Tag Archives: Compton Verney

The Pattern of Friendship

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Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious, 1933

 

Eric Ravilious was a multi-talented English painter, designer, illustrator, muralist and wood engraver whose tragically brief parenthetical dates (1903-1942) contain an extraordinary career and life that touched many lives, in particular the remarkable nebula of talent that coalesced around the Royal College of Art classes of the early Twenties: Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, and John and Paul Nash. The women were equally talented – Helen Binyon, Peggy Angus, Edna Marx and Diana Low. Elaine ‘Tirza’ Garwood, who went on to marry Ravilious, excelled at depictions of everyday lives: well-observed vignettes of social history that were witty, and ironically aware of the fault-lines of society.

Inspired by William Rothenstein – a ‘father’ figure to this unofficial movement, who encouraged his pupils to explore different forms, to be catholic in their approach; and the presence of Paul Nash – one of most important artists of the 20th Century, who, though he only taught two terms at the RCA, had a huge influence on his cohort. Nash, like Rothenstein, practiced not a ‘top down’ kind of teaching, but one that flattened the usual hierarchies, with teacher and students getting stuck in together and learning as they went, through practice. Nash greatly encouraged his protégés, and was instrumental in setting up opportunities for them, artistic commissions and contracts in the real world (Ministry of Transport; the BBC; book publishers; Wedgwood; Ministry of War), deconstructing the elitism of a Fine Art disengaged from society. Book design and illustration, fabrics, wallpaper, public notices, murals, pottery, posters and prints – nothing was beyond their remit or abilities.

 

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The Long Man of Wilmington, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

Through the painstaking research of Andy Friend, curator of the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne and author of Ravilious & Co.: The Pattern of Friendship (Thames and Hudson, 2017), we now know how this loosely affiliated band of artists and designers inspired and supported one another. Friend was instrumental in creating this major exhibition, which opened at his gallery last year, and has toured Sheffield and now Compton Verney.

 

White Horse of Uffington, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

Ravilious, whose art, after long decades of (relative) obscurity, has experienced a huge surge of appreciation, is rightly the star of the show. His work, appearing with increasing frequency in magazines, newspapers, websites, postcards and prints, is rapidly becoming iconic. His apparently ‘austere’ or understated style chimes with the zeitgeist (one that is finding a consoling fiction in the ‘keep calm and carry on’ vintage aesthetic of WW2). It could be accused of the same (strangely) cosy nostalgia, and of being all surface and no substance – but there is something more going on in his work, which makes its effect linger. The South Downs, which Ravilious made his own (after a productive year at a much-loved ‘Furlongs’), are depicted in soothingly muted tones and a series of pulsing lines, suggesting movement, a frozen wave, electrifying the ostensibly still, empty scene with a charge of nascent energy – as though the slumbering giant of Albion was about to awaken. The foreground is often focalised by a piece of machinery – a watermill creaks in the wind, a steam train passes a white horse chalk figure, a plough breaks the undulating downland with its perpendicularity, a gypsy caravan contrasts the stark silhouette of winter trees. There is a tinge of melancholy, perhaps, in the often muted light, but there is also something infinitely soothing in the quietude they depict. And the light is always there, in the breaks in the line and thinning washes of colour – as though just below the surface, about to irupt through at any moment. Immanence and evanescence are intrinsic qualities in the work of Ravilious – no surprise then his favourite times to paint were sunrise and twilight. He spent his life trying to capture this fleeting light, a moth to the flame.

 

Tiger Moth, Eric Ravilious, 1942

Seeing the artists and designers side-by-side makes for some interesting comparisons. Paul Nash is the major figure, whose ‘daemonic urge’ outshines his brother’s, John, but in one painting (the interior of a wood) John outdoes his brother; Ravilious’ luminous works punctuate the show like a starry firmament, but occasionally even his work is outshone by his peers: Bawden (in the night scene of dock-sides), Freedman (in his submarine lithographs), Tirza (in her exquisitely observed and rendered engraving), but none of it is competitive. There is just a healthy cross-fertilisation. The lesser occasionally outshines the greater, and collectively they created an extra-ordinary outpouring of work, as Enid Marx reflected in 1989: ‘I have no illusions when it comes to my own standing, it’s all a matter of a number of individuals forming a collective school. In the arts this has always been so … the lesser pebbles become sand.’

