Eric Ravilious Exhibition Unites Sussex and Wiltshire

Eric Ravilious – The Wilmington Giant, watercolour © V&A

The artist Eric Ravilious found inspiration in the Downland landscapes of Sussex and Wiltshire This inspiration is central to the exhibition Eric Ravilious Downland Man at the Wiltshire Museum Devizes.

The exhibition highlights how Ravilious’ work was rooted in the landscape and life of England.

During Eric Ravilious’ lifetime watercolour painting underwent a revival. This most English of mediums and traditions was fused with modern ways of seeing and painting. He found a very English corrective to modernism resulting in his emotionally cool and intensely structural paintings.

These Downland watercolours are all the more extraordinary when considered against the backdrop of the outbreak of war and highlight Ravilious’ fascination with the importance of place and moments in time.

In December, shortly after the outbreak of war on the 3rd September 1939 Ravilious toured and recorded England’s chalk figure sites. The Long Man of Wilmington was familiar to Ravilious from his childhood. Ravilious likened the ‘Wilmington Giant’, near Eastbourne, with a figure of Virgo holding staves in the frescoes of San Gimignano by Bartolo di Fredi of ‘Scenes from Creation’.

Ravilious painted The Wilmington Giant in watercolour. He employed a dry brush leaving plenty of the white paper showing through. You can see the influence of the artist’s printmaking. The textures are reminiscent of hatching adding to the suggestion of distant hills, the corn moving in the breeze and the scudding light over the surface of the landscape. The taut, purposeful barbed wire fence draws our eye through the composition to the giant’s feet. The irregular square mesh of the fence adds to the sense of movement. Wire from a leaning post frames the giant. This is a landscape which speaks of the English and the ancient.

Eric Ravilious – The Westbury Horse, watercolour © Towner Gallery

Like the Long Man at Wilmington the Westbury Horse in Wiltshire would have been visible from the train. The white horse is carved into the uneven contours of the hillside which are accentuated once again in the hatched brush strokes. I love the train crossing the grey plain beyond the ridge set beneath the shimmering sky.

The exhibition highlights that Ravilious’ sensibility was modern but his techniques were not. Texture, light and movement connect the artist’s work to the English Romantic tradition but with a particular and fresh voice. It is at once figurative and yet highly stylized. Watercolour, a most English of mediums, is fused with modern ways of seeing and painting. His graphic, linear approach to the medium resulted in a very English Modernism. This superb exhibition allows us to re-examine Ravilious’ fascination with the importance of place capturing particular moments in time.

Eric Ravilious Downland Man runs at the Wiltshire Museum Devizes until 30th January 2022, for more information visit www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk.

Gilbert White’s Tercentenary Celebrated at Pallant House

John Nash, A pair of Hoopoe Birds from‘The Natural History of Selborne’, c.1972 © Estate of John Nash

Pallant House Gallery’s exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists celebrates 300 years since the birth of the Revd. Gilbert White and the centenary of the Society of Wood Engravers. It runs from the 11 March to the 28 June 2020.

The Revd. Gilbert White (1720-1793) was a remarkable man, a pioneering naturalist who hugely influenced the development of the science of natural history, an author and a gardener. He is perhaps most famous for his book ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne’. A man of God with a love and interest in science and the natural world sits well with me. It is often argued that White’s study of earthworms and their vital role in creating topsoil influenced Charles Darwin’s thinking around evolution.

White’s Natural History recounts his daily observations of the animals, birds and plant life found on his doorstep in Hampshire and nearby in the South Downs in Sussex. Published in 1789 it was an immediate success.

Gilbert White’s Natural History has also inspired artists over the centuries and never more than in the 20th century as highlighted by the works on display.

In the 20th century many artists rediscovered their role as artisan artists and designers whilst working as painters and sculptors of fine art. One of the ways that this was expressed was by making printed woodblock illustrations for fine books printed by private presses.

Eric Ravilious, The Tortoise in the Kitchen Garden from ‘The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne’, ed., H.J.Massingham, London, The Nonsuch Press, 1938

The artist Robert Gibbings influenced the revival of wood engraving by artists. In 1920 he founded the Society of Wood Engravers. Members working in Sussex included Eric Ravilious and John Nash. The society ignited a revival of wood engraving where the designs and the blocks were created by the artist, making that vital connection between the artist and the final print.

Eric Ravilious displays the line, flecking and crisp edging which define his woodblocks in The Tortoise in the Kitchen Garden. It depicts Gilbert White in his garden. A keen gardener from his youth, White increasingly took a close interest in the natural world around him, and grew a wide range of traditional and experimental fruit and vegetables, recording weather, temperature and other details.

