January, in the works published by the Bodley Head

The illustration January by Robert Gibbings from The Twelve Months

Authors over the centuries have reflected on the seasons in prose and poetry. In the 1930s and 1940s the Private Press movement brought together author and artist to give expression to the rhythms of nature and the weather of the seasons. The two books illustrated were both produced by The Bodley Head publishing house as limited editions with woodblock-engraved illustrations.

The first book, The Twelve Months, was illustrated by the Irish artist and author Robert Gibbings; the text was written by the British novelist and essayist Llewelyn Powys. Robert Gibbings was most noted for his work as a wood engraver and sculptor. Gibbings purchased and ran the Golden Cockerel Press from 1923 to 1933 and influenced the revival of wood engraving by artists. In 1920 he founded the Society of Wood Engravers. Members working in Sussex included Eric Gill, John Nash, Lucien Pissarro, John Nash, Gwen Raverat and Eric Ravilious. The society ignited a revival of wood engravings where the designs and the blocks were created by the artist, making that vital connection between the artist and the final print.

The Twelve Months was published in 1936. This copy, with original green morocco binding, was signed by both artist and author and editioned 44/100. The signed page also notes that the book was printed on Wolvercote Rag Wove paper by John Johnson at the University Press, Oxford, acknowledging everyone involved in the creative process. The essay on January opens with a quotation from William Shakespeare:

'The Twelve Months' and 'Almanack of Hope', published by The Bodley Head.

“When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-who!-a merry note.”

The chill and cheer of the winter season, captured in Shakespeare’s words, is brought up to date by Robert Gibbings’ depiction of skating. The angular line of the rushes and the open spaces in the composition emphasise the harshness of the season. This is contrasted by the sweeping curves of the skaters and the hills, which are softer and more hopeful.

The second book, Almanack of Hope, published in 1944 by The Bodley Head, contains a series of sonnets on the months of the year by the British journalist and writer John Pudney. He was known for short stories, poetry, children’s fiction and non-fiction. His sonnet for January provides a more uncompromising articulation of the month of January, though he ends with the sentence:

The illustration January by John Nash from Almanack of Hope.

“So I in January look for grace, Iron-fast by season, lack-love, boughs all bare.”

John Nash’s wood engraving echoes the author’s words. Here the water butt and drainpipe have overflowed and the water has frozen in jagged outline, echoed by the undressed trees outlined against the sky. The aconite flowers appear hopeful but are poisonous; this is a bleak season.

This winter, Sussex has been ravaged by some bleak weather. The wind and rain have transformed the landscape and one can’t help but wonder how Robert Gibbings and John Nash would have depicted these scenes.

In years gone by, writers would note that as the days in January lengthened, so the cold increased. Perhaps we have already had our share of winter this year but if the cold does come, let’s hope it arrives with the good cheer a beautiful book can bring.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 15th January 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Sean Scully: Triptychs at Pallant House Gallery

Sean Scully, ‘River’, 1984, oil on linen, private collection

If you are in Sussex between now and the 24th January, treat yourself to the Sean Scully: Triptych exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Sean Scully, twice nominated for the Turner Prize in 1989 and 1993, is an abstract artist whose work is defined by panels of vertical and horizontal lines. His images are often arranged as triptychs. Sean Scully was born in Ireland and spent time in London before moving to New York.

His abstract work is uncompromising and demanding of the viewer’s attention. Stop and stare. As you reflect on the texture of the oil paint upon the canvas, or the effects of watercolour and ink on paper, you will become aware of the subtlety of tone inherent in the clear colour schemes of each image. Scully talks of his use of colours as being intuitive, of reflecting mood and circumstance. At a recent event, Scully described the importance of his “metaphysical relationship with materials, which of course is fundamental to all my work – that relationship between materiality and light”.

Sean Scully, ‘1.6.91’, 1991, watercolour on paper, private collection
Sean Scully, ‘Bridge’, 1991, woodcut print, private collection

Much abstract art today is art reflecting on art. For me, this seems to be at odds with the gift of great artists to reflect upon the world we all share and to allow us, through their work, to glimpse something of what lies beyond our immediate perception. So for me, Sean Scully’s work is refreshing. It is connected to his life and the world. Music and literature also provide him with rich seams of inspiration. These resolute visual images can seem stark but there is an underlying quality of hope. Whilst Scully has an apparent and deeply held confidence in the work that he does, his approach is not without humility or sensitivity. He sees himself as a communicator and unifier, building bridges to make the world a better place. Through his pictures, he seeks to move people. He believes that this form of communication can help people to realize that they are connected and not isolated.

Scully describes the horizontal lines in his pictures as metaphors for land-lines or the horizon, whilst the vertical lines in his compositions represent the person and proclaim that ‘I exist’.

