Art is harmony in parallel with nature

Édouard Vuillard’s ‘Modèle assise dans un fauteuil, se coiffant’, oil © Pallant House Gallery 2020

This week I thought I would take you to Pallant House Gallery for a flavour of their latest show Degas to Picasso. The exhibition provides a platform to showcase a number of the international, continental European modern prints and paintings in the gallery’s collection from the 19th and 20th centuries. It includes works by Degas, Manet, Picasso, Bonnard, Klee and Léger.

Amongst my favourite images on display is the 1898 lithograph by the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne titled ‘Les Grands Baigneurs’. Cézanne is regarded by many as the father of modern art. His work foreshadows Cubism and Fauvism. In this image the abstracted figures are united with the artist’s emotional engagement with the rhythms in nature and the landscape. Writing to a friend in the 1890s Cézanne would declare “Art is a harmony parallel with nature.”

Paul Cezanné, ‘Les Grands Baigneurs’, lithograph © Pallant House Gallery 2020

The print seems to evoke Cézanne’s fond memories of swimming as a schoolboy with his closest friends, Émille Zola and Jean-Baptiste Baille in the Arc River near his home in Aix-en-Provence. It is an expression of idealised comradeship, of true friendship rather than passing acquaintance. It is my experience that the best and most creative things in life always come out of long-term relationships built on trust. These ideals were highly valued by the novelist Émille Zola.

The other is another intimate scene ‘Modèle assise dans un fauteuil, se coiffant’ from 1903 by the Post-Impressionist Édouard Vuillard. It was painted in Vuillard’s studio in Rue Truffant in Paris where his mother ran the family sewing business. It is redolent of many of the artist’s interiors. Vuillard believed that a painting is a grouping of harmonious lines and colours. The beautiful pattern of the brushwork in this oil on paper gives life, texture and space to the scene. There is an economy in the palette Vuillard employs which draws our eye through the composition. At the centre the model is lost in her thoughts as she combs and pins her hair.

This exhibition reminds us that many Modern British artists, including Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman, were influenced by the modern artistic movements of continental Europe.

As a nation we have always embraced the ‘modern’ across the centuries whilst, of course, keeping one eye on the past. After all the British are a processional people – we celebrate the past as we confidently embrace the future. Our eclectic taste, like our art, is distinctive to our island nation. The influence of the international has always informed British culture reflecting our nation’s global, outward facing character.

The importance of our museums, theatres and art galleries in articulating our hopes, common stories and identity is often overlooked and misunderstood: as is their significant and positive economic impact on our local economy. I hope that our politicians will continue to look at creative ways to support this sector through the current challenges.

These are difficult times for our county’s museums, theatres and art galleries. I hope that you will join me in supporting them once the current restrictions are eased.

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.

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.

Harold Gilman at Pallant House

Harold Gilman – Canal Bridge, Flekkefjord, c.1913, oil on canvas © Tate London, 2018

The Harold Gilman exhibition currently on show at Pallant House Gallery is visually stunning.

Harold Gilman (1876–1919) has been described as an English Post-Impressionist. His portrayal of life in the early 20th century combines the gritty formality of the Camden Group of artists with the vitality of post impressionism.

Harold Gilman was a founder member of both the Camden Group and the Fitzroy Street Group. He enrolled at the Hastings School of Art in 1896 and in 1897 moved to the Slade School of Fine Art in London where he received a traditional training.

Gilman was influenced by the artists Walter Sickert and later Spencer Gore and Lucien Pissarro, all of whom had connections with and worked in Sussex. Gilman’s paint became more textural, a little more broken and opaque in texture. By 1912 he was being grouped with the Post Impressionists.

In 1912 and 1913 Gilman visited Sweden and Norway where he experimented with vivid colours often employing a patchwork of flat, simplified areas of paint as can be seen in his depiction of the Canal Bridge at Flekkefjord painted in 1913. Gilman’s work was never slavish to the current vogue – he took only what was necessary to his own needs. Even during his periods of experimentation Gilman would often work in a traditional way from drawings squared-up for transfer with colour notes. It was this practice which allowed him to present a complex subject like the scene at Flekkefjord in a painterly and coherent way with beautifully articulated compositions.

Harold Gilman – Interior with Mrs Mounter, c.1916/17, oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum

Amongst the most famous of Harold Gilman’s pictures are those he painted in his lodgings at 47 Maple Street, Camden Town, London between 1914 and 1917. There is often an underlying discipline to the depiction of these interior scenes which lends them an internal dissonance contradicting the richness of his tone and palette. He revels in the mix of patterns, colours and objects – symbols of his middle-class upbringing. They are at once joyful and forlorn.

His paintings of women, whether nude or clothed, of whatever age or class, reveal a rare tenderness which is apparent in Interior with Mrs Mounter. Mrs Mounter was his housekeeper. Her apron, headscarf, the cloth covering the washstand in the background and her pose create a scene which seems ill at ease with itself. Gilman expresses the physical and social separation between Britain’s classes in the early 20th century as society changed. This was especially poignant for women and the issues of suffrage.

In 1919 at the age of just 43 Gilman fell victim to the flu epidemic and died. This exceptional exhibition gives a wonderful insight into the heights that this extraordinary and very British artist reached in the last years of his life. You must treat yourselves and go.

Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden runs until the 9th June 2019. The exhibition can be seen at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. 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.