The story of the artist who sacrifices her own career to support a more famous husband is clichéd, but all too often accurate. There’s something in the clear-eyed take on domestic life in Tirzah Garwood’s early prints, however, that suggests her marriage to Eric Ravilious would offer something richer and more complicated. The Fry Art Gallery’s 2019 exhibition, Mr and Mrs Ravilious, is the first time significant work from across the lives of both Tirzah and Eric has been used to map their artistic life together, and to suggest how we might think about each artist in relation to the other. (Mr and Mrs Ravilious is at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, from 7th April to 27th October 2019, accompanied by a changing series of smaller exhibitions in the Gibson Room.) Continue reading “Mr and Mrs Ravilious”
This is the fifth and final post in a series coinciding with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018. Each of the posts looks at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.
The prints in Edward Bawden’s series ‘Six London Markets’, which date from 1967, are some of his best known and most popular. There’s a set held at Tate, and I once saw a copy of ‘Covent Garden: Foreign Fruit Market’ on the wall of a Minister (admittedly rather a junior Minister) in the House of Lords.
Another of the prints, ‘Borough Market’, is currently on show in the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life. It’s a beautiful treatment of enfolded spaces: the canopy of an invitingly lit fruit and veg store juts under the powerful brick and iron of a railway bridge, with both overlooked by the tower of Southwark Cathedral. And, of course, the blocky shapes and flat patches of colour give away that this is one of Bawden’s celebrated linocuts. Except that it isn’t, it’s a lithograph, or at least it’s a ‘lithograph after linocut’. What’s going on?
Lino and litho are about as different as printing methods can be. In a linocut, the lino is cut away to leave a raised surface which takes the ink. It’s an essentially rough-hewn method which can produce pictures of vivacity and strength in the hands of an expert, but always in a limited print run.
In a lithograph, greasy materials are painted or drawn on a printing surface and – via a bit of intervening process and chemistry – hold the ink which is wiped from the rest of the plate. For artists, lithography is often seen as a ‘painterly’ technique, though it’s also the traditional backbone of commercial colour printing, capable of large print editions.
The translation of a linocut into a lithograph was something Bawden was familiar with before he came to ‘Six London Markets’. In the 1930s he’d produced pictures for London Underground in which original linocut images were used to give an aura of authenticity to what were, in fact, mass produced, lithographed posters. The 1936 advert for Chestnut Sunday at Bushy Bark is a good example, the rather tenuous inking on the chestnut tree giving a crafted effect.
For these posters, Bawden would have handed over his original artwork to be reproduced on a lithographic plate by the commercial printers. On other occasions, though, he prepared his own lithographs. For example, also in Edward Bawden at Home is the original art work for ‘The Dolls at Home’, this time a collage rather than a linocut. This is shown alongside the lithograph which Bawden himself prepared from his collage and which was published as part of the series commissioned by the J. Lyons & Co for their teashops.
Not everyone was impressed with this bit of work. Peter Floud, who was Director of the Circulations Department at the V&A, said that ‘The Dolls at Home’ was an argument for why artists should give their work to expert lithographic craftsmen for reproduction. Whatever the fairness of this judgement at the time, Bawden continued to gain in skills as a lithographer. For the 1967 ‘London Markets’ series he worked collaboratively with Stanley Jones at the Curwen Studio to translate the original linocut images into lithographs. I had the good fortune to talk to Stanley Jones recently and he was full of admiration for Bawden’s craft, suggesting that these prints demonstrated the mastery needed to work across two print media.
It still seems a little odd, though, that a linocut should have been remade as a lithograph for a fine art print. The series was commissioned by Herbert Simon for Curwen Prints, as publisher, and each of the six images was made in a main edition of seventy-five. Did the publisher want Bawden’s most characteristic, linocut style, but delivered through the professional editioning capabilities of the Curwen Studio’s lithographic printers? Did Bawden receive the commission for lithographs and decide that linocut was the best way to capture the drama of his cast iron and glass subjects? Either way, the results work brilliantly.
What’s more, the contemporary world gives a final twist to this story of printmaking technology. Giclée copies of ‘Six London Markets’ have become widely available, so these ‘lithographs after linocuts’ are now reproduced via high-quality inkjet.
Peter Floud, ‘Some Doubts Concerning Auto-lithography’, Image 3 (Winter 1949/50) pp 61-8.
