Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

John Piper, View of Chichester Cathedral from the Deanery, 1975, ink, watercolour and crayon on paper, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © The Piper Estate / DAC
John Piper, View of Chichester Cathedral from the Deanery, 1975, ink, watercolour and crayon on paper, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © The Piper Estate / DAC

Readers of this column will know that for many years now I have been promoting and telling the story of Sussex as a centre for art and artist, especially in the the 20th century. So I am excited by the exhibition ‘Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion’ being shown at Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD. This exhibition gives voice to how Sussex found herself at the heart of the Modern British Art Movement and the relationships and events which brought artists to Sussex.

This ambitious show is the work and inspiration of Dr Hope Wolf, of Sussex University who has brought together works from the collections of many of our county’s most famous museums and art galleries including Pallant House Gallery, The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, Towner, Jerwood and the homes of artists and patrons like Charleston, Farleys Farm and West Dean.

For more than a thousand years Sussex has drawn artists to her rolling Downland landscape and exciting coastline. Artists such as J M W Turner and John Constable, William Blake and Samuel Palmer were all inspired by, and worked in, Sussex. The 20th Century saw a revival of this ancient tradition with many of the leading Modern British artists living and working in the county.

Familiarity and the passage of years has dulled our sense of how shocking much of this art was to its contemporary audiences in the early 20th century. The contrasting context of the Neo-Gothic architecture and panelled rooms of Two Temple Place helps us to rediscover the impact of this important moment in British Art.

The first room gathers you with the work of the Sussex born artist, Eric Gill. In 1907 Gill moved to Ditchling in Sussex. Together with a group of fellow artists he founded and worked within the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling. These artists lived in community with their wives, children, associates and apprentices. They upheld the principles of the artisan artist in the Arts and Crafts tradition.

Duncan Grant, Bathers by the Pond, c1920-21, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © 1978 Estate of Duncan Grant, courtesy Henrietta Garnett
Duncan Grant, Bathers by the Pond, c1920-21, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © 1978 Estate of Duncan Grant, courtesy Henrietta Garnett

Duncan Grant’s Post-Impressionist ‘Bathers by the Pond’ celebrates the male body and pacifism. It is one of the works illustrating the influence of Bloomsbury and Charleston House in the show.

Many people are surprised to learn that Salvadore Dali worked in Sussex for Edward James at West Dean and that Picasso stayed with his great friend Roland Penrose at Farleys Farm. A joyful Mae West lips sofa, designed by Dali, is on display, one of a number of works illustrating Surrealism in Sussex.

Graham Sutherland, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli Me Tangere), 1961, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © The Estate of the Artist
Graham Sutherland, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli Me Tangere), 1961, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © The Estate of the Artist

The influence of church patrons like The Revd. Walter Hussey, then Dean of Chichester Cathedral, is also explored. Pieces from his personal collection, now curated by Pallant House, unite the exhibition with the art of Chichester Cathedral and provides one of the best examples of Graham Sutherland’s work, ‘Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, Noli Me Tangere’, and a charming view of the Cathedral by John Piper whose Neo-Romantic architectural studies unite him with the British watercolour tradition.

The narrative of this exhibition is particularly strong placing the artists and their work in the contexts of their relationships, the times they lived in and Sussex. Dr Hope Wolf acknowledges that there is more to be said but this excellent and timely exhibition should be celebrated. She is deserving of our thanks, as are the Bulldog Trust whose patronage has made this show possible.

‘Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion’ runs until 23rd April 2017 at Two Temple Place, London, WC2R 3BD and admission is free. For more information go to www.twotempleplace.org.

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.

From Town and City to the Country

‘The Tug’ by Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell
‘The Tug’ by Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell

In the late 19th and 20th centuries many of Britain’s leading artists were inspired to leave London and our towns and cities, for the country. For some it was to escape the effects of the industrial revolution and for others the wars. There was a desire to articulate the ancient hope of the English expressed in and through their landscape. A hope bound up with a romanticized view of a rural idyll, lost or under threat.

It was Virginia Woolf’s love for Duncan Grant and her sister, Vanessa Bell, which brought her to Sussex during the First World War. Vanessa was living with her lover, the artist Duncan Grant, and his friend David Garnett, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk when her sister, the author, Virginia Woolf, wrote to her in the May of 1916. She extolled the virtues and potential of Charleston house near Firle in East Sussex. To avoid being called up to fight and the prospect of gaol as conscientious objectors, Duncan Grant and David Garnett needed to be essentially employed on the land. Virginia Woolf was by this time living at Asheham some four miles from Charleston and, having suffered a breakdown, sought Vanessa’s company. In her letters Virginia explained that not only did the house need a tenant but that the neighbouring farmer was short of ‘hands’ to work on the land.

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would gather an extraordinary array of artists, writers and intellectuals to Charleston. Amongst them was the great economist Maynard Keynes, the authors Lytton Strachey and T. S. Elliot, the artist and critic Roger Fry and, amongst many others, Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell.

In London Vanessa Bell had married the art critic Clive Bell and was one of the leading members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She worked in the Omega Workshops with Roger Fry and collaborated with Duncan Grant in numerous decorative projects and artistic commissions.

As well as covering the walls and furniture at Charleston with painted decoration they portrayed those who visited and the countryside around them. The delightful oil by Vanessa Bell titled ‘The Tug’ depicts a scene reminiscent of Newhaven harbour which is across the Sussex Downs from Charleston. The light is golden and luminous. Her handling of paint is broad and filled with life and movement in the manner of the French Post-Impressionists. There is freedom and joy in the moored boat’s hopeful depiction.

Walter Langley’s oil painting, ‘A Quiet Time’
Walter Langley’s oil painting, ‘A Quiet Time’

In contrast to Vanessa Bell’s bright palette is Walter Langley’s depiction of a working class woman at rest. Titled ‘A Quiet Time’ it reflects Langley’s empathy with the persistent hardship faced by the poor in 19th century Britain. Muted earth hues are employed in the stillness of this sensitive, delicate portrait. The economy of detail is typical of his portrayals of the working people of Newlyn in Cornwall. Walter Langley belonged to a group of artists from Birmingham who journeyed to Newlyn in Cornwall to escape the hardships caused by the Industrial Revolution in our cities. Their pursuit of realism was influenced by the French Barbizon painters. There is a romantic articulation of the nobility in working people.

If Sussex and her Downs touch your heart the need to live in their folds never leaves you. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant would continue to live at Charleston throughout their lives. 2016 marks a century since the Bloomsbury Group artists, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, arrived in Sussex to make their home at Charleston. I look forward to returning to Charleston and their array of events to celebrate this important anniversary. For more information go to www.charleston.org.uk/whats-on.

Vanessa Bell’s and Walter Langley’s paintings are already consigned for sale in Toovey’s select Fine Art Sale on Wednesday 23rd March 2016, each with an estimate of £8,000-12,000.

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.