Eric James Mellon (1925-2014)

Eric James Mellon
Eric James Mellon painting a pot in his studio

It was my great pleasure to count the internationally acclaimed, Sussex-based artist Eric Mellon as my friend. Eric is most famed for his work as a potter and his pioneering use of ash glazes, but he also worked as a painter and printmaker. Eric was both artist and artisan.

Over many years Eric strived to be able to transfer drawings onto his predominantly stoneware pots and dishes. He was always counter-cultural and believed strongly in the importance of narrative and fine drawing. His subjects drew on his Christian faith, stories from classical antiquity and his pleasure in the world around him. He also delighted in the human body, particularly the female form, which he depicted with honesty and fondness.

Eric James Mellon Jessica in a Hat
Eric James Mellon - 'Jessica (in a Hat)', stoneware bowl with brush-drawn decoration and bean-ash glaze, 2005
Daphne and Apollo by Eric James Mellon
Eric James Mellon - 'Daphne and Apollo', stoneware pot with brush-drawn decoration and Philadelphus-ash glaze, 2005
Chalice by Eric James Mellon
Eric James Mellon – stoneware chalice with brush-drawn decoration and bean-ash glaze, 2011

Years of research and experimentation into ash glazes brought him worldwide recognition as an artist, a ceramicist and a scientist. The ash glazes, especially those created with the ashes of certain bushes, prevented the lines of the brush drawings on his ceramics from bleeding during firing.

For Eric, his art was his calling. He embraced this path and everything in his life was bound up with it. Eric would recall how as a boy all he wanted to do was “to be an artist and to draw and paint”. At the age of 13 he won a place at Watford School of Art, where he studied until 1944. From 1944-1947 he attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he met his lifelong friend, the Arundel-based artist Derek Davis. It was with Derek at a party held for art students that Eric met his wife-to-be, Martina Thomas. Martina was passionate about fine art and worked as a painter while Eric brought art and craft together through his pottery, drawings and prints. In the early 1950s he set up an artistic community at Hillesden, Buckinghamshire, with Derek Davis and fellow artist John Clarke. It was in 1951 that he began working increasingly as a potter. He married Martina in 1956. She was a gifted and talented artist and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They had two children, Martin and Tessa.

Eric, always an enthusiastic and generous teacher, ran summer art schools for some thirty years. In 1958 he set up a pottery at his home in West Sussex, where he worked for 56 years. To visit Eric’s studio and home was to be exposed to a lifetime of artistic endeavour and a riot of pottery, paintings and prints. He would say: “When I get up in the morning, I want, by the end of the day, to have created something new.”

Often we compartmentalize our lives but with Eric art and existence intermingled; for him, work and life were one. So when you visited him, he would hold you with that particular care, keen to know about you and your news. Fondly and inevitably, though, your life in that particular moment would become bound up with his vocation – his art – for it was this that rooted him in this life. Later, in 2011, Eric wrote, “It takes many years to learn to draw, but eventually the pencil becomes a friend and, in a few minutes, moments in life can be recorded; these I call ‘frozen time’, as the sketches are no longer mere drawings.”

Eric came to the service at which I was ordained as a priest and informed me that he had made me a chalice. The symbol of Christ he drew upon it was, he said, designed to speak to all. It reflected the importance to him of communicating narrative. When I next called at his home, he presented me with it. I suggested that we celebrate a home communion there and then. Eric’s broad smile crossed his face and he accepted. We used his potter’s wheel as an altar, anointed the chalice with holy oils for use and celebrated our Eucharist.

Eric, in the foreword to ‘Pages From My Sketchbooks’, wrote: “Pages From My Sketchbooks records the joy of new life, the anticipation of pregnant women, the sadness of terminal illness, and the incredible moment when life departs the body into eternity… an artist records his life and shares it with everyone who cares to look.” His relationships with his family and friends sustained him at the end, as they had done throughout his life.

Eric Mellon’s work has been exhibited and acclaimed around the world, fitting recognition for this generous and gifted Sussex artist, who died on 14th January this year.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 5th March 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Eric Ravilious, Exhibition of Prints at Pallant House Gallery

Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, 1937, Lithograph, Private Collection.
Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, 1937, Lithograph, Private Collection.

