Unflinching Exploration, Walter Sickert at Tate

Walter Sickert - Brighton Pierrots © Tate
Walter Sickert – Brighton Pierrots © Tate

Tate Britain’s summer exhibition focuses on the controversial and influential British artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942) who bridged the influence of Paris and Post-Impressionist painting to Britain.

Sickert had studied at the Slade in 1881 under Whistler who had a great influence on him. In 1883 he found himself in Paris where he encountered Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Pierre Bonnard. The exhibition has works by Degas and Manet illustrating the affect they had on his work.

Sickert lived in and near Dieppe in the early 1900s. He returned to London in 1905 where he rented two studios. On Saturday afternoons he would keep his studio open to a group of artists which gave rise to the birth of the Fitzroy Street Group. As they were joined by a series of other artists their work came to be described as Camden Town painting. The paintings are often intimate in scale depicting the working class in humble scenes with figurative interiors including nudes as well as townscapes. These themes are readily apparent in the breadth of Sickert’s work. Sickert led the group with an unflinching exploration and depiction of his subjects. In different works throughout the show the artist captures despair, hardship and beauty.

In contrast to Whistler’s slightness of tone and form Sickert employed an increasingly contrasting palette which included deep opaque colours that lend a monumental character to his work. These qualities are apparent in Brighton Pierrots painted in 1915. It is highly original in its composition and use of warm, vivid colours. Unusually Sickert produced two versions of the picture. We view the scene from the side of the stage separated from the audience and the performers. This perspective lends an ambiguity to the painting – the fading daylight broken by the glare of the stage lights. The empty deck chairs allude to losses at the front during the Great War. The sense of the desolation of war pervades.

Walter Sickert – The Front at Hove (Turpe Senex Miles Turpe Senilis Amor), detail, © Tate

The Front at Hove was painted in 1930. Although lighter in palette and tone, the picture is also filled with metaphors which relate to age and decline. The aged figures chatting on a promenade bench are reflected and framed by the crumbling facades of the Regency townhouses in Adelaide Crescent, Hove.

Tate’s exhibition is as unflinching in its exploration of Walter Sickert and his work as the artist was in his exploration and depiction of the world he lived in. Walter Sickert at Tate Britain runs until 8th September. To book tickets and to find out more visit tate.org.uk.

International Surrealism at Tate Unites London and Sussex

Salvador Dalí Lobster Telephone, c.1938, Tate © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2022

A major exhibition exploring the international Surrealist art movement is the subject of an ambitious and expansive exhibition at Tate Modern. Surrealism Beyond Borders explores how, from its beginnings in Paris in the 1920s, Surrealism evolved into the 1970s becoming an interconnected global movement.

Two of the most iconic works in the show associated with the revolutionary idea of Surrealism, Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and René Magritte’s Time Transfixed, have connections with the patron Edward James whose Sussex home was West Dean, now the famous college. Edward James encountered and embraced Surrealism through his friendship with Magritte.

Tate’s exhibition has been curated in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York. It examines how Surrealism came into being in Paris around 1924 generating poetic and humorous works as artists set out to de-familiarise the familiar. Inspired by Sigmund Freud they looked to dreams to unlock the unconscious mind. It also explores an international, evolving narrative of how Surrealism continues to be embraced by artists across the world to promote political, social and personal freedoms, often providing a voice for change.

I first encountered Salvador Dalí’s playful Lobster Telephone at West Dean. Dalí produced it to contrast with the formal grandeur of Edward James’s Wimpole Street, London home where sober rooms were theatrically transformed.

It was the critic Herbert Read, and writer and Surrealist artist Roland Penrose who, through the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, first introduced the concept to the British public.

René Magritte Time Transfixed, c.1938, The Art Institute of Chicago © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

Edward James invited Magritte to paint a number of works for his ballroom in London. Time Transfixed was the result. The viewer cannot fail to be delighted by the contrast of Magritte’s precise realism and the surprising juxtapositions and scale of seemingly unrelated elements. The artist would later explain ‘I decided to paint the image of a locomotive…In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined.’ I am always captivated by the subtle conceits of this painting: the smoke rises from the locomotive up the chimney as though it is emerging from a tunnel and only one candlestick has a reflection in the mirror.

Magritte hoped it would hang on the staircase to ‘transfix’ visitors but Edward James hung it above one of his own fireplaces.

This Surrealist exhibition has the power to transfix and runs at Tate Modern until 29th August 2022. To find out more and to book tickets visit tate.org.uk.

Glyn Philpot at Pallant House

Glyn Philpot – Portrait of Henry Thomas in Profile, 1934-5, oil on canvas © Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Pallant House Gallery’s summer show Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit is the first major survey of this artist’s work in almost 40 years. It explores questions of human identity and society in a series of more than 130 works from private and public collections.

Acrobats, working class and society figures hang alongside portraits of young black men in this rewarding and complex exhibition.

I meet up with Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin, who has curated the exhibition. I comment on how Glyn Philpot RA (1884–1937) so often lights his subjects in a dramatic way reminiscent of the Spanish Old Master painter Diego Velazquez.

Simon replies “Unusually there is a tremendous shift from incredibly traditional painting at the beginning which is very much inspired by the Old Masters through to a shift in about 1930 to a much more radical modernist style of work. All these different tensions – his interest in religion, he was a Catholic with a deeply held Catholic faith, but also classical mythology, and queer identity. You might see all of these things as being in tension but actually he seemed to find a way to sometimes express these different things in the same work which is fascinating. And the interplay between society figures like Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, but also working class models as well…fascinating contrasts really.”
Philpot’s personal passions – the male body and portraits of black men are central to this reappraisal of an artist who had fallen from view.

Glyn Philpot – Resting Acrobats, 1924, oil on canvas © Leeds Museums and Galleries UK/Bridgeman Images

These themes are keenly expressed in the dramatic portrait of Henry Thomas, and the earlier Resting Acrobats. Both paintings provide sharp windows into his sitters. The nobility of Thomas, an extraordinary depiction for its time, is in contrast to the weary, resigned expressions of the acrobats once the veneer of the stage has been removed.

Simon explains how Philpot’s formal training in London and Paris underpins his work “He had this very accomplished way of working so when he actually changed to a much more modern style…underpinning that was this incredible draughtsmanship. These things are rooted in his ability to capture expression in the figure. He was fundamentally a figurative painter. Almost every single picture is based around the figure in some way. The themes in his work are increasingly relevant today I think in terms of identity.”

This rewarding and complex exhibition provides an eloquent rediscovery of the work of Glyn Philpot with a ravishing array of work and runs at Pallant House Gallery until 23rd October.

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.