Simon Martin, Artistic Director at Pallant House Gallery, has noted that Sean Scully is “concerned with expressing a sense of spirituality”. Certainly, for Sean Scully spirituality is important, something he notes as a particular artistic quality in Ireland. He grew up in the Roman Catholic Christian tradition and has a fondness for the sensory quality of their worship with incense, bells, music and fine robes. But he is an eclectic soul, who seeks to speak across the boundaries of religious traditions. Scully feels that it is possible to manufacture prejudice, though he claims never to have experienced it. Instead, he maintains that if we project love into the world, it is reflected back to us.

The canvases which make up Sean Scully’s triptychs, although highly related, can at once be viewed individually or as a whole. It is interesting to note how they relate to one another when viewed together.

These abstract triptychs are stimulating on many levels and provide a narrative to human sorrow, joy and hope, with a particular directness and honesty. They regain a sense of reference to the richness and complexity of the world and what it is to be human. They allow us to glimpse something beyond our immediate perceptions.

We are exceptionally fortunate to have an artist of such international standing exhibiting in Sussex. Sean Scully: Triptychs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, runs until 26th January 2014. For further information go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 8th January 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Inspired by the Countryside and the Changing Seasons

England’s changing seasons and landscape afford a particularly generous accompaniment to my life in Sussex. The artist Clare Leighton shared this delight in the rhythms of nature and the countryside.

A Lap Full of Windfalls from Four Hedges
‘A Lap Full of Windfalls’ from Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle

In the early part of the 20th century there was a revival of wood engraving in Britain. The softness of line and the strength of contrast in the black and white seemed to articulate something particular to a generation of people who were united in their experience of war. Clare Leighton belonged to this movement and generation. Today she is highly regarded by art historians and collectors. Her work combines a deep understanding of life and love, informed by her Christian faith, with a captivating simplicity and honesty. Many of her compositions are characterized by the use of a series of underlying curves, which at once unite the subjects in her pictures while giving a quality of journeying and movement.

Against some opposition from her family, Clare Leighton persuaded her parents to allow her to attend the Brighton School of Art. From there she went to the Slade School of Art, where she studied under Sir Henry Tonks between 1923 and 1924. Needing to earn a living, she left the Slade and enrolled for evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. She was friends with Hilaire Belloc, who lived at Shipley windmill near Horsham, and Eric Gill, who was at this point living in Ditchling.

Before the war she wrote and illustrated a series of books, which included The Farmer’s Year (1933) and Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle (1935). They reflect her fondness for the countryside and her empathy with rural workers and their husbandry. Although her work is modern, it follows in the rich tradition of English Romanticism.

‘April, Sowing’ from The Farmer’s Year
‘April, Sowing’ from The Farmer’s Year
The Fat Stock Market
‘The Fat Stock Market’ from ‘December’ in The Farmer’s Year

Nicholas Toovey heads the pictures and books departments at Toovey’s. With an interest in both these fields of collecting, it is understandable why this artist should particularly appeal to him. “I have long admired Clare Leighton’s work,” says Nick. “She was part of the revival of wood engraving at the start of the 20th century. It fascinates me that from only two colours, black and white, an artist can create a sense of light, movement, tone and hue.” Nick’s thoughts resonate with Leighton’s own reflections on the art of creating a woodblock engraving. She wrote, “The discipline of engraving is demanding, and for a perfectionist, exhaustingly so. Harnessed to this need is to interpret colour and tone through the limitation of black and white.”

In Clare Leighton’s ‘April, Sowing’ from The Farmer’s Year, the curve of the sower’s posture implies movement and unites him with the folds of the hills beneath the scudding clouds, which are reflected in the river. Leighton carves her woodblock with great skill and delicacy, creating mass, light and shade through the use of crosshatching. The curved compositional forms and quality of tone are again beautifully illustrated in ‘A Lap Full of Windfalls’ from Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle.

Nicholas Toovey with a first edition of Clare Leighton’s The Farmer’s Year from 1933

Nick draws my attention to ‘The Fat Stock Market’ from ‘December’ in The Farmer’s Year and says, “Leighton’s execution of carved line is always so precise. For the wood engraver there is no possibility of changing a mistake; once a line is engraved it must stay. There is a directness in the depiction of this livestock market and a strong feeling of empathy with these stewards of the land on this dark and damp December day. The black and white provides this scene with a real sense of drama.”

Here is an artist connected with her life and times, the countryside and its people, all of which inspired her to give expression to life and love through her woodblock prints.

