Christopher Wood – a Sophisticated Primitive

Christopher Wood, ‘China Dogs in a St Ives Window, Pallant House Gallery
Christopher Wood, ‘China Dogs in a St Ives Window, Pallant House Gallery

A major exhibition on the artist Christopher Wood (1901-1930) has just opened at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery. Curated by Katy Norris, it explores the complex life and importance of this ‘sophisticated primitive’.

Katy Norris has delivered an exemplary exhibition which highlights the influence of continental artists on Wood and his pivotal position in the Modern British Art Movement as he navigated a path between the representational art of the Victorian and Edwardian periods and the new abstraction of the 1930s.

The exhibition charts the chapters of this talented artist’s all too short life.

Christopher Wood, ‘Self-Portrait, 1927’, Kettles Yard, University of Cambridge
Christopher Wood, ‘Self-Portrait, 1927’, Kettles Yard, University of Cambridge

The twenty year old Christopher Wood arrived in Paris in 1921 where he met Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and others. He was also influenced by the Post-Impressionists including Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau. He wrote to his mother in 1922 explaining how these artists endeavoured to interpret their subjects as though ‘through the eyes of the smallest child who sees nothing except that which would strike them as being the most important.’ Seeking this essential view of the word lends an intensity to his work.

Christopher Wood’s first trip to Cornwall in 1926 affirmed the artist in him. It was during this visit that he painted one of his most iconic and finest pictures titled ‘China Dogs in a St Ives Window’. This playful painting brings together the naïve style which Wood had developed in Paris and a playful lyricism which imparts his sense of new-found freedom.

The quintessentially English scene is inspired by Victorian Staffordshire ceramic dogs. The Spaniels are framed by the chair and window. The composition leads our eye to the steamer and lighthouse in this primitive, artistic interpretation of St Ives harbour.

Christopher Wood depicts himself in a harlequin-patterned jumper in his 1927 Self – Portrait. There is an introspective intensity of emotion apparent in his face as we observe him. It is as though we are looking out of the canvas upon which he stands to paint. The influence of the untrained, candid representations of Post-Impressionist, Henri Rousseau can be seen here.

In the summer of 1928 Christopher Wood returned to St Ives with the artist Ben Nicholson. Whilst there he discovered the work of the self-taught painter and former fisherman, Alfred Wallis. Wood took on Wallis’ iconography depicting the Atlantic fishing industry and coast. Wood’s brushwork appears intuitive and spontaneous.

Christopher Wood, ‘Harbour in the Hills, University of Essex
Christopher Wood, ‘Harbour in the Hills, University of Essex

Wallis’ influence is particularly apparent in ‘Harbour in the Hills’. Painted in 1928, the sea is depicted as swirling bands of light greys and charcoals which contrast with the intensity of the green hills.

In his youth in Paris Christopher Wood had become addicted to opium. By now his life oscillated between his intense social life and solitary periods of painting.

Christopher Wood, ‘Dancing Sailors’, Leicester Arts and Museums Service
Christopher Wood, ‘Dancing Sailors’, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

In the summer of 1930 Christopher Wood painted his final series of some forty pictures at Treboul in Brittany over a period of six weeks. They depict an idealised view of these Breton seafarers, their customs and spirituality. This is captured in ‘Dancing Sailors’. Wood’s addiction lends a pulsating intensity to the painting.

Shortly after completing these works Christopher Wood tragically took his own life when he jumped in front of a train at Salisbury station.

Katy Norris’ superb monograph ‘Christopher Wood’ provides an insightful companion to this outstanding exhibition and is on sale at the Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.

At its heart the exhibition explores Christopher Wood’s pervading interest in Primitivism in the context of his life. It examines the international and domestic influences on his work, and how his faux-naïve style would contribute to the journey towards more progressive forms of modernism in art in 1930s Britain.

‘Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive’ runs until 2nd October 2016 and brings together often rarely seen works – what a summer holiday treat!

For more information on current exhibitions, events and opening times go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Celebrating the Bishop Otter Art Collection

Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), Autumn Stream, undated, oil on canvas, © Jonathan Clark Fine Art, representatives of the artist’s estate, Courtesy Bishop Otter Trust, University of Chichester
Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), Autumn Stream, undated, oil on canvas, © Jonathan Clark Fine Art, representatives of the artist’s estate, Courtesy Bishop Otter Trust, University of Chichester

This week I am in the company of Gill Clarke, author, Guest Curator and Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester’s Otter Gallery. The exhibition, ‘The Bishop Otter Art Collection: A Celebration’, is located at both the University of Chichester and at Pallant House Gallery.

