Spring Unites Sussex & The Channel Islands

Postcard titled 'Weighbridge during Potato Season, Jersey'
Postcard titled 'Weighbridge during Potato Season, Jersey'

As March draws to a close it marks the procession towards the end of the great reflective Christian season of Lent. The name Lent probably has Anglo-Saxon origins coming from a word meaning ‘spring’, which refers to lengthening days. Recently we have been blessed with some beautiful bright days punctuating the grey skies.

Colin De La Haye in the granite potato sheds at Bel Val Farm, Jersey
Colin De La Haye in the granite potato sheds at Bel Val Farm, Jersey

Last Sunday I found myself in the company of my cousins, Colin and Paulette De La Haye. They farm Jersey Royal potatoes on land bought by Paulette’s family in the late 19th century. Bel Val Farm sits confidently in its landscape in the North East of the Island of Jersey. For them this is not work, it is a way of life filled with dedication and love.

Our conversation moves, as it usually does, from the world of fine art auctioneering to the important business of this year’s potato season. One of my great delights of the year are the first Jersey Royal potatoes. There is something hopeful in their arrival. Their flavour, texture and colour, for me, marks them as the finest potatoes in the world, especially when they come from Bel Val Farm!

I comment on the chill in the wind and note that the covers are back on the early crop. Colin has the most extraordinary connection with the land. He observes and understands the language of the seasons and nature in a remarkable way. He says “We’re expecting the largest tide of the year tonight, it’s a full moon and the tide comes with the moon. If you are going to get a frost it will be with the Easter moon. Frost comes with the tide this time of year.”

Jersey Royals have been a major export for the Island for more than a century. The postcard illustrated here was sold in a Toovey’s specialist Paper Collectables auction. It depicts the bustle at the harbour during the potato season in the early 20th century. At this time there were hundreds of small farms and growers. Today there are just twenty growers. The Jersey Royal is one of the few truly seasonal crops. Its season lasts just a few months. Each year approximately 30,000 tonnes of Jersey Royals are exported to the UK, worth some £29 million pounds. The value of this crop comes from its unique flavour and that it is one of the earliest new potatoes of the season.

Being early to the market is important to a successful season as there is a premium to the price. Colin explains that each potato seed is individually stood up by hand in some 20,000 boxes over the winter months. They are stored in their potato sheds, some of which are built of granite and overlook the bay. With the eyes facing up it gives the seed an advantage once planted. The earliest Jersey Royals traditionally came from the steep sloping fields known as côtil which catch the sun and guard against the frost. Colin and Paulette’s côtil are so steep that they have to be ploughed with an ancient horse plough attached to a winch at the top of the slope. Vraic, gathered seaweed, is still put on some of the crop to improve the condition of the soil and the flavour.

Colin’s organisation, care and stewardship of the land always impresses me. He and his team will plough, plant, prepare and cover a field in a single day. But there is always the unknown in farming and in particular the weather. I ask Colin how this season is looking, he replies optimistically, as he always does “We haven’t had any frost since the 8th and 9th of January so that’s been ok.” He pauses and smiles wryly and continues “We’ll see what tonight brings. We need a bit of sun now to warm them up.”

Colin’s Jersey accent reminds me that whilst Jersey is part of the British Isles its rich history and traditions mark this proud Island people’s independence.

Always optimistic, attentive to the seasons and tides Colin is rooted in his landscape. Paulette and Colin’s hard work, stewardship and generosity is always inspiring and is to be admired.

Lent affords us time to reflect, a punctuation mark in our busy lives, a time to be reminded of things that we might, for a moment, have forgotten and to rediscover the familiar anew. So look out for the first of the seasons Jersey Royals they may well be from Bel Val Farm!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 25th March 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Investing in British Antique Furniture Crosses Generations

A set of eight George III mahogany dining chairs
A set of eight George III mahogany dining chairs

It is remarkable to reflect that between 1968 and 2001 prices for British antique furniture grew pound for pound faster than property in the South East of England during the same period.