This is the fourth in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018. Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.
Early in his career, in the 1930s, Edward Bawden produced a significant body of work in watercolour. Along with Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious, he introduced a new, modern style of clean lines and precise brush strokes which banished the prevalent tendency for watery atmospheric effects. The story of these early paintings was recently told in the Mainstone Press’s The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden. The pictures were ‘lost’ in the sense that they were dispersed in private collections, as well as being cast into shadow by Bawden’s later reputation as a printmaker and illustrator.
Bawden, of course, continued to paint watercolours throughout his life. As he passed his eightieth birthday, in 1983, and with his mobility increasingly restricted, he embarked on a new project, using watercolour to record his home at 2 Park Lane, Saffron Walden, along with its views and his life – still a working life – within it. This remarkable series of late works could also be described as ‘lost’. They too have entered the closed world of private collections and, like the early watercolours, they offer a very different vision to Bawden’s best-known graphic fantasies of the mid-century or even his illustrations for the Folio Society’s The Hound of the Baskervilles completed in 1987.
The inclusion of eleven watercolours from the middle and late 1980s is thus a fascinating aspect of the Fry Art Gallery’s current Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life exhibition, with some of the pictures on loan from their current owners.
One might expect Bawden to have felt constrained by a life increasingly dominated by home, but the atmosphere of the pictures suggests the very opposite. There is a continual transformation of the immediate into the exotic. In garden scenes such as Seat in the Garden (1987) or Cat and Greenhouse (1986) ferns and bamboo, along with every shade of green from near black to turquoise, turn a small space into something tropical and abundant, while the sun over the co-op car park, in View from the Back of Park Lane (1980s), burns equatorially. In a view of the attic bedroom, Camels and Cat (1987), it is the exaggerated presence of Bawden’s own wallpaper design, ‘Sahara’, from 1928, that again makes the homely strange, and in Ajax, Fairy and Orchids (1987), the flowers do something similar to the kitchen products – or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Such metamorphoses of the everyday co-exist, however, with close observation of reality. That might be of a discarded cup in Tulips and Drawing Board (1989), an Asian mother in Park Lane from the Landing (1980s) or advertising slogans in Ajax, Fairy and Orchids. Appreciation of the quality of Bawden’s observation is helped by the inclusion in the exhibition of Roy Hammans’ photographs. These were commissioned by the Fry Art Gallery, shortly after Bawden’s death, to provide a detailed record of 2 Park Lane, its contents and arrangement.
Home, for Bawden, was a place to relax (especially for his cat, Emma Nelson, a constant presence in the pictures) but also to work. He shows his studio, his drawing board and, in two slightly earlier pictures, from 1983, the cut and inked lino block, neatly surrounded by tools, which he had used for two of his recent prints. If the latter pictures suggest a willingness to be open about the process of making art, that fact is borne out by the retention of extensive under-drawing in several of the watercolours. Skeleton buildings can be seen to the back of Park Lane and shadowy, pencilled objects in Tulips and Drawing Board. In Daffodils, from 1989, Bawden’s death before the picture’s completion means even more of this scaffold of drawing is revealed. Compass-drawn circles define where flower heads would form.
In his contribution to the book which accompanies the exhibition, Peyton Skipwith recalls how he gently nudged Bawden back to work in the mid-1980s, after he had talked of retirement. The resulting pictures, however, as the document of a life nearing its inevitable conclusion, show no hint of fading artistic vigour. Rather there is a mental robustness in the way the domestic surroundings of 2 Park Lane are analysed in terms of space and pattern, and an unsentimental pleasure in the arrangement of immediate surroundings, a point which is particularly clear in the very last flower paintings, Tulips and Drawing Board and Daffodils. One repeated motif across these late watercolours is Bawden’s own work, displayed with an unostentatious naturalness throughout the house: wallpapers in Two Chairs and a Cat (1987) and Camels and a Cat; his cast-iron bench in Seat in the Garden, and his print from 1950, The Palmhouse, Kew Gardens, reused in Cat and Palm House (1987). As a result the set of watercolours taken together become a kind of self-portrait through time, a portrait of a working life, a life that has been self-made with care, craftsmanship and delight.
Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life is at the Fry Art Gallery from April 1 to October 28, 2018. The accompanying book, Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life, is published by Random Spectacular.