An intimate exhibition of prints by the artist Eric Ravilious, who lived and worked in Sussex, is on show at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester until 8th December. The exhibition highlights prints and book illustrations from Ravilious’ oeuvre. His work is rooted in the landscape and life of pre-war and early wartime England, especially the South Downs where he grew up.

Eric Ravilious was born in 1903. As a very young boy he moved with his parents from Acton to Eastbourne in Sussex. There his father ran an antique shop. Ravilious was educated at Eastbourne Grammar School. In 1919 he won a scholarship to Eastbourne School of Art and in 1922 to the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, where he met his lifelong friend and fellow artist Edward Bawden. Both men studied under the artist Paul Nash at the RCA. Nash was generous in encouraging and promoting their work and he helped Ravilious to acquire some of his first commissions for prints and book illustrations. Ravilious subsequently taught part-time at both art schools.

Eric Ravilious, Commander of a Submarine, Pallant House Gallery
Eric Ravilious, Commander of a Submarine looking through a Periscope from the Submarine Series, 1940-41, Lithograph, Pallant House Gallery, The Dennis Andrews and Christopher Whelan Gift (2008).
Eric Ravilious, Manor Gardens, 1927, Wood Engraving, Towner, Eastbourne
Eric Ravilious, Manor Gardens, 1927, Wood Engraving, Towner, Eastbourne
Eric Ravilious, Amusement Arcade, 1938, Lithograph, Private Collection
Eric Ravilious, Amusement Arcade, 1938, Lithograph, Private Collection

Alan Powers, in his excellent and beautifully illustrated new monograph Eric Ravilious, Artist and Designer, maintains that “Ravilious was a printmaker and illustrator first and a painter afterwards”. Ravilious was to excel in both mediums. Certainly, the exceptional textural quality he gives to the play of light upon surfaces is given life through his characteristic use of line and colour.

The print Newhaven Harbour perfectly illustrates Ravilious’ strong connection with Sussex. Here the westerly wind causes the clouds to move across the sky and the light dances on the gentle incoming tide, which brings an ocean liner safely to harbour. 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. The life in this print is made possible by the process of autolithography, which was being promoted by the Curwen Press and others in the 1930s. This process allowed the artist to draw directly on to stone or printing plates, rather than relying upon an intermediary to transfer the image from a drawing. It is evident that Ravilious was trying to recapture his watercolour. The small brush strokes demanded by the viscous lithographic ink are combined with the effects of sponging in the treatment of the sky. There is a hopeful, joyous air to the scene depicted in this large poster-size print.

The mood of the pre-war Newhaven Harbour contrasts with the lithograph Commander of a Submarine looking through a Periscope from 1941. Here, the view from the periscope is abstracted into the shadows of the submarine, the flash of blue connecting this vignette to the commander’s eyes.

Wood engraving was Eric Ravilious’ first medium for print. It allowed for fine lines to be drawn against the black ground. The revival of wood engraving in the early 20th century provides a connection to 18th century artists like Thomas Berwick and William Blake, and to 19th century artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who worked in the same medium. By 1927, the date of the wood engraving Manor Gardens, Ravilious displays the line, flecking and crisp edging which define his woodblocks.

Illustrations by many artists are often viewed as being secondary to other aspects of their output. With Ravilious, however, his consistent and particular voice always shines through. Take, for example, the illustration Amusement Arcade from the book High Street, published by Country Life in 1938. Once again the luminosity of light is created by line and tone, creating an image of an arcade at night which is alive with movement and texture.

Entrance to this jewel-like exhibition is free and it is on show until 8th December 2013 at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Further details of this and the gallery’s other current exhibitions (which are really worth the ticket price) can be found at www.pallant.org.uk. The Pallant House Bookshop has copies of Eric Ravilious Artist & Designer at a special price to visitors of £30 – the perfect start to your Christmas shopping!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 27th November 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Geoffrey Sparrow, Horsham Doctor, Artist and Huntsman

Dr Geoffrey Sparrow (image courtesy of Horsham Museum & Art Gallery)
Dr Geoffrey Sparrow on horseback (image courtesy of Horsham Museum & Art Gallery)

Geoffrey Sparrow was a doctor living in Horsham with a particular talent for drawing. His pictures often express his love of horses and hunting and provide a witty insight into country life in and around Horsham between the wars.