It celebrates the vision of Sheila McCririck (1916-2001), whose foresight created a remarkable collection of 20th century British Art. She was supported in this purpose by the Bishop Otter College Principal Betty Murray (1909-1998).

Visiting Professor and Guest Curator Gill Clarke in the Otter Gallery
Visiting Professor and Guest Curator Gill Clarke in the Otter Gallery

Gill Clark explains the philosophy behind the collection “Both women believed in the civilising influence of art and the educative value of its ability to challenge. To achieve this works had to be on open display, in accessible places. They were unconcerned about spiralling values and they were irritated by the constraints of insurance and security.”

The economic austerity of the post Second World War period provided the backdrop to artistic activity and educational thought. The integration of the arts and education became part of the rebuilding of Britain and was central to the purpose of the collection at Bishop Otter.

I have long been a supporter of Chichester University’s Bishop Otter Collection of Modern British Art and remark how I have always been impressed by its coherence, breadth and quality. Gill responds “Sheila McCririck’s choices were not arbitrary. Judgement always had to take precedence over taste – she never lost sight of the fact that she was buying for an institution. Her unerring eye, together with a professional and academic approach, is at the heart of this collection”

There can be no doubt that these women were making bold aesthetic choices which showed remarkable foresight. All the works represented in the exhibition are from the collection. They include artists like Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Walter Sickert and Ivon Hitchens, alongside leading post war abstract painters such as Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Paul Feiler, William Scott, Patrick Heron, William Gear, Terry Frost and Sandra Blow.

The first painting to enter the collection was Ivon Hitchens’ ‘Autumn Stream’. Ivon Hitchens always sought to capture the essence of an object or scene. This landscape has a musical quality in its sense of rhythm, tone and movement. Indeed he famously said ‘My paintings are painted to be listened to.’ Hitchens had moved to West Sussex in 1940 after the bombing of his Hampstead home. Writing to Betty Murray in January 1951 he said ‘if there is any outcry about the picture – then let me have it back. But… I hope it will meet with general approval and be a worthy send off for your scheme.’

Henry Moore (1898-1986), Figure on Square Steps, c.1957, bronze, Courtesy Bishop Otter Trust, University of Chichester
Henry Moore (1898-1986), Figure on Square Steps, c.1957, bronze, Courtesy Bishop Otter Trust, University of Chichester

Henry Moore was also an early supporter of the College Collection and its premise that teachers should be exposed to leading examples of modern art. Initially he lent a bronze, ‘Seated Figure’, which was purchased by the college. When it was stolen Henry Moore generously sold them ‘Figure on Square Steps’, seen here, at a very favourable price.

Paul Feiler (1918-2013), Boats and Sea, c.1952-3, oil on canvas ©The Artist’s Estate, Courtesy Bishop Otter Trust, University of Chichester
Paul Feiler (1918-2013), Boats and Sea, c.1952-3, oil on canvas ©The Artist’s Estate, Courtesy Bishop Otter Trust, University of Chichester

These and other stunning works can be seen at the University’s Otter Gallery.

The display at Pallant House Gallery allows the visitor to see paintings from the collection in the domestic setting of the old house. This gives some sense of how they must have appeared to students back in the 1960s. Amongst these is Paul Feiler’s jewel – like abstract titled ‘Boats and Sea’. Its heavy blocks of colours is characteristic of his work at this date.

‘What treasures we lived with’ and ‘Amazing to have wandered past this art whilst a student’ are just some of the comments from students of the time giving voice to the quality of this collection.

Gill Clarke concludes “It’s a wonderful collection and it has been a great privilege to work with it. What a legacy Sheila McCririck and Betty Murray have left for the University and broader community.’

‘The Bishop Otter Art Collection: A Celebration’ runs until 9th October 2016 at the University of Chichester Otter Gallery and Pallant House Gallery. Gill Clarke has published an insightful accompanying book about the collection and its formation which is on sale at both venues. For more information and opening times go to www.pallant.org.uk and www.chi.ac.uk/current-exhibitions/bishop-otter-collection-celebration.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Lost Works by Evelyn Dunbar

Evelyn Dunbar, Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook, 1940, oil on canvas, private collection © The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes
Evelyn Dunbar, Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook, 1940, oil on canvas, private collection © The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes

The current exhibition, ‘Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works’, at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, includes many previously unseen pictures by this lesser known artist. Many of these paintings and drawings had lain forgotten in an attic in Kent until their rediscovery in 2013.

Evelyn Dunbar’s recurrent themes of the repeating rhythms of nature, the seasons and the year seem particularly poignant as we once again reflect on the coming of a New Year.