This is the third in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018. Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.
For a notoriously private man, Edward Bawden doesn’t seem to have minded being in front of a television camera.
In his book Under Moonlight, Silas Clifford-Smith describes the unlikely pairing of the taciturn Bawden with a young and garrulous Alan Whicker, when Whicker was conducting interviews for a BBC story on the Great Bardfield artists. The piece was broadcast ahead of the 1958 ‘open house’ exhibition, the fourth and final time that the professional artists in the village organised a group show based around their homes.
Five years later, in 1963, a more sustained and complex consideration of Bawden as an artist came with the film ‘A Sense of Order’, shown within the BBC’s pioneering arts magazine programme, Monitor. Fronted by Huw Wheldon, and by this time in its sixth season, Monitor was an established and prestigious place for coverage of the visual arts. ‘A Sense of Order’ was directed by David Jones, who went on to a successful theatre career at the RSC, and involved Bawden in several days of preparation and shooting.
The resulting film covered a number of key projects from the time, with Bawden shown working on his murals for the Physics Department at the University of Hull and on a commission for Morgan Crucible, as well as sketching at Liverpool Street Station.
A full two decades on, in 1984, Bawden was the subject of a dedicated half hour documentary. This was produced by Anglia Television and shown as part of the ‘About Britain’ series, a weekly slot which gave regional commercial broadcasters the chance to air a factual programme across the national ITV network.
At the core of the programme, and the reason for its continuing interest, is an extended interview with Bawden that took place inside his house at 2 Park Lane in Saffron Walden, his home since the move from Great Bardfield in 1970. It’s this location which makes the programme such a perfect fit for the Fry Art Gallery’s current exhibition Edward Bawden At Home: a working life, where a copy is available to view (it has also been posted on-line, here, by the ‘Inexpensive Progress’ blog). The show makes it possible to move from the filmed scene of ‘The Pagoda’ on Bawden’s wall to looking at the same work in the Gallery.
The documentary is not without its faults. Attempts to match Bawden’s wit miss the mark: playing the sound of a horn at the mention of London Transport isn’t a joke worth making. On occasion the programme lazily plays to the idea of Bawden as a generic English eccentric, rather than tackling the more difficult job of locating his very particular eccentricity.
The interview, however, makes it worthwhile. Bawden wasn’t prone to indulging in autobiography and this is a rare reminiscence from the artist, relaxed and at home at the age of eighty. The subject of ‘A Sense of Order’ was very much a man who observed the world and engaged on his own terms. The older Bawden in ‘About Britain’, while not exactly giving himself away, does, perhaps, risk a little more.
He has a tremendous memory for earlier slights, however distant: he can name the headmaster who treated him unjustly at school. On the other hand, he shows an undisguised pride in honours received. Asked about his CBE he slips in mention of his appointment as a Royal Academician; such things are a surprise but not, he seems to imply, undeserved.
At other times the shutters come down and discussion ended. This tendency is strongest in discussion of the war. Asked about his experience being torpedoed on RMS Laconia he responds that it was ‘my first and only experience of being on a sinking boat’. And that’s that.
The programme’s most surprising moment is at its end. Shortly before filming, Bawden had completed his illustrations for the Folio Society’s edition of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and, as some of his most recent work, he discusses the project and the book. He makes a careful distinction between the witty, the comic and the sardonic, noting that the violent humour of the Morte D’Arthur is definitely sardonic. A little later, and as a kind of concluding statement, he notes how his working life was formed against the cultural background of the 1930s. Since then, he says, the world has become ‘more and more idiotic … rushing into disaster’ so that ‘like myself it faces oblivion’. It’s a devastating cultural and political statement – but all delivered with a smile that is definitely sardonic.
This is the second in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018. Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.
It could be a crush in Brick House when Edward Bawden invited in the public. During the first of the Great Bardfield ‘Open House’ exhibitions in 1951, he wrote to his son Richard of how when ‘a school arrives or a party of WI people I nearly get pushed out of the house by the crush of bosoms’. He continued, ‘The last person to sign the book came from Madrid and others from [the] Falkland Islands, Denmark, France, Malaya and Canada’. The ‘book’, here, was a visitors’ book which Bawden kept during the Bardfield exhibitions, and which now forms part of the Bawden Estate.