An Illustrated Alphabet by Geoffrey Sparrow
An Illustrated Alphabet, hand-illustrated book by Geoffrey Sparrow
The letter 'H' from the Illustrated Alphabet
The letter 'H' from the Illustrated Alphabet

My family moved to Horsham in the 1960s from Pinner and Harrow, a story common to many at that time. In those days Horsham was still very much a provincial market town with its wonderful, faded, Regency theatre and houses where Swan Walk stands today. The town centre was on a human scale, rich in its vernacular architecture and independent shops. I have fond childhood recollections of watching the Crawley and Horsham Hunt riding out from the Carfax on Boxing Day. The smell of the horses, the colours of the hunting coats and the sounds of hooves on the road, huntsmen’s horns and barking hounds all remain vivid in my memory. I imagine that the town’s atmosphere then had changed little since the days between the First and Second World Wars, when Geoffrey Sparrow was practising as a doctor and making his prints, paintings and drawings.

Geoffrey Sparrow was born on 13th July 1887 in an age of trains and horses, not cars. He grew up in Devonshire and lived for foxhunting. He studied medicine at Cambridge and Bart’s but the Great War disturbed the procession of his life, as it did for many others of his generation. Sparrow volunteered and was accepted by the Admiralty as a temporary surgeon in the Royal Navy in September 1914, bearing the rank of Surgeon-Lieutenant. He served with distinction in numerous campaigns and was awarded the Military Cross, though he never described the events that led to this decoration.

Sparrow was demobilised in 1919. He had thought to specialise in London after the war but his former chief advised that, as he was then thirty-three and unknown in medical circles, he would be better off taking his Edinburgh Fellowship and practising in the provinces. Sparrow enjoyed his time in Edinburgh, which for him had the added appeal of a bit of grouse-shooting!

In those pre-NHS days, Dr Sparrow journeyed south to Horsham, where he joined the old family practice of Messrs Vernon and Kinneir. Well-liked and well-respected, he served prosperous families and schools in the area, like Christ’s Hospital. In addition, he attended to local tradespeople, undertook Poor Law work and public vaccinations and held a part-time position at the infirmary. Foxhunting with the Crawley and Horsham Hunt remained his passion.

During the Second World War he again engaged in military service. At the end of the war he retired from medical practice to devote time to his hunting and art until his death in 1969. Geoffrey Sparrow’s evocative pictures represent a warm and witty commentary on his times. The work is of exceptional quality with a sense of movement and line which delights collectors, especially from Sussex.

A Scurry in a Pewy Country by Geoffrey Sparrow
A Scurry in a Pewy Country by Geoffrey Sparrow

I am excited that a private collection of some twenty-one examples of his work have been entered into Toovey’s Christmas auction of fine paintings and prints to be held on Wednesday 4th December 2013. Pre-sale auction estimates range from £50 to £500. One of my favourite entries is this book, An Illustrated Alphabet, estimate £300-500, with hand-painted illustrations by Sparrow in watercolour and gouache; the page “H for the Huntsman who rides a grey mare” seems particularly apt. The hunting theme continues with the dry-point etching A Scurry in a Pewy Country, estimate £150-250, which shows Sparrow’s skill as a printmaker.

Dr Geoffrey Sparrow’s work, like the man himself, is regarded fondly around Horsham and further afield. It is worth mentioning how fortunate we are that the wonderful Horsham Museum and Art Gallery has a fine collection of his work, as well as his war medals. For more information, visit www.horshammuseum.org

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 20th November 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Collage in British Modern Art

John Piper’s Chichester Cathedral reredos tapestry, circa 1966, depicting the Trinity, the Evangelists and the Elements.
John Piper’s Chichester Cathedral reredos tapestry, circa 1966, depicting the Trinity, the Evangelists and the Elements.

Picasso, Matisse, Braque and other celebrated, international artists all worked in collage. The word collage comes from the French verb coller, to stick or glue. The technique was used by both cubists and surrealists. British artists like John Piper, Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi all embraced this method of working.

The current exhibition Modern British Collage and its Legacy at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, seeks to explore the role of collage in the course of modern British art. Exhibition curator Katy Norris comments, “Collage evolves in the 20th century from a marginal process to become a central part of the modern aesthetic.” She continues, “It is extraordinary how surrealists, pop and conceptual artists all embrace this method of working.” The works in this captivating exhibition are from the Gallery’s own remarkable collection. The pictures by Ben Nicholson, John Piper, William Scott, Ceri Richards, Nigel Henderson and, of course, Eduardo Paolozzi clearly articulate the importance of collage in British modernism.