Clare Leighton, Hop-pickers from‘GilbertWhite, TheNatural History of Selborne’ c.1941, wood engraving on paper © Estate of Clare Leighton

Clare Leighton also belonged to this revival of wood engraving. 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 articulating movement, qualities which are apparent in the composition of Hop Pickers.

Against some opposition from her family Clare Leighton persuaded her parents to allow her to attend the Brighton School of Art. She was friends with Hilaire Belloc, who lived at Shipley windmill near Horsham, and Eric Gill, who was at this point living in Ditchling.

John Nash’s Pair of Hoopoe Birds is one of a series of joyful illustrations to White’s natural history.

The exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists brings together a wonderful collection of images, each inspired by Gilbert White’s Natural History. It runs at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester from 11 March – 28 June 2020.

Horsham Museum & Art Gallery Raises Cultural Bar

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937), Marble Quarry, Iona, early 20th century oil

Horsham Museum & Art Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘A Collector’s Passion – Scottish Oils and Watercolours’ is the most significant in the 2019 Horsham District Council’s Year of Culture.

The exhibition explores a local collector’s passion for Scottish pictures. There is a tremendous quality of patronage in them being loaned for the public to see.
Horsham Museum & Art Gallery Curator Jeremy Knight says “This very private collector was awarded the art prize by his artist teacher Archie Watt whilst growing up in south-west Scotland and this inspired his passion for art and collecting. It’s the fantastic colours in Scottish art which delights him.” Three of Archie Watt’s paintings are on show.

The qualities of patronage are also apparent in the collection with leading contemporary Scottish artists.

Alongside an exquisite Venetian inspired oil by Anne Redpath my eye is drawn to an important group of paintings by the four Scottish Colourists FCB Cadell, GL Hunter, SJ Peploe and JD Fergusson. They painted landscapes, still lifes and interiors, influenced by their direct contact with French Post-Impressionism and their early knowledge of the work of Matisse and the Fauvres. Their paintings were amongst the most progressive in early 20th century British art and they developed an international following.

FCB Cadell first visited the Hebridean island of Iona in 1912 and would return most summers, usually to paint outside. The cool tonalities of the work Cadell produced on Iona in the 1920s contrasts with the sharp dissonance of colour employed in his studio paintings of the same date. The Iona landscape you see here is filled with light and movement, the nature of the coastline accentuated in the stylized blocks of colour which define the composition. The effect is moving and beautiful.

GL Hunter used a brush loaded with paint, combining broad strokes with a skilful manipulation of strong warm and cool colours in the Still Life with Flowers and Fruit.

Some twenty Scottish paintings, including contemporary works, are included in the exhibition.

George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), Still life with Flowers and Fruit, early 20th century oil

‘A Collector’s Passion – Scottish Oils and Watercolours’ once again raises the cultural bar of the visual arts in the Horsham District. I hope that the growing reputation of the Horsham District Council’s Horsham Museum & Art Gallery will continue to attract loans and work of this quality to its exhibitions and permanent collection. A cultural offering at this level lends so much to the reputation, prosperity and quality of life of the Horsham District. Horsham District Council has an important ongoing role in this and I hope our councillors will continue to build on their success. They, Jeremy Knight and this passionate collector are deserving of our thanks.

It is exciting to see such a body of work exhibited in Horsham. The exhibition runs until 26th October 2019 and entrance is free of charge. For more information go to www.horshammuseum.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.

German Émigré Artist Walter Nessler at Pallant House

Walter Nessler – Pigeons on Windowsill, Paris, oil, c.1952 © The Artist’s Estate

This week I am visiting the retrospective exhibition of the German émigré artist Walter Nessler (1912-2001) at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, with the artist’s son Conrad.

Walter Nessler’s work reflects the plight of the émigré artist and the challenges of the war years. Nessler fled the Nazis and although he was not Jewish he felt an affinity with the Jews. He moved to London in 1937 where he lived until his death in 2001. However, there was always a sorrow in being separated from ‘his’ Germany and ‘his’ Dresden.

Walter Nessler – Haverstock Hill, London, oil, c.1938-9 © The Artist’s Estate

The bleak palette of the war years can be seen in Haverstock Hill painted in 1938/9. Its subdued blues and greys and the camouflage effect patterns in the painting lend the scene a surreal quality. After the war this muted palette would be replaced with the vibrant colours which were such a part of Nessler’s German Expressionist training.