Evelyn Dunbar, An English Calendar, 1938, oil on canvas, Archives Imperial College London © The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes
Evelyn Dunbar, An English Calendar, 1938, oil on canvas, Archives Imperial College London © The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes

These themes are reflected in ‘An English Calendar’ painted in 1938. Here we also observe the artist’s passion for horticulture. Dunbar’s figurative study ‘February’ is filled with allegory. It is as though this figure has been disturbed. Her startled face is illuminated as she lifts a cloche and the first shoots of spring issue from her hat against the cold grey of a February sky. It displays something of the graphic qualities present in the artist’s illustrations.

Evelyn Dunbar, February, 1937-38, Oil on canvas, © The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
Evelyn Dunbar, February, 1937-38, Oil on canvas, © The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

The exhibition is being held in the early 18th century house which forms part of the gallery. The influences of the 1930s British art scene on Evelyn Dunbar’s work is immediately apparent. There is something of the attitude of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and others in her pictures which connects her work to the Neo-Romantic movement of the time. Nevertheless there is much to delight in the familiar.

Amongst the strongest images in this exhibition are her depictions of the home front painted whilst she was working as a war artist. Dunbar was appointed as an Official War Artist in April 1940.

Sir Kenneth Clark provided the inspiration to set up the ambitious Recording Britain scheme which he saw as an extension of the Official War Artist Scheme. Artists, like Dunbar, were employed on the home front to create topographical views of the British landscape, architecture and people. These things were being threatened by bombing and possible Nazi invasion and were rightly considered to be important to the British nation and her identity.

Evelyn Dunbar, Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, 1940, oil on canvas, © The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
Evelyn Dunbar, Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, 1940, oil on canvas, © The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

There is a poetry and rhythm in Evelyn Dunbar’s paintings from 1940 of ‘Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook’ and ‘Milking Practice with Artificial Udders’. These stylized depictions display Dunbar’s empathy with her subjects and love of the English landscape. Her palette and the texture inherent in her handling of paint adds a vitality to her work.

This charming exhibition runs until 14th February 2016 at the Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. For more information about ‘Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works’ and the gallery’s current exhibition program go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

I wish you all a peaceful and happy new year filled with blessing.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 30th December 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Dada plus eight

'Terrarium II' by Chris Kettle

It’s been a decade since Toovey’s held the first ever auction of Contemporary Art consigned by Self-representing Artists. Due to other commitments the sales have been postponed until further notice, but those looking to get their Contemporary Art ‘fix’ have the perfect opportunity in Hove during the next fortnight.

Nick Toovey with artist Sarah Shaw

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a preview of the exhibition at the Naked Eye Gallery curated by Stefanra Dal Ferro that runs between the 11th and 24th December. The exhibition showcases eight different artists all of whom have the same 1.5m x 2m area to display their art. Curator Stefania states ‘Rather than the lines in the gallery separating the pieces, I wanted to create a sense of them melting together; simultaneously fighting differences and celebrating individuality.’ All the artists have responded by filling their space with one or two showstoppers.

In the show, five of the eight artists had been included in at least one of Toovey’s Contemporary Art Auctions. It was nice to see a familiar eclectic mixture of styles, palettes and media all in a single venue and equally good to see the artists themselves.

'Wires' by Sarah Shaw

The exhibition walls were full of contrasts. Leaping into focus as you walk through the doors is an amazing Simon Dixon of Bo Diddley, popping with colour this acrylic on canvas sings against the unobtrusive grey background. Beside this is ‘Wires’ by Sarah Shaw, a work that she describes as a cathartic experience to produce. I had a good catch up with Sarah, and was pleased to hear the positivity around her recent competition entries, solo shows and other exhibitions. Sarah’s art features on the soon to be released cover of Daughter’s album ‘Not to Disappear’ released by 4AD and a new print will be launched soon to coincide. As an artist she has always been one to watch and I am delighted people are sharing my enthusiasm for her work.

'Otherwise the stone would carve the tool' by Jim Sanders

The inimitable Jim Sanders was offering two works, both breaking away from his usual palette of black, grey, white and red with bold splashes of colour. Jim was as upbeat as ever and I was reminded of the time I visited his house to write a Sussex Life article and being blown away by what I saw. Discussing this with another artist we both agreed that his home is akin to a ready made museum of his own work, quite an immersive and incredible experience for anyone lucky enough to visit.

Chris Kettle chatting about his impressive oil on canvas 'Terrarium II'

The work of David Levine, Joseph Rossi and Alex Binnie were no less impressive as I moved around to ‘Terranium II’ by Chris Kettle. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, there is no contemporary artist offering such an interesting twist on the Still Life genre like Chris. His attention to detail combined with his unique vision delivers works that are simply breathtaking. I was buoyed to hear that his work was gaining a strong reputation and prints of his work were selling out fast. As a result a new series of prints are just about to be launched.