I am particularly drawn to a preliminary collage design by John Piper for the reredos tapestry at Chichester Cathedral. In his book Patron of Art, Walter Hussey, then Dean of Chichester Cathedral and famous for his patronage of the arts, notes how he chose to follow Henry Moore’s advice to commission John Piper to create a worthy setting for the High Altar. Piper, known for his atmospheric depictions of English architecture and landscape, returned to the abstraction of his earlier work for this commission. A distinguished artist with a great sympathy for old churches, he suggested a tapestry. Tapestry, he argued, would work in concert with the old stonework and the 16th century carved oak screen. He felt that the seven strips of tapestry would be able to be read as a whole across the narrow wooden buttresses of the screen with its crest of medieval canopies. The original plan was to gild and paint these medieval sections but John Piper advised that they should be left plain and his advice was accepted. In January of 1965 Piper presented a final sketch, which met with favourable opinion. At lunch with Hussey and others, however, Piper was deeply troubled when the Archdeacon of Chichester commented that there was no specific symbol for God the Father in the central section of the design. The lack of this symbol in the earlier collage by John Piper, shown here with Katy Norris, is notable. Katy explains, “In this preliminary design we see the early scheme, worked out using simple cut-out shapes, which enabled Piper to trial different pictorial arrangements.” After much consideration, Piper introduced the white light left of centre on the tapestry itself, shown here in situ. The tapestry panels are schematic in their use of symbolism. The Trinity is represented in the three central panels. God the Father is depicted by a white light, God the Son by the blue Tau Cross and the Holy Spirit as a flame-like wing, all united by a red equilateral triangle within a border of green scattered flames. The flanking panels depict the Gospel Evangelists, Saint Matthew (a winged man), Saint Mark (a winged lion), Saint Luke (a winged ox) and Saint John (a winged eagle), beneath the Four Elements, earth, air, fire and water. Woven by the Pinton Frères atelier at Felletin, near Aubusson, the tapestry was installed in the autumn of 1966.

Whether we immediately understand the symbolism of the tapestry or not, it speaks to our senses and we cannot fail to be moved on many levels. The work’s length, structure, tone, rhythm and colour have a lyrical quality, which tells of our creator God in His Trinity.

Katy Norris, Pallant House Curatorial Assistant and Exhibition Curator for Modern British Collage and its Legacy, with John Piper’s preliminary collage design for the Chichester Cathedral tapestry, circa 1965.
Katy Norris, Pallant House Curatorial Assistant and Exhibition Curator for Modern British Collage and its Legacy, with John Piper’s preliminary collage design for the Chichester Cathedral tapestry, circa 1965.

Before seeing the current series of exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery, I had not fully appreciated the importance of collage to artists like John Piper. Katy Norris concludes, “The link between the preliminary collage and the tapestry at Chichester Cathedral emphasizes that an important international artist like John Piper was working in Chichester at the Cathedral, thanks to the patronage and insight of Walter Hussey.”

I am excited that Toovey’s Fine Art Auctioneers are sponsoring Modern British Collage and its Legacy at Pallant House Gallery. The exhibition runs until 29th September 2013. While you are there, you must make sure that you also see Eduardo Paolozzi: Collaging Culture and perhaps wander over to Chichester Cathedral and allow the Piper tapestry to move you and delight your senses. It is a wonderful thing to reflect upon as you listen to and join with sung evensong – the modern and the ancient united.

For more information and opening times, go to www.pallant.org.uk and www.chichestercathedral.org.uk

Image1: John Piper’s Chichester Cathedral reredos tapestry, circa 1966, depicting the Trinity, the Evangelists and the Elements.

