their cultural heritage.

Toovey’s Chinese porcelain specialist, Tom Rowsell, is always pleased to offer advice, whether you are interested in selling or acquiring Chinese objects in this boom market. He can be contacted at our offices.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 29th January 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Charles Vyse (1882-1971)

From left to right: ‘The Piccadilly Rose Woman’, circa 1922, ‘The Balloon Woman’, circa 1920, and ‘The Daffodil Woman’, circa 1922, by Charles Vyse

The rites of passage of our young people seem to have narrowed in recent decades, with an overemphasis on university education rather than discerning what an individual’s particular gifts are and how they might be best developed and valued. This was not the case for the studio potter and designer Charles Vyse and many of his contemporaries, who combined the utility of work with study. In 1896, at the age of fourteen, Charles Vyse was apprenticed to the Doulton factory at Burslem as a modeller and designer. He trained under Charles Noke and it is said that Henry Doulton noticed the young Vyse’s talents and encouraged him to attend Hanley Art School. A scholarship to the Royal College of Art to study sculpture followed and in 1909 a travelling scholarship enabled him to study in Italy. He was elected a member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1911.

Between the wars Charles Vyse designed for Doulton. During this period his work included ‘Darling’, which has remained one of the factory’s most popular figures.

He became a studio potter and, although he produced some exceptional glazed wares based on Chinese pottery, he is best known for his clay figures modelled on vendors from the streets of London. The depiction of his subjects shows some influence from artists working at the Camberwell School of Art, where he studied in 1912. This very particular expression in his work is unusual for an artist working in the medium of ceramics.

In 1911 Charles Vyse married Nell. From 1919 until 1940, when their Cheyne Walk studio in Chelsea was bombed out, they worked together producing figures which combined Charles’ gift for sculpting with his knowledge of pottery manufacture. These figures are intricately made with extraordinary detail; they are fine art sculptures made in clay. Their production often involved forty or more individual moulds taken from Vyse’s original clay models. Nell Vyse became adept at painting them. Her colour schemes were carefully chosen and varied through the production run, giving each example of a particular figure a unique artisan quality. These figures were produced in small numbers.

‘The Madonna of World's End Passage’, circa 1921, by Charles Vyse

Their first success was the figure ‘The Balloon Woman’, shown in the centre of the group of figures illustrated. It was produced in 1920. Here we see the quality of Charles Vyse the sculptor and modeller, combined with Nell’s sense of colour. The street vendor stands wearing a striped dress and purple shawl, her right hand on her hip and a bunch of brightly coloured balloons in her left arm. This is not just a figurine but a commentary on the society and times in which they lived. ‘The Piccadilly Rose Woman’ and ‘The Daffodil Woman’ on either side were both produced in 1922. The detailed modelling of the figures is beautiful and the subtlety of tone and colour of each hand-coloured flower illustrates Nell’s dedication and skill. There is an honesty and nobility in the depiction of these working-class women, whose faces clearly display pride as well as their cares and emotions.

‘The Madonna of World’s End Passage’ is a particular favourite of mine. The mother stares past the viewer, her thoughts set upon things beyond her immediate environment as she tenderly enfolds her child in her arms. Vyse sets this figure apart, gifting it with a sense of holiness lived out in the everyday.

Charles Vyse moved to Farnham after the Cheyne Walk studio was bombed and he and Nell separated. He continued to work with students from Farnham School of Art, where he taught. ‘The May Queen’ from 1949 and ‘The Morning Ride’ of 1925 illustrate the mythical subjects of some of his figures.

The art of sculpture is captured in clay by Charles Vyse, a quality not overlooked by collectors. Prices for Charles Vyse figures today vary from middle hundreds to low thousands, depending upon the complexity of the modelling, the quality of colour, the condition and subject. Work, study, experience and skill come together in this unique studio potter’s work, whose particular voice resonates with us today.

From left to right: ‘The May Queen’, circa 1949, and ‘The Morning Ride’, circa 1925, by Charles Vyse

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 22nd January 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.