In 2001 British antique furniture suffered a correction in prices which set a trend of falling values in this market over more than a decade. But in more recent times I have witnessed not only a firming of prices for antique furniture at Toovey’s but the beginnings of growth.

An 18th century walnut bureau with cross and feather banded borders
An 18th century walnut bureau with cross and feather banded borders

The Antique Collectors’ Club Antique Furniture Annual Price Index for 2014 has just been published. According to this index many sectors of the British antique furniture market have held their position, with what they describe as a ‘stable set of [results for] Walnut, Georgian Mahogany, Regency and even Victorian indices’.

The extraordinary percentage growth over two generations to 2001 was partly due to the exceptional value for money that antique furniture represented in 1968. These relatively low prices did not last for long. Growth was underpinned by strong demand from the United States and a passion for English country house taste amongst domestic UK buyers.

The correction in the market began with the tragedy of 9/11 and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York. After this Americans seemed to reassess their business overseas and their love affair with traditional British art and antiques, largely withdrawing from the market. The comfortable and timeless taste of the English country house fell victim to the success of companies like IKEA, whose famous marketing slogan ‘Chuck out that chintz today’ had begun in 1996. Furniture joined the ranks of the disposable commodity; something which still sits uncomfortably with my sense of the need for good stewardship of the world and its resources. Proper furniture became ‘brown’. The austerity of minimalism had arrived.

But fashion and international crises are not the only things which affect markets. Over my thirty years as an antique and fine art auctioneer I have observed that collectors’ markets are driven by our human associations with objects. I regularly hear people in the saleroom remark “Oh my Granny had one of those!” Often the things we most love will have come from, or have associations with, our grandparents or an older generation. After all grandparents are home grown heroes! Our tastes are frequently informed by these sentimental attachments. Objects and art provide the prompts to fond memories and stories, which make up the patch work quilt of our lives.

A George III mahogany chest-on-chest
A George III mahogany chest-on-chest

So what is underpinning a recovery of interest in British antique furniture? Overseas buyers have been returning via the internet. And there is growing interest from a large minority of UK buyers. It includes a younger television generation with eclectic tastes which include antiques. They, like me, find it hard to reconcile that a piece of flat-pack furniture can be thrown out and into the landfill to answer fashion. They understand the beauty and quality of an antique mahogany piece of furniture. They are generations whose grandparents have delighted in these pieces. In turn they are delighted that no new trees have been felled to answer their furnishing needs and they comprehend that these pieces will last beyond their grandchildren. These exciting individuals are passionate about history but delight in the new and are not afraid to mix antique and modern pieces. Like the post-war generation many of them are renting their homes. Unable to plan the ‘rosebuds’ over the door in the same way as the generations of home owners before them, they are turning to their interiors to give expression to their individuality and creativity. The uniqueness of antiques provides a vehicle for this expression. British antique furniture once again represents exceptional value for money.

Prices for good quality walnut, Georgian mahogany and Victorian furniture range from hundreds of pounds into the low thousands. Perhaps the market is set for the growth in prices witnessed from the late 1960s to 2001. It would be wonderful if antique furniture could once again prove to be a successful alternative investment. One thing is for sure, if you are investing in British antique furniture it will continue to delight you and successive generations of your family. It offers beauty, practicality and a pragmatic path to better stewardship of the world and its resources. Antique furniture is ‘green’ not ‘brown’.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 18th March 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm

Leon Underwood, Chac-Mool’s Destiny, 1929, oil on canvas © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London
Leon Underwood, Chac-Mool’s Destiny, 1929, oil on canvas © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London
Leon Underwood, Self-Portrait in a Landscape, 1921, etching on paper © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London
Leon Underwood, Self-Portrait in a Landscape, 1921, etching on paper © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London

An exciting exhibition at Pallant House Gallery has just opened titled Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm. The show gifts us with the first museum retrospective exhibition of Leon Underwood’s work. It explores the artist’s treatment of the human figure from delicate portrait etchings to sculptures, expressing rhythm and movement.