Nessler worked intermittently for the Marlborough and Leger Galleries in London during the 1940s and 1950s during which time he visited Paris. His painting was inspired by the city’s artists and streets. He met Picasso, Giacometti and Cocteau. In the post-war period there was a return to a sense of optimism in his work expressed in bold outlines and colour.

Conrad explains how his mother and father were divorced in 1947 when he was six years old and the joy of rebuilding his relationship with his father and rediscovering his art later in life. He says “I believed in him and loved his work. His work stands up very well against his peers. This exhibition at Pallant House Gallery affirms my father’s reputation and that my confidence in him and his work was right.”

My eye is taken by a vibrant oil on canvas titled Pigeons on Windowsill, Paris painted in 1952.

Speaking about the painting Conrad remarks “I am confident that the bridge is the Pont Neuf and for me this is an optimistic landscape. My father had a wonderful sense of humour as you can see in his depiction of the pigeons. I often question whether the fish are in the Seine or a bowl?”

I agree, the view is hopeful and playful in its depictions of the birds and fishes in a strident palette – the outline of a cup of coffee on the windowsill. But this optimism is held in tension. The composition of the picture is divided. The dramatic depiction in monochrome of Parisian street architecture and jagged branches describe a sorrow and the shadow of war.

This retrospective of Walter Nessler’s work portrays him as an emotionally intelligent artist who remained optimistic but owned with integrity that he and his art were informed both by the joys and the sorrows of his life. It reflects a very personal journey of reconciliation and hope expressed through art.

‘Walter Nessler – Post-war Optimist’ runs at Pallant House Gallery until 6th October 2019. For more information visit www.pallant.org.uk.

And you must make time to see the exceptional and beautiful ‘Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour’ exhibition whilst you are there.

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.

Ivon Hitchens at Pallant House

Ivon Hitchens – ‘Arno II’, c.1965, oil on canvas © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens
Ivon Hitchens – ‘Arno II’, c.1965, oil on canvas © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens

Pallant House Gallery’s long awaited retrospective exhibition of the important Sussex based Modern British artist Ivon Hitchens is exceptional and beautiful.
This chronological exhibition highlights the themes that preoccupied Ivon Hitchens and the development of his unique voice in Modern British Art – a poetic artist in the landscape.

The show explores how Ivon Hitchens emerges from surrealism into lyrical abstraction with an increasing connection with that most English of obsessions, the landscape. His distinctive style is immediately recognisable.
Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin says “The very first artworks that Pallant House Gallery acquired were two paintings of Sussex donated by Ivon Hitchens before his death in 1979.”

The exhibition describes how Hitchens joined the Seven and Five Society in 1919. This group included many of Britain’s leading artists and was distinguished by their freedom of association and lack of artistic dogma.

In the mid-1920s Hitchens painted with Ben and Winifred Nicholson staying at their Cumbrian farmhouse, Bankshead. These paintings focus on Still Lifes in domestic settings, themes which would remain central to his work.
Ivon Hitchens painted ‘Spring in Eden’ in 1925 on his return to London from Bankshead. This reflective, luminous painting with its classical torso is airy – light in tone and colour – creating a dialogue between the world of classical art and mythology.

When his Hampstead studio was bombed in 1940 Ivon, his wife Mollie and their young son John evacuated to Sussex near Lavington Common where they had bought six acres of woods and a Gypsie Caravan. Hitchens became rooted in this landscape – his eye captured by the woodland that surrounded him.
He became more interested in painting the underlying harmony of the natural world through his landscapes. Music informed him stating “I often find in music a stimulus to creation, and it is the linear tonal and colour harmony and rhythm of nature which interests me – what I call the musical appearance of things”.
Hitchens famously said “My pictures are painted to be listened to.”

Ivon Hitchens – ‘Spring in Eden’, c.1925, oil on canvas © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens
Ivon Hitchens – ‘Spring in Eden’, c.1925, oil on canvas © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens

There is a rhythm in his long canvases which are often divided into three vertical panels which play against each other. In ‘Arno II’ sunlight filters through the foliage to reveal a boat lying on a woodland pool in the left hand section. The centre and right sections of the composition are more abstract, suggestive and experiential. This poetic, lyrical landscape conveys the experience of inhabiting, space and emotion in a remarkable way – it has a spiritual quality.
I am excited that Toovey’s together with Irwin Mitchell Solicitors are headline sponsors of this exceptional exhibition. Thanks must also go to the Arts Council England for their support.

‘Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour’ runs until the 13th October 2019 at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. It is this summer’s must see exhibition! For more information go to www.pallant.org.uk.

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.