As a document of the exhibitions, the visitors’ book is both evocative and revealing. Inside its maroon covers are rows of names in neat, if sometimes challenging, handwriting, interspersed with the occasional inky splodge. At the start, Bawden has diligently written in headings for date, name and address, but it was a habit he later dropped, to the detriment of neatness.
The book covers three exhibitions: the first of the open houses in 1951, held as a local event within the Festival of Britain; the first exhibition to be restricted to professional artists, held in 1954; and a follow-up, held just a year later, in 1955, with nine artists across seven locations. With the excitement of the Festival to boost numbers, the 1951 entries show 1,628 visitors to Brick House. This falls to 858 for 1954, but recovers to a record 1,848 visitors in 1955. As Bawden noted to Richard, these numbers included some impressively well-travelled guests, with the US, Australia, Spain, Northern Rhodesia and French Morocco, amongst others, added to the address list. The events were by no means, however, exclusive affairs for an international or metropolitan art crowd. Roughly three quarters of visitors came from Essex, and around a fifth of these from Great Bardfield itself, from farms and from the explicitly named ‘Council Houses’. Nonetheless, it is some of the more recognisable names that are revealing of Bawden’s friendships and connections.
Amongst the many fascinating objects in the Fry Art Gallery’s current Edward Bawden at Home exhibition is a copy of the Left Review from 1937, where two of Bawden’s satirical drawings were published. On the back of that edition is an advert for ‘The Magic of Monarchy’, a republican polemic by Kingsley Martin, then editor of the New Statesman and Nation. Bawden’s personal connection with Martin is evidenced by the latter making the journey up from London to the ‘Open House’ in both 1951 and 1954, where he diligently signed the visitors book. Bawden was a lifelong Labour supporter and two Labour party politicians’ names also appear. Lord Strabolgi (or simply ‘Strabolgi’ as he announces himself amongst the entries for 9th July 1955) was a hereditary peer who went on to become a party whip but had attended Chelsea Art School in the 1930s and exhibited paintings with Gerald Wilde. Tom Driberg visited on the same day; the colourful Essex MP was an openly gay bon viveur and possible soviet spy. The political traffic was not all one way, however, with the Tory peer Lord Mancroft, who was a relation of the Great Bardfield artist John Aldridge, visiting in 1954 with his wife Diana Lloyd
Unsurprisingly, 1951 saw the arrival of visitors associated with the Festival of Britain, Bawden having recently completed his Country Life mural for the Festival. Director of architecture Hugh Casson came to Brick House, as did Richard Guyatt, co-designer of the Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion, where Country Life was then in situ, and a professor at the Royal College of Art. Visitors from the world of modern architecture and design continued to be prominent across the Bardfield exhibitions. Individuals included the typographer Berthold Wolpe (featured in spring 2018 edition of Venue magazine) and the architect Oliver Hill whose Midland Hotel in Morecambe had been decorated with murals by Eric Ravilious in the 1930s. Family delegations appeared of Pritchards, owners of the Isokon furniture designers and the innovative Lawn Road flats in Hampstead, of Curwens, owners of the Curwen Press who placed numerous commissions with Bawden, and of Crittalls, owners of the famous manufacturer of modernist, steel-framed windows who lived nearby.
Graphic artists, too, arrived and signed their names in the visitors’ book. Dodie Masterman, for example, the successful book illustrator, came to the exhibitions in both 1954 and 1955. Fine artists are less visible, although John Nash, Humphrey Spender and Michael Ayrton all put in an appearance, but art entrepreneurs much more so. The open house in 1954 saw two important gallerists at Brick House: Victor Musgrave, proprietor of the pioneering ‘Gallery One’, which gave Bridget Riley, amongst others, her first show; and Robert Erskine, founder of the St George’s press and gallery, the leading outlet for prints in London in the later 1950s. In 1955 Nan Youngman visited with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea. Youngman had chaired the Society for Education through Art and instigated their ‘Pictures for Schools’ series.
As might be expected, artists who were, or were to become, residents of the Bardfield area made their way to Bawden’s house. Sheila Robinson, who had been helping with the Country Life mural, visited in 1951, as did Marianne Straub. Robinson was to move to Bardfield End Green in 1954, while Straub arrived permanently in 1953; both were to take part in the last Bardfield ‘Open House’ in 1958.