Then my circuit of the room was completed with the ultimate quirkiness of Paul Ostrer. As always, his work was beautifully executed and indulgently brilliant. The collective group of the plus eight emphasizes how much talent there is on our doorstep, and that Sussex could truly become a center for the arts. The quote of Mattie Stepanek in the exhibition brochure was perfectly apt: ‘Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration wonderful things can be achieved.’

The exhibition also provided me with the opportunity to meet some fascinating new people – not least the amazing framer Tim Harbridge, based in Montague Place, Brighton, and the equally brilliant Vaughan from Tin Dogs, who looks after a number of artists by reproducing their works as sumptuous screen prints.

So if you are in Hove in the next two weeks be sure to pop into the Naked Eye Gallery in Farm Mews, BN3 1GH, to see the Dada+8 show!

David Jones Exhibition

Simon Martin opens David Jones exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
Simon Martin opens David Jones exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Pallant House Gallery’s Artistic Director, Simon Martin, opened their latest exhibition ‘David Jones: Vision and Memory’ last Friday. This timely retrospective provides an extraordinary insight into the life and work of this talented British artist who, between 1921 and 1924, was a member of Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Ditchling, Sussex.

David Jones, Flora in Calix Light, 1950, watercolour, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge © Trustees of the David Jones Estate
David Jones, Flora in Calix Light, 1950, watercolour, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge © Trustees of the David Jones Estate

David Jones (1895-1974) worked as a painter, engraver, poet and maker of inscriptions. He responded with a lyrical delight to the visual world around him. But there is also a mystical, timeless quality to his work, rooted in the memory of the long and ancient procession of human history. In 1936 the famous art historian, Kenneth Clark, described him as ‘in many ways, the most gifted of artists of all the young British painters’, adding in the late 1960s that Jones was ‘absolutely unique – a remarkable genius’.

David Jones, Quia Per Incarnati, 1945, watercolour, Private Collection © Trustees of the David Jones Estate
David Jones, Quia Per Incarnati, 1945, watercolour, Private Collection © Trustees of the David Jones Estate
David Jones, The Dove, wood-engraving from Chester Play of the Deluge, 1927 © Trustees of the David Jones Estate/ Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
David Jones, The Dove, wood-engraving from Chester Play of the Deluge, 1927 © Trustees of the David Jones Estate/ Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

My passion for Modern British Art began at Jim Ede’s home, Kettles Yard, in Cambridge. Jim Ede championed many of the leading artists of the 1920s and 1930s whilst an assistant curator at the Tate gallery in London. It was at Kettles Yard, amongst the work of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Naum Gabo and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, that I first encountered David Jones’ watercolours and prints. Amongst these was the expressive work ‘Flora in Calix Light’. Jones converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at Ditchling and his faith remained one of the recurrent influences on his art and writing. In the 1950s Jones’ horizons began to come in on him and his attention moved from a delight in the world outside to the interior. The resulting still lifes are considered to be amongst his best works. ‘Flora in Calix Light’ has many of the common themes of these watercolours. The large, central glass goblet resembles the chalice of the Mass. There is an abundance in the garden flowers which fill it. The three glass chalices represent the scene of the crucifixion. They are charged with a translucent light, the white gouache heightening our sense of the luminous. Through the open window we glimpse a tree which reminds the viewer of the cross. This reflective painting captures the mystery of the Passion narratives through its rich symbolism, whilst the Christian iconography is implicit rather than explicit. There is a connection with David Jones’ meditation on the unity of all creation in the presence of God, ‘The Anathemata’, which was published in 1952.

From the 1940s onwards David Jones embarked on a series of painted inscriptions. They are amongst the most beautiful images in this exhibition. Initially he produced them as greetings cards to friends. There is a playful quality to them as the artist wilfully misspells words and mixes languages. But these are meditative pieces which demand the full attention of the viewer. They embody an understanding of the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Mass and as ‘the Word made flesh’ as expressed in ‘Quia Per Incarnati’.

The exhibition illustrates the development of, and influences on, the work of this complex artist in an accessible way. It allows us to see the consistent quality of line apparent throughout David Jones’ career and not least in his earlier wood engraved illustrations like ‘The Dove’.

‘David Jones: Vision and Memory’ will reward you whether you are familiar with the artist’s work or discovering him for the first time. You cannot fail to be delighted by this remarkable modern British artist with such strong links to Sussex. I am pleased that Toovey’s is amongst the headline sponsors of this insightful exhibition which runs until 21st February 2016 at the Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. For more information about the gallery’s current exhibition program go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 28th October 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.