This insightful show has been curated by Pallant House Gallery’s Artistic Director, Simon Martin.

Underwood would often follow an independent path. Influenced by his deep spirituality and understanding of place in the procession of human history. Underwood’s work celebrates the vitality of ancient civilisations and tribal art. Unusually for such a talented artist there is not a readily apparent common voice uniting the different phases of his work. However, the exhibition reveals the influences in each stage of the artist’s evolution and makes apparent the repeated rhythms and Underwood’s connectedness with the artists and artistic movements of his time.

Leon Underwood, Untitled (Foetus), circa 1924-5, chalk, The Sherwin Collection © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London
Leon Underwood, Untitled (Foetus), circa 1924-5, chalk, The Sherwin Collection © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London

He taught at the Royal College of Art and subsequently at his Brook Green School in his Hampstead studio. He at once influenced his pupils and was influenced by them. Amongst Leon Underwood’s most gifted pupils were the artists Gertrude Hermes, Eileen Agar and Henry Moore.

Simon Martin notes Leon Underwood’s unorthodox approach to drawing, emphasising ‘individuality, and the need to convey volume, mass and direction with great economy.’ The sculptor, Henry Moore, was to praise Underwood’s ‘passionate attitude towards drawing from life. He set out to teach the science of drawing, of expressing solid form on flat surface and not photographic copying of tone values, nor the art school limitations of style in drawing’.

During the First World War Underwood served as a camouflage artist and the influence of this on his work is highlighted in the exhibition.

Underwood had begun to collect tribal art in 1919. Inspired by tribal art’s vitality and directness of expression the artist created directly carved embryonic shapes like the beautifully formed ‘Untitled (Foetus)’ from 1924 in chalk.

Many of the early sculptures are shallow reliefs like the rhythm of an erotic dance depicted in ‘The Dance of Salome’ carved in marble in 1924.

Leon Underwood, The Dance of Salome (Dancer), 1924, painted marble © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London
Leon Underwood, The Dance of Salome (Dancer), 1924, painted marble © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London

Simon Martin suggests that Underwood’s sculptures from the 1920s and 30s have a link with the pioneering pre-war work of leading sculptors like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill; as well as the direct carvings of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. This is certainly apparent to my eye.

In 1923 wood engraving was introduced at the Brook Green School. Out of the innovative environment created by Underwood a school of wood engraving emerged which would lead to the formation of the English Wood Engraving Society in 1925. The sculptures and wood engravings from this period are for me amongst the most exceptional pieces in the exhibition.

This restless and searching artist travelled to Mexico in 1929. The Aztec and Mayan sites that he visited would inspire mythical pictures. Take for example the wood engraving ‘Volcano’. Here a naked man kneels his arms raised in a gesture of praise with the Volcano beyond. In his hands he holds aloft a sculpture and a piece of paper, his sculpting tools lie at his knees, perhaps symbolic of artistic creativity. Beside him are two figures. The one to the left is drawing an outline of himself. It is as though they have been incised into the very fabric of the earth.

Leon Underwood, Volcano, 1934, wood engraving on paper © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London
Leon Underwood, Volcano, 1934, wood engraving on paper © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London

The ambitious canvas ‘Chaac-Mool’s Destiny’ was painted in 1929. It courageously explores the transformative power of cultural objects in museums and these objects are depicted in the British Museum. This image would certainly have resonated with Underwood’s former student, Henry Moore.

There is much more to delight in this retrospective.

The threads and relationships which unite artists and influences within the 20th century Modern British Art Movement are revealed anew in this rich exhibition.

Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm runs until 14th June 2015 at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. For more information go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557. The accompanying book ‘Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm’, edited by Simon Martin, provides a wonderful insight into this lost artist whose life and work brings together so many threads of the Modern British Art Movement in the 20th Century. Priced at £19.95 it is available from the Pallant House Bookshop.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th March 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

All images © The Estate of the Artist and The Redfern Gallery, London.

The Delights of Tin Glazed Earthenware

An English delft flower brick
An English delft flower brick, probably London, circa 1750

Tin glazed earthenware describes the method of decorating fine quality pottery using a technique first developed in Baghdad in the 9th century. In an attempt to rival the glossy whiteness of Chinese porcelain the earthenware was covered with an opaque white glaze.

A pair of 18th Century Dutch Delft blue and white vases
A pair of 18th Century Dutch Delft blue and white vases, decorated after the Chinese, with ormolu mounts

The technique entered Europe through Spain which was under the rule of the Umayyad Muslim caliphate. Tin glazed earthenware arrived in Italy from Spain in the first half of the 13th century. From Italy the method spread throughout Europe.

The technique remained relatively unchanged into the 18th century. After the pottery has been fired it emerges from the kiln as a brownish earthenware. It is then dipped in a glaze made up of oxides of lead and tin combined with silicate of potash. This porous white coat can then be decorated with various metallic oxides, capable of withstanding the high-temperatures of the kiln needed to unite them with the tin glaze and fuse it to the surface of the clay. Blue comes from cobalt, green from copper, purple from manganese, yellow from antimony and orange from iron.

An English polychrome delft circular bowl
An English polychrome delft circular bowl, mid-18th Century, of deep circular form, painted a Chinese pavilion beneath a tree

The colours are absorbed into the glaze as soon as they are applied. No corrections to the painted design is possible. Many art historians liken the process to that of fresco wall painting, rare Saxon examples of which are to be found in a number of Sussex churches. Once decorated the vessel is then given a second firing. This fixes the glaze to the object’s body and melts it to a glossy surface. Lead glaze is commonly applied before firing to enhance the finish.

Tin glazed earthenware is often known as delft. The name derives from the Dutch town of Delft which by the mid-17th century had become the most important centre for the manufacture of tin glazed earthenware. The pair of Dutch Delft vases shown here are decorated with figures in the style of Chinese vases from the 17th century Kangxi period.

An English delft colander bowl
An English delft colander bowl, probably London, circa 1770

Many of my favourite examples of tin glazed delft are those from the 18th century made in the British Isles. Like the Dutch vases they are frequently stylistically influenced by the Chinese imported porcelain of the same date.

The English delft circular bowl, circa 1750, employs the manganese purple, cobalt blue and antimony yellow so typical of high temperature glazes in its depiction of a Chinese pavilion beneath a tree. The restraint and composition of the scene is captivating.

The English delft colander bowl’s exterior is painted with cobalt blue Chinese landscapes. The bands of pierced heart shaped drain holes delight with the flowing foliate decoration. You can see the pouring hole on the inner rim. It is at once beautiful and useful.

A British delft octagonal dish
A British delft octagonal dish, probably Dublin, mid-18th Century, painted with a Chinese style chrysanthemum

There were centres of delft manufacture in Bristol, Liverpool, London, and across the British Isles. The octagonal dish illustrated was probably made in Dublin in the mid-18th century. The chrysanthemum, trellis and flower panels once again show the influence of the Chinese and are beautifully conceived.

I love delft flower bricks. The faces of the rectangular form of this example from the 1750s are delicately painted with flowers. They are confident little objects designed to hold cut flowers.

The finest examples of delft tin glazed earthenware realise tens of thousands of pounds but examples like these can still be bought at auction from between £300 and £1000. They have a delightful provincial quality. Whilst their decoration often reflects the regions in which they were made they connect the collector with the international stylistic influences of their time. Their prices are beginning to rise once again. Perhaps it is time you discovered the delights of collecting tin glazed earthenware!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 4th March 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.