Image2: Katy Norris, Pallant House Curatorial Assistant and Exhibition Curator for Modern British Collage and its Legacy, with John Piper’s preliminary collage design for the Chichester Cathedral tapestry, circa 1965.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 28th August 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Charleston: An Eloquent Home in the Heart of Sussex

Charleston Studio © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust.
Charleston Studio © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust. In later years the studio doubled as Duncan Grant’s sitting room, in which there was always much to delight the visitor’s eye

As you visit Charleston, home to the Bloomsbury group of artists, you cannot fail to be captivated by the extraordinary collection of art and the intimacy of this house and its stories. This week I am delighted to be returning to Charleston once more, to see it through the eyes of author Virginia Nicholson. Virginia has warm memories of happy summer holidays spent with her grandmother, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant at Charleston.

Duncan Grant's Studio. Photograph by Axel Hesslenberg (c) courtesy of the Charleston Trust
“The house still has the evocative smells of books and turpentine, which Virginia describes as memories from her childhood.”

Virginia describes how as a child visiting Charleston on holiday, she found it such a warm, freeing and welcoming place to be. “At Charleston you did art,” she says. “You engaged in the act of creation – messy was good – it was virtuous to create.” Virginia has only distant memories of her grandmother, the well-known artist Vanessa Bell. Her recollections of Vanessa’s lifelong love, Duncan Grant, however, are much more vivid. “There was something of the child in Duncan – innocent, open and benign – he always thought the best. He had an energy and appetite for life.” These playful, boyish qualities were expressed in games of charades and he was even known to dress up as a cow with coathangers for horns. “As children we were paid sixpence an hour to pose to be painted by Vanessa and Duncan,” Virginia explains. “Sometimes we got the fidgets!” There were just seven years between Duncan’s death and the opening of the house to the public in 1986. The house still has the evocative smells of books and turpentine, which Virginia describes as memories from her childhood. There is a tangible sense of continuity at Charleston, as though Vanessa or Duncan might appear in a doorway or the studio.

The house was cold, without even running hot water, when Vanessa and Duncan arrived in 1916. They set about creating an aesthetic whole. Here was a unified work of art, created by bringing together paintings, furniture, objects, ceramics and books. Charleston remains the most complete example of Bloomsbury group sensibilities, a piece of art out of time, set permanently in the 1950s. It is art to be inhabited, not something to be viewed with dispassion through the separation of time. Duncan Grant, David Garnett, Vanessa, her husband, Clive, and the children, Julian, Quentin and Angelica, all lived at Charleston and were often joined by visitors.

Charleston provided refuge for artists, writers and intellectuals during a tempestuous century, marked by the Great Depression and two world wars. Visitors included the writers T.S. Elliot, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, the composer Benjamin Britten and his friend and muse, the tenor Peter Pears, as well the influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes visited Charleston so often that he was given his own room. Roger Fry founded the Omega Workshops in 1913. Famous as an art critic, artist and organiser of the influential London Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, Fry was also regularly to be found at Charleston and contributed to the design of the house and garden.

Studio Fireplace © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust.
Studio Fireplace © P. Fewster, courtesy of the Charleston Trust. The panel around the fireplace was painted in 1932 by Duncan Grant and the accumulation of cuttings, invitations and photographs are things that caught his eye. The photograph on the left was taken in the 1930s and depicts Duncan and Vanessa Bell’s daughter, Angelica

Together they represent an extraordinary generation. Virginia concludes, “They questioned: how do we live our lives; what do we do; what do we seek? The house speaks eloquently of this. It is liberating and freeing.” It has always seemed to me important to remain questioning. At Charleston they lived out their lives being creative and inquisitive, rather than being content with the superficialities that today’s culture encourages.

With the August Bank Holiday approaching, treat yourselves to a summer holiday visit to the house and garden of Charleston, just across the border in East Sussex. Experience the lives of the artists, writers and intellectuals who lived, visited and were blessed by this most eloquent of houses. Virginia Nicholson has inherited the creative gifts of her forebears and works as an established and highly regarded author. Charleston a Bloomsbury house and garden, written by Virginia Nicholson with her father Quentin Bell, gives a very personal view of the lives and art of those who lived and visited Charleston and is lavishly illustrated. Her book Among the Bohemians – Experiments in Living 1900-1939 adds depth and insight into the lives and work of a generation of eccentric and free-spirited artists. Both are favourites of mine and are available from the Charleston shop, prices £18.99 and £10.99. For opening times and more information, go to www.charleston.org.uk/whats-on or telephone 01323 811626.You may be certain of a warm welcome as Charleston gathers you, as she has gathered generations of visitors before you.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 21st August 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.