There is a danger, though, that identifying the more prominent names within Bawden’s visitors’ book can give the wrong impression of the crowd at Brick House, its size and diversity. Remembering Edward’s words to Richard, we might take as more typical the arrival, on the 12th July 1951, of Mrs Howard and a dozen members of the Dedham WI, no doubt complete with jostling bosoms.
The opening quotation from Bawden is cited in Malcolm Yorke’s introduction to Gill Saunders and Malcom Yorke, Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield (London: V&A Publishing, 2015) p.48.
This is the first in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018. Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.
There is no evidence as to why Edward Bawden was appointed as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1951. His work in the preparations for the Festival of Britain, alongside, perhaps, a certain down-to-earth reputation, seem to have commended him to someone in Government. At all events, the Tate’s constitution required that four of its Trustees were practising artists and, with the Camden Town painter Henry Lamb retiring, the invitation to Bawden was made. As a result, he served until 1958, his tenure coinciding with those of figures such as Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, John Piper and William Coldstream.
Bawden’s tenure as a Tate Trustee coincided with a time of high drama at the gallery. In particular, the year’s 1952 to 1954 saw the height of the so-called ‘Tate Affair’, when a varied group of malcontents attempted to unseat the Director, John Rothenstein, who was the brother of Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein. Events included a vicious press campaign and questions in Parliament, but reached a climax when Rothenstein finally roused himself against his enemies and punched the critic and collector Douglas Cooper in the face at a gallery party. It was a time for partisan positions and Sutherland, in particular, chose to align himself with the Douglas Cooper faction. Bawden, on the other hand, seems to have sailed serenely and neutrally through the line of battle, and to have emerged unscathed.
The minutes from the Trustees’ meetings of the time can be consulted via a rather rackety microfiche reader at the back end of the Tate’s archive and library. The report of Bawden’s first meeting sets the tone for his tenure: he is registered as present, but makes no further appearance in the text. Indeed, looking through the minutes, and also at the correspondence file that the Tate keeps for each of its Trustees, suggests that there were just three issues on which Bawden made a sustained intervention.
The first was to press Rothenstein, and through him the rest of the Board, to consider strengthening the collection of English watercolours, with a special plea put in for Vivian Pitchforth, who, like Bawden, had been an Official War Artist. The Tate’s limited collection of Pitchforth suggests that this fell on deaf ears.
More surprising was Bawden’s brokering of a meeting between some of the artist Trustees and their colleagues from the Royal Academy, in order to discuss purchases using the Chantrey Bequest. The Bequest had been a source of tension between the Tate and the RA for many years, largely due to a fundamental flaw in it conception: the RA got to choose the pictures purchased, but the Tate had to hang them. The result, in the Tate’s view, was that it was foisted with second-rate paintings by superannuated academicians. Things got a little better in 1949, when the Tate gained joint representation on the purchasing committee, but relations remained frosty. Bawden’s initiative, however, gained a positive response from the RA President, Charles Wheeler, and seems to have led to a real improvement in joint working.
The last and most revealing of Bawden’s interventions related to the display of watercolours and drawings. He found the basement space allotted to them by the Tate unspeakably dreary and set out his own vision for its rejuvenation. Whilst oil paintings were like a public speaker, he suggested, watercolours and drawings were like a conversation. They needed an intimate, relaxed setting, with plenty of space, no frames, and comfy seating for visitors. All in all the ideal atmosphere for their viewing would be, he said, like that of a milk bar – a comparison with a winning 1950s naivety. Rothenstein’s response to these ideas, however, was polite but negative: frames helped with conservation and a lack of funding ruled out any possibility of redecoration.
In May 1958, as Edward Bawden’s term of office expired, the Chair of the Trustees regretted the loss of his services, even though Bawden himself was absent from the meeting. His association with the Tate was over, without a bang or a whimper, but rather a polite nod of the head and, one senses, a shrug of the shoulder on both sides.
For the first time, the Fry Art Gallery is to dedicate a full season and all of its gallery space to a single exhibition: Edward Bawden at Home. Opening on the 1st of April 2018 and running until the 28th of October 2018, the show will include around 200 artworks and other items. These will be displayed in the Gallery which Bawden helped to establish and which is just a short walk from the home in Saffron Walden in which he spent his last nineteen years.
