Still Life in Britain at Pallant House

Eric Ravilious’ Ironbridge Interior, 1941, © Towner, Eastbourne

A rather wonderful exhibition has just opened at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester which explores the place of the Still Life in the procession of British art with a particular emphasis on the 20th century and the contemporary. The Still Life was introduced to England in the 17th century by the Dutch. Ever since artists have used the genre to explore and experiment.

The show is arranged chronologically with works from the 17th century to the present day and cleverly traces the progression of British art from realism and post-impressionism through the major art movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. In the first room Ethel Walker’s ravishing Flower Piece No.4 keeps company with paintings by Ivon Hitchens, Harold Gilman, the Scottish Colourists and a delicate interior scene by the Sussex artist Eric Ravilious titled Ironbridge Interior. I’ve often reflected that an English Country House interior is made up of a series of Still Lifes formed of eclectic, arranged objects, art and furniture. Here Ravilious paints the restrained interior with his customary use of light. The hatching, shadows, tone and colour on the chair, wall and flower filled jug lending life to the stillness of this scene. The composition cleverly creates a layered perspective leading the viewer’s eye through the room to the window and landscape beyond.

Ben Nicholson’s oil St Ives, Cornwall (detail) © Tate

Ben Nicholson’s beautiful Still Life, St Ives, Cornwall, painted in 1943-45, depicts a large white mug on a curtained windowsill which, like Ravilious’ interior, draws the eye to the landscape through the window where toy-like, traditional fishing boats nestle against the backdrop of sea and sky. The Union Jack wouldn’t look out of place on a seaside sandcastle. There is an innocence to the scene which contrasts with the experience of war. 17th century Still Lifes are often filled with allegory. The Nazis considered modernist art to be degenerate so the painting’s modernism is an allegory in itself which provides a very British, understated voice speaking eloquently and powerfully of peace and innocence in reaction to the violence of Nazism.

Director of Pallant House Gallery, Simon Martin, has described this season’s series of exhibitions as “…an artistic journey that transcends time and borders and invites you to explore the intersections of tradition and innovation.”

This exhibition shows us how the genre of Still Life has constantly evolved reflecting our changing society and the themes of love, loss, beauty, decay and consumerism. The Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain is a stunning exhibition, eloquent and beautiful. You really must see it.

Easter – A Pilgrimage from Tragedy to Hope

The St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral, with Graham Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’

Easter in the Christian tradition marks a pilgrimage from tragedy towards hope. These themes are given powerful voice in Graham Sutherland’s paintings of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.

Sutherland’s 1947 version of the ‘Crucifixion’ from the Hussey Bequest is displayed at Pallant House Gallery. It illustrates the artist’s obsession with thorns as metaphors for human cruelty; their jagged lines are reflected throughout the composition. Sutherland acknowledged the influence of photographs taken by the American military in the Nazi concentration camps at Belsen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald on his Crucifixions remarking “many of the tortured bodies looked like figures deposed from crosses”. His 1947 Crucifixion depicts Jesus’ body hanging lifeless on the cross. The shocking red of Christ’s blood is accentuated by the fertile green. There is agony in the body’s posture, the weight clearly visible in the angular shoulders, chest and distorted stomach. This is a God who understands and shares in human suffering. Graham Sutherland, a Roman Catholic, was sustained by his Christian faith all his life.

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Crucifixion’ 1947 at Pallant House Gallery

Sutherland gave voice to a common story. His Crucifixions reflected people’s experience of evil in the world and yet spoke loudly of the triumph of hope in response to the tragedy of violence and war. They sadly resonate with our own times.

Graham Sutherland’s vibrant oil on canvas ‘Noli me tangere’ of 1961 was commissioned by Walter Hussey for the St Mary Magdalene Chapel in Chichester Cathedral.

The painting depicts the moment on that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene becomes aware that she is in the presence of her risen Lord who has just spoken her name. As she reaches out to touch him his gesture stops her. The angular composition of the figures, plants and staircase allude to the Passion narratives which lead up to and include Jesus’ crucifixion. At the centre of the painting is Jesus Christ dressed in white symbolising his holiness and purity. Christ’s finger points towards God the Father symbolising His presence. Graham Sutherland invites us into the narrative at this liminal moment so that we, like Mary, might acknowledge Jesus, our teacher and friend, as advocate and redeemer of the whole world.

Here in the story of Jesus we witness the triumph of hope and love over evil and hatred.

There are a series of services at Chichester Cathedral in the coming days to mark Holy Week and Easter. For more information and times go to To find out more about Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, visit to

John Craxton’s Sunlight, Joy and Colour On Show At Pallant House

John Craxton, Still Life with Sailors, 1980-1985

The artist John Craxton (1922-2009) was a contemporary and friend of Lucian Freud. The current exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey, at Pallant House Gallery concentrates on his life and work.

The show is arranged chronologically portraying the artist’s life as an odyssey from his early life in pre-war Britain and culminating in his awakening in Greece.

John Craxton was born into a Bohemian, musical family in London. He lived in his imagination drawing on his fascination for the ancient and mythology, themes expressed in his art. As he struck out he produced a series of melancholic landscapes and was, to his annoyance, associated by many with the Neo-Romantic movement.

His early self portrait displays the introspective qualities and palette of much of his work from this earlier period.

John Craxton, Self Portrait, 1946-1947

The influences of his mentor Graham Sutherland and the inspiration of Picasso, who he met, began to permeate his paintings with an increasingly radiant palette.