Clare Leighton’s decision to emigrate to America in 1939 was bound up with her decision to end her relationship with the journalist and writer Henry Noel Brailsford. She settled in North Carolina and enjoyed a full artistic career, which included teaching at Duke University. Clare Leighton’s work is represented in many national collections, including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nick and I are excited that Toovey’s is supporting the exhibition Clare Leighton: Working Life, which has just opened at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. This excellent show has been organised by Simon Martin and provides a wonderful opportunity to see a breadth of Clare Leighton’s work. It runs until 24th February 2014; for further information go to www.pallant.org.uk.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 18th December 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Boys, Toys and Automobiles in Sussex

A Kingsbury tinplate model of Sir Henry Segrave’s Golden Arrow land speed record car

Here in West Sussex, many of the thriving collectors’ fields are informed by childhood passions. The land speed record attempts were particularly evocative for those growing up between and just after the First and Second World Wars.

Toovey’s toys specialist Chris Gale and consultant Gordon Gardiner enjoy a Gunthermann tinplate model of Sir Malcom Campbell's Bluebird land speed record car at Toovey’s Christmas specialist auction of collectors’ toys on 3rd December

“I remember watching Donald Campbell demonstrating his Bluebird CN7 land speed record car at Goodwood motor racing circuit, Sussex, in July 1960,” recalls Toovey’s consultant toys specialist Gordon Gardiner with customary enthusiasm. Competition for the world land speed record was particularly strong during the inter-war years, as a select group of courageous gentlemen drivers pushed themselves and their cars to the edge of endurance. Among these drivers were men like Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell, Donald Campbell’s father. These successive attempts to become the fastest men on land were celebrated in a mood of patriotism and national pride. Their bravery and achievements inspired a generation of boys. Our interest in their triumphs continues to fuel our appetite for toys and paper collectables relating to the pursuit of speed.

A black and white photograph of Sir Henry Segrave in his 4 litre V12 Sunbeam land speed record car.

It is always great fun to stray into Toovey’s toys department. Our toys specialist Chris Gale is seen here with Gordon Gardiner enjoying a tinplate clockwork model of Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird land speed record car by the German firm Gunthermann. German tinplate toys and trains from this period were made to high standards and are much sought-after by today’s collectors. In view of Gunthermann’s reputation for quality, I ask Gordon why this one does not bear their name and is just marked ‘Foreign’, rather than ‘German’. He replies, “There was a resistance to buying German-made toys after the Great War, so they marked this one simply as foreign to avoid any stigma.” I comment on the condition of this car, which to my eye seems to be remarkably good for its date. Gordon responds, “Most toy land speed record cars were well used by their original owners, so they are often quite play-worn but this one is better than most.” I always warm to the term ‘play-worn’. In all our other specialist departments, problems of condition are often noted as faults, but in the toys department things are play-worn, a fond metaphor for the passage of time and wear. “Nevertheless,” Chris interjects, “it is this model’s rarity and the fact that it still has its original box, albeit torn and incomplete, which led to its remarkable hammer price of £1100 in our Christmas toy sale.”

Chris reminds me of the Kingsbury tinplate keyless-clockwork model land speed record car which his department sold for £650 a couple of years ago. He says, “This is a popular model of the Golden Arrow record-breaker which was driven by Henry Segrave in 1929.”

A menu for a banquet in honour of Sir Malcolm Campbell following his land speed record at Bonneville Flats in September 1935

Interest in land speed record-breakers is strong in other collectors’ areas as well. Take, for example, the menu for a banquet in honour of Sir Malcolm Campbell, ‘as a tribute to his achievement in setting up the New Land Speed Record of 301.129mph at Bonneville Flats, Utah, USA’. It is dated September 24th 1935 and has a bas-relief photograph cover depicting Sir Malcolm. The black and white photograph also illustrated here shows Sir Henry Segrave at the wheel of his 4 litre V12 Sunbeam, which broke the land speed record at 152.33mph in 1926. The card mount is signed in ink by Segrave and other key members of the record-breaking team. Both lots were sold in specialist paper collectables auctions, headed by Nicholas Toovey, for £100 and £300 respectively.

Returning to Toovey’s toys department, I am interested to know what it is about old toys which delight collectors. “Part of it is fulfilling childhood dreams,” says Chris, “but it is also about their interests – particular vehicles, for example, or a certain historical period.” He continues with a smile, “Toy collectors are really generous with their knowledge and their enthusiasm, which is contagious.” I agree. Collecting is often about the acquisition and sharing of knowledge but it is also about community and sharing interests with fellow enthusiasts. After all, lively minds make open hearts!

Chris Gale and Gordon Gardiner are already gearing up for their spring toy auction, which will be held on 25th March 2014. Nicholas Toovey’s next paper collectables auction will be on 22nd April 2014. All are delighted to share their specialist interests with you and offer advice. They can be contacted at Toovey’s Spring Gardens salerooms at Washington.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th December 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Flesh and Bones Unites Oxford and Chichester

Second Version of Triptych 1944 © The Estate of Francis Bacon
Second Version of Triptych 1944 © The Estate of Francis Bacon, painted in 1988

Francis Bacon, Henry Moore – Flesh and Bone is an extraordinary exhibition, currently showing at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition brings together the work of two of the most important Modern British artists of the 20th century, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Henry Moore (1898-1986).