Edward Bawden CBE RA (1903-89) is recognised as one of Britain’s foremost artists and designers of the twentieth century. His precise, linear watercolours of the 1930s attracted the notice of modernist art critics, whilst he went on to be probably the most important exponent of the linocut to work in Britain.
Bawden moved unselfconsciously between fine art and commercial design, creating posters for Ealing Studios, book jackets for Faber & Faber and advertisements for British Railways. His detached but warm and amused vision of the world remains immensely popular on items from diaries to umbrellas. In recognition of this diversity, Bawden was the first artist to be elected to the Royal Academy as a draughtsman and the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition will form part of the Academy’s RA250 anniversary celebrations. It will include display of Bawden’s RA Diploma piece, on loan from the Academy.
After moving to Great Bardfield in North West Essex in 1932, Bawden relocated just once more of his own volition, the dozen miles to Saffron Walden in 1970, although his wartime duties as an Official War Artist meant extensive and dangerous travel through Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The Fry Art Gallery exhibition will use the theme of home to explore the full range of Bawden’s work, complementing finished pictures with sketches and letters as well as design projects such as wall papers and even a garden seat. It will show how, for Bawden, home was also a place to work, with studios in his houses at Bardfield and Saffron Walden, as well as a subject of his work, sometimes imaginatively transformed, and a psychological centre of gravity.
The backbone of the exhibition will be formed from the Fry Art Gallery’s own collection of Bawden’s art and associated archival objects. These will be complemented by illustrations of Bawden’s home, including work by his close friend Eric Ravilious with whom he first visited Great Bardfield and with whom he lived at Brick House for two years. A number of items on loan will complete the exhibition, including some from friends and family which have not previously been on public display.
Of particular interest will be the first showing for forty years of a significant preparatory drawing for Bawden’s work on the Morley College Mural. Bawden completed the mural with Ravilious in 1930, when it was opened by Stanley Baldwin, only to see it destroyed by enemy bombing in 1940. The drawing was originally given as a gift to the Morley College bursar, Hubert Wellington, and has recently entered the Fry Art Gallery collection through another, equally generous, gift.
The exhibition will conclude with an evocation of the atmosphere of Bawden’s home and studio at Park Lane, Saffron Walden where he lived from 1970. This will include several of his later works, many based on subjects in and around the house. It was from Park Lane that Bawden brought friends to the Fry Art Gallery in its formative years, offering his generous support to its growth as a home for the artists of North West Essex.
What could a leading portrait painter make from the collection at the Fry Art Gallery? That’s the question raised – and answered – by the new exhibition, Connections, which runs at the Gallery from the 9th September to the 29th October 2017.
Connections is curated by Benjamin Sullivan. Benjamin has established himself as a major figurative painter. He has been elected to the New English Art Club and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and has work in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy and Parliament House, Edinburgh. As artist in residence at All Souls College, Oxford, he completed The All Souls Triptych, which is now installed at the college. He is the winner of the 2017 BP Portrait Award.
For the Fry Art Gallery Blog, Benjamin has given his reflections on his selection of works for the show and on portraiture at the Fry Art Gallery.
“The North West Essex Art Collection, whilst not being known for its connection with portraiture, nevertheless boasts a fair number of figurative works – some familiar, others less so. Taking the term ‘portrait’ in its broadest sense, my selection draws from a wide variety of styles and media to form the basis of this show.
We start with Sir George Clausen’s gentle portrayal of Reverend Court. Stylistically incongruous compared to the rest of the Collection, this sympathetic work nonetheless demonstrates Clausen’s talent as a portraitist – capturing a young, and what we imagine to be, congenial clergyman. As we move into the 20th century, Court’s presence is nicely complemented by Duffy Ayers sensitive portrait of Kitty Wilson and John Aldridge’s penetrating self portrait of 1946. More works by Aldridge are shown on the opposite wall focused around the commanding domestic interior Lucie Weaving a Rug. Demonstrating a pleasingly free use of oils, this centrepiece is both colourful and restrained; we know this England. The same can be said of Charlotte Bawden’s post impressionistic portrayal of Eric Townsend with its stylistic association to the New English Art Club.