Shortly after the end of the war, in 1946, Craxton’s odyssey finally arrived in Greece. He was accompanied by his rebellious friend and contemporary, the artist Lucian Freud. Once in Greece Craxton’s work began to be emblematic of his homosexuality the works filled with a new found freedom; a sense of joyous rebelliousness and liberation. The work is far less introspective. He painted portraits, life and the scenes around him. The paintings are inculcated with the influences of cubism and surrealism with bold outlines and vibrant colour. The resilience of the people and the animals in the landscape are often tinged with a breaking smile, perhaps reflecting Craxton’s state of mind.

Still Life with Three Sailors painted in the 1980s captures these qualities. It depicts three conscripted sailors seated at a table in a Cretan taverna on the harbourside. These later works draw on Greece’s layered creative history, myths, sculpture, Byzantine mosaics and Icons. The sailors are like mariners in a Greek myth far from home.

But it is the composition, palette and domesticity of the scene which delights. The wall notice behind them implores taverna dancers not to break the plates whilst being applauded with the words ‘No Breakage by Order’. There is a lightness and humour to Craxton’s signing of the cigarette packet and dating of the beer bottle.

It is in these later works that you find sunlight, joy and colour – the perfect antidote to our winter rain and grey weather.

John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 21st April 2024.

Gwen John Exhibition at Pallant House Gallery

Gwen John – A Corner of the Artist’s Roon in Paris, circa 1907-09, oil on canvas

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition. It places this early 20th century British female artist and her work in the context of her life and times. Gwen John’s works are filled with restraint – an innate stillness, luminosity, and insight. Her paintings are beautiful and arresting.

The exhibition illustrates how Gwen John was influenced by her male contemporaries and yet her paintings stand apart, giving voice to an independent, modern woman’s view of the world. So many exhibitions today make assumptions about the knowledge and understanding that the viewer brings under the excuse of ‘letting the pictures speak for themselves’ but this existentialist approach neglects the importance of narrative, time and place, which enhance our understanding of an artist and their work. The narrative which accompanies Gwen John: Art and Life is superb and refreshing. This chronological exhibition traces Gwen John’s forty year career in the context of her time in London and Paris.

She was tutored by Henry Tonks and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After a time at the Slade, she moved to Paris in 1904 where she would remain throughout her career. Gwen John had a ten year affair with the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. His influence blessed her with a fluidity and sureness of line. From 1904 her intimate life centred on Rodin. Her profound and overwhelming experience of sexual desire and love for him was given explicit voice in her writing but not in her art. She wrote extensively to Rodin, hence the poignancy of her pencil and watercolour study, Autoportrait à la Lettre, which she painted for her lover.

Autoportrait à la Lettre (Self-portrait with a letter), watercolour and pencil

Her relationships with contemporary women artists of the time including Mary Constance Lloyd, Ida Nettleship, Ursula Tyrwhitt and others are also explored. Gwen John’s paintings focussed almost exclusively on women and interiors. The similarities between Gwen John’s and Édouard Vuillard’s work is often commented on, particularly in relation to their beautifully observed and articulated attention to tone. Her oil, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris at first seems intimate and personal to her but paradoxically it is influenced by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi who knew Ida Nettleship’s family in London.

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris runs until 8th October 2023. The beauty of her painting and insight is amplified by the quality of this exhibition’s narrative which eloquently describes the importance of relationship and place.

Chalk, Wood and Water at Pallant House Gallery

JMW Turner – Chichester Canal, oil on canvas, c. 1828 © Tate 2022

As Pallant House Gallery celebrates its 40th anniversary I am returning to its current exhibition Chalk, Wood and Water.

Sussex with her distinctive chalk-cliff coastline, Weald, and the rolling lees and valleys of the ancient South Downs, is as much an idea as a place.

This beautiful, expansive, textural exhibition seeks to articulate how the Sussex landscape has inspired, and continues to inspire writers, musicians and artists lending a distinctive voice to Englishness. The exhibition charts the ways in which Sussex has been a place of creativity, exploration and retreat in the context of so many artists’ lives.

This processional show begins with Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), journeys through the 20th century and ends with the contemporary and Andy Goldsworthy (b.1956).

It is the first time that JMW Turner’s oil, Chichester Canal, has returned to the city since it was painted in 1828. On the horizon the Cathedral spire, a ship and trees are outlined against the luminous sky. The artist had strong associations with Sussex through his patron and friend the 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth who had invested heavily in the Chichester Canal. The canal was part of a network which drew a line through town and country connecting Portsmouth and London.

Turner embraced a new vocabulary in his art to describe his modern age. It is easy to forget that it was a vocabulary which many of his contemporaries found shocking.

Andy Goldsworthy’s 2002 installation Chalk in the Pallant H

The contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy was commissioned by Pallant House Gallery to produce the work Chalk in 2002. This fabulous installation was made from locally quarried chalk. The naturally weathered grey outer surface has been etched by the artist using a flint to reveal the white chalk beneath. Speaking about the sculpture Andy Goldsworthy said ‘Dig a hole up North and its black and stony and earthy. So to dig a hole in Sussex and to find chalk so absolutely pristine and pure and white…was like finding the sky in the ground.’

For me the luminous, pure white line in Andy Goldsworthy’s Chalk has an invitational quality to it reminiscent of being a pilgrim in the Sussex landscape, processional like this exhibition and life.

These two works capture in very different ways what is at the heart of this exceptional exhibition – the inspiration Sussex and her landscape has given and continues to give to so many of our nation’s leading artists.

Sussex Landscape – Chalk, Wood and Water runs at Pallant House Gallery Chichester until 23rd April 2023.