Henry Moore’s work, especially from the earlier part of his career, like Madonna and Child, carved in the warm hues of Hornton stone in 1943 and 1944 for St. Matthew’s, Northampton, conveys to me a quality of reverence, universal hope, strength and endurance. The theme of mother and child is one Moore would return to often, especially after the Second World War. For many, Francis Bacon’s figures offer a nihilistic world view; the bones of his subjects have a dissolving, disintegrating effect, suggesting an arbitrary existence subject to chance. Indeed, some people find Bacon’s images profoundly disturbing. The Ashmolean Museum’s Head of Exhibitions, Agnes Valenčak, however, provides an alternative view. She argues that it is not Henry Moore but Francis Bacon who best captures human suffering with understanding, integrity and empathy. Agnes has spent a considerable amount of time exploring and researching the body of work represented in this exhibition. Her perspectives offer fresh insight. While acknowledging the hope expressed in Moore’s earlier sculptures, Agnes says, “I find Francis Bacon’s work less harsh than Henry Moore’s. A lot of Bacon’s images appear painful but show a deep understanding and tolerance.” The Francis Bacon triptych Second Version of Triptych 1944 was painted in 1988. Agnes notes two differences from the original 1944 triptych: “Bacon is copying himself, as with the work of earlier artists. There are few changes, dimensions – a formal choice. He hardly changes the figures between the first and the second but there is more space in the composition.” The later version is larger than the original version and less cruel. The bared teeth of the person in the central panel are reminiscent of the horse in Picasso’s Guernica. The figures have a deformed physical appearance.

Francis Bacon chose to subvert the Christian iconography and the title of the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the base of the Crucifixion by identifying his distorted figures with the vengeful Greek Furies from classical mythology, who lacked mercy and forgiveness. In all this, Bacon the atheist was challenging us to remain open-minded and questioning about the ‘lenses’ through which we view the world. As a Christian, I feel an empathy with this triptych nonetheless. Francis Bacon captures this bleak moment in the Easter story, filled with cruelty, suffering, anguish and sorrow as Christ dies on the cross, attended by his mother St. Mary, St. Mary Magdalene and St. John. It is an image devoid of hope. At this point in the narrative, Christ’s resurrection is still unknown; it has not yet happened.

The Reverend Canon Dr Anthony Cane
The Reverend Canon Dr Anthony Cane reflects on one of Michel Clark’s Wounds of Christ in Chichester Cathedral

Francis Bacon’s friend, admirer and fellow artist Michael Clark continued the theme of flesh and bone in a series of works, titled Wounds of Christ. A group of five of these works is to be found at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex but they are easy to miss. I was introduced to them by my friend the Reverend Canon Dr Anthony Cane, who is Chancellor at the Cathedral. I ask Anthony what the wounds mean to him and he answers, “When I see Michael Clark’s Wounds of Christ, they remind me that the imposing Cathedral building would not exist without the particular flesh and blood of a human life, a life visibly marked by suffering. The five wounds are mapped on to the cruciform shape of the architecture, so that the very space I walk through becomes the body of Christ. Most artworks are looked at; this one is lived within.”

A detail from the conceptual Wounds of Christ by Michael Clark
A detail from the conceptual Wounds of Christ by Michael Clark at Chichester Cathedral

I am interested to find out whether one of the wounds particularly speaks to him. Anthony responds, “The wound in the south transept, the ‘left hand’ of Christ, is the one I see most often as I walk past it on the way to the altar for one of our daily services of Holy Communion.” He pauses, then says, “At the heart of that service is a story of wounded love and God’s compassion for all who are scarred and marked by life. Clark’s small glazed square [lesion], placed where it is in the Cathedral, evokes the relationship between love and pain but it also speaks of resurrection – bodily wounding and death are not the last word.” He concludes, “In the end, Clark’s work speaks to me of hope as well as suffering.”

Francis Bacon, Henry Moore – Flesh and Bone runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 19th January 2014. Agnes Valenčak’s inspiration and hard work deserve to be celebrated. This courageous and exceptional exhibition explores what it is to be a human creature through the work of these two great 20th century British artists, who speak with a directness and an honesty which challenge us. It is, however, an exhibition which, like Michael Clark’s Wounds of Christ, speaks of both hope and sorrow. These works help us to glimpse the complicated beauty of being human. I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough to you; for further information go to www.ashmolean.org. The Wounds of Christ can be seen at Chichester Cathedral, which is open daily, and admission is free. To find out more about services and events go to www.chichestercathedral.org.uk.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 4th December 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.