A quartet of Ravilious lithographs, completed for the War Artists Advisory Committee, sets a different tone. These stylised figures do not attempt to be naturalistic portraits yet exist convincingly in their environments. Ravilious is present elsewhere in the show in the form of Thomas Hennell’s sparse and revealing pen and ink study. Other fine drawings surround Hennell’s work, revealing the depth of draughtsmanship in the collection. Watercolour is present too, with Kenneth Rowntree’s Adam with Pram making a pleasing appearance, being one of my personal favourites from the Fry Art Gallery. This tender depiction of fatherly love set against the ever present signs of war creates a tension which belies its benign execution. The contrast of loose and precise mark making aid this juxtaposition.
A different use of watercolour is evident in John Bellany’s Self Portrait of 1986. This painting, in Bellany’s inimitable way, reaches for some inner truth in the honest portrayal of its subject. Also on display are a number of my own works, mostly drawings, made over the past few years. Chief amongst these is a pencil study for Breech!; a painting of my wife and daughter that won this year’s BP Portrait Award. The painting is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery.”
Michael Rothenstein described his workplace as a ‘studio-laboratory’, and nothing comes through more strongly from the diverse, sometimes startling images on show in the Fry Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention (27th May to 3rd September 2017) than the artist’s desire to experiment in the print making process. Complementing the large, major pieces in the exhibition are objects that further evidence Rothenstein’s range: youthful drawings, mature sketchbooks, ceramics, book illustrations and two of his own books on print making technique, Linocuts and Woodcuts from 1962 and 1966’s Frontiers of Print Making. Both books are fascinating, and Frontiers of Print Making in particular gives an insight into Rothenstein’s thinking as, during the 1960s, he moved away from recognisable imagery and conventional print formats.
A large, quite dark presence in Sustained Invention is The Bull, a linocut from 1956. In Frontiers of Print Making Rothenstein describes how the particular textures in the image were achieved, but, perhaps more intriguingly, also discusses why he felt this experiment to be a dead end. His initial insight was that printing blocks could be made by building up the surface of the lino quite as legitimately as by cutting it away. Thus in The Bull sand was added to the lino corresponding to the roadway before inking it up in a dark brown. This area was then printed again, slightly out of alignment (or ‘off-register’) with a lighter brown. The aim was to give the road surface ‘movement and density without emphasis’. On reflection, however, Rothenstein was dissatisfied; not with the results, but with the very concept of this technique. He felt that it had allowed him to gain in printing something of the textual effects of brushstrokes in paint, but as such it was not an effect unique to printmaking. It was the search for just this uniqueness which then led him to print with found materials, such as wood and man-made metal objects, where the printed texture itself became the subject of the works.
Such a use of found objects was linked with the development of the process Rothenstein called ‘open-block printing’ (a process devised, he says, ‘in the graphic workshop at Great Bardfield’). In Frontiers of Print Making Rothenstein gives an extensive description of the making of Black, Blue and White, a companion piece to the Fry Art Gallery’s Radial Shakes. It would be difficult to reconstruct the precise sequence of events from the text, but his primary intention is, perhaps, more to show how thinking about materials and problems can lead to new styles of image making. He discusses how the final arrangement of different elements was fixed by drawing their position on a register sheet, how separate proofs were taken to allow the use of objects of different heights, and how he had allowed the thin cross-section of tree used in the design to dry and crack, giving the radial pattern which characterises the whole.
Frontiers of Print Making is, above all, a book encouraging artists and print-makers to think innovatively. Yet there is also a degree of defensiveness to it, a defensiveness about a tradition that is seen to be under threat. It was written at a time when screen printing, and in particular screen prints that incorporated news and magazine photographs, had moved quickly from America, and the work of Rauschenberg and Warhol, to international dominance in the world of art-prints. By advocating experimentation with older forms of relief printing Rothenstein was going against the grain. In the book he acknowledges the potential of the American-style photo-images, but also notes that their characteristics – what he identifies as a ‘curious stillness’ – can destroy the connection between an artist and the viewer. He worries that the use of commercial methods will turn art into ‘a public address system’.
Rothenstein is much more positive, however, about the potential to use photo-images as one element in a combine print. Here the visible human gestures of the artist and the mechanical, reproduced photo-image can play off one another, enhancing the ‘communication’ of the whole. With these comments Frontiers of Printmaking once again illuminates Rothenstein’s own practice as a print maker since, as Sustained Invention shows, this type of combined print was precisely the direction his own work was to take in the late 1960s and 1970s.
For Michael Rothenstein printmaking was his ‘real creative life’, and whilst the Fry Art Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention (27th May to 3rd September 2017) features some of his early drawings and watercolours, at its heart are the radical, sometimes startling prints that gave him an international reputation.
Too ill for war service, Rothenstein arrived in Great Bardfield in 1941, initially renting Chapel Cottage from the painter John Aldridge, and he went on to be a central figure in the Essex village’s famous Open House exhibitions of the 1950s. Yet if Rothenstein is fundamental to the idea of Great Bardfield as a centre for co-operating artists, he also retains a strong, independent identity. In part this is because he is also important in other stories, notably that of the Rothenstein artistic dynasty. His father, Sir William, was an established painter while his brother, Sir John, was Director of the Tate Gallery (Sir John politely declined Edward Bawden’s request that the Tate display a Great Bardfield exhibition poster on the grounds that, with the name Rothenstein prominent, there would be complaints of nepotism). However in part, too, it flows from his determined alignment with a wider, international avant-garde of printmakers.
Amongst his early lithographs, Rothenstein produced The Cockerel for a series distributed to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951. However it was the following year which saw him commit to printing and to the course of restless innovation which marked out his printmaking career. The defining event was an extended visit to Atelier 17, the Parisian engraving studio of Stanley William Hayter. Looking back on this visit Rothenstein was to say, ‘It simply transformed my life’, it was ‘a psychic turnaround, and when I got back to England I began to dedicate most of my energies to print’.
Rothenstein was less interested in Hayter’s work – and he never followed him into engraving – than in his experimental methods. He embraced Hayter’s emphasis on movement and surprise to counter predictability and harmony, making prints that emphasised texture and colour over drawing, so that his prints are objects to be seen first-hand rather than in reproduction. Rothenstein was certainly deeply impressed by Hayter himself, as an Englishman who had made himself indispensable to the Parisian avant-garde. For Rothenstein the attraction was in taking this approach back home. Thus, by turning to experimental printing he was able to give himself ‘an absolutely fresh start’ in a medium which he saw as unburdened by English tradition, and establish himself as a Parisian-influenced modernist in rural England.
Already by 1952 he was producing strongly abstracted images such as ‘Fireworks’, created for a series of Coronation lithographs that followed those for the Festival of Britain. Soon he was making relief prints by inking found objects like wood off-cuts and machinery parts. These reinvented the relationship between a picture and the stuff of reality and led Rothenstein to create images which abandoned the traditional rectangular format. Reflecting on this innovation later in life, Rothenstein neatly, and surprisingly, paired the influences of Essex and Paris: the idea occurred through ‘a series of personal revelations. One of the most striking was when I had settled here in Essex. I had a young family and took them for a picnic by a river. Unpacking the sandwiches, and looking round, behind us, on a rise, was a big timber yard, walled with big off-cuts of Elmwood. Elmwood has this wild grain – and this revelation was also to do with my contact with Paris, with knowing something of Dubuffet and Tapies’.
As the mantle of the avant-garde shifted across the Atlantic in the 1950s and 1960s Rothenstein’s influences evolved. From the later 1960s he began to investigate screen-printed photographic pictures, often combining these with relief printed elements so that in a work like Green Pagoda the clash of images sets off an elusive chain of symbolic associations.
In this later phase of his career, Rothenstein and his new works were increasingly embraced by international art institutions. A large number were acquired by the Tate and examples by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1984. Ironically, Rothenstein felt that his commitment to printmaking, the form which had liberated his imagination, had also delayed this recognition because ‘print-making is accorded second place’. Sustained Invention demonstrates his determination to show that printmaking could indeed be a high-art form.
Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention, runs from the 27th of May to the 3rd of September 2017. It will be accompanied by a new book, Rothenstein at the Fry, by Gill Saunders, head of prints at the V&A.
All quotations from Michael Rothenstein in this post are taken from: Gill Saunders, ‘Michael Rothenstein’ in Gill Saunders and Malcom Yorke (ed.), Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield (London: V&A, 2015); and Duncan Scott, ‘Hayter’s Legacy in England’, The Tamarind Papers, vol. 14, 1991/2.