Eric Ravilious became a war artist – and his palette darkened (as can be seen in a quartet of dramatic paintings executed for the Admiralty). He was in familiar territory depicting the industrial and mechanised in the landscape for the Army, but he had a yearning to experience flight, and this new element left him exhilarated, but floundering for a new vocabulary. Gone were the certainties of the distinct sky-line, the contours of the downs and undulations of the fields. In a final, calamitous posting, he was sent to Iceland and joined observational flights above the epic glacial landscape. It was on one of these, in 1942, he went missing, leaving behind his widow, Tirza, who struggled to receive a war pension due to her husband’s ‘disappearance’ rather than death (no body was ever found). Yet deceased he undeniably was, slipping from this world with the same deceptive lightness of his work. He flew into the light and did not return.  Upon his death, one of his closest friends, Edward Bawden, said of Eric, that ‘his life was like his art, graceful and long-lasting in its effects.’

Ravilious and his contemporaries ennobled the everyday in their art and design, capturing a sublime expression of conscious and sensibility from the twenties to forties – one that had a texture of realism but with a graceful lightness that danced free of its matrix.

Visiting it with talented friends felt resonant – for in our own pattern of friendship (stretched between Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, and Gloucestershire and further afield, but converging in the quirky, creative crucible of Stroud) we have a modern microcosm of a similar creative cross-hatch: artists, novelists, poets, musicians, singers, crafters, print-makers, storytellers… In our own little way we are carrying the flame.

 

Beachy Heady, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

With thanks to Kirsty Hartsiotis and Chantelle Smith.

Ravilious & Co: the pattern of friendship, by Andy Friend, is published by Thames and Hudson, 2017

The Pattern of Friendship exhibition is at Compton Verney Art Gallery until 10 June 2018:

http://www.comptonverney.org.uk/thing-to-do/ravilious-and-co/

 

 

 

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Bardic Busyness

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25 Nov-30 Nov

 

A triptych of bardic engagements this week. The first one was at St Andrews Primary School, Congresbury, on Tuesday afternoon. I was to perform Greek Myths with two classes of Years Five and Six. One of their teachers, Dan Wilson, had booked me after finding my website via a search. (It’s nice to know the website pays off now and again!)

I had to go by train, still being bikeless – shame because it was a beautiful cold, clear sunny day. Dan picked me up from Yatton station at lunchtime. I grabbed a roll from a nearby shop, ate it on the way back, and prepared myself for the first class, warming up in a spare classroom.

 

I performed three tales: Phaethön and the Sun Chariot, The Judgement of Paris, and Jason & the Golden Fleece (approx 30 minutes in total) before fielding general questions about being a storyteller. Then I repeated this all over again for the second class (about 30 each time). The kids were respectful and pretty attentive, although it was the afternoon, and energy levels/attention spans were probably not at their best. Still, they asked some good questions. Some were clearly in awe of me – sitting wide-eyed at the front, right under my feet!

 

I had to get a taxi back to the station and the driver asked what I did. Sitting at Yatton station, gazing at the tracks, diminishing to their vanishing point into the west, I had time to reflect upon my life as a bard on the road. It was good to be getting gigs again, although the teaching is demanding virtually all of my time and energy, and so I’m not at my best when I perform at the moment – I’m low on battery and virtual memory!

 

The teacher sent me this email message later: Thanks for coming today – the kids really enjoyed it. I’ve had a look at the resources that you sent – they look really useful, thanks very much! 

 

Dancing for the Earth, an event co-organised between Jay Ramsay and Anthony Nanson, took place on Friday, 28th November – in honour of William Blake – at the ‘Bristol Old School’, Stroud. There were a plethora of performers contributing: Fire Springs – Anthony, Kirsty, David and myself. Phoenix members – Jay and Gabriel Millar. Plus Helen Moore, a fellow Bard of Bath; a poet called Jeff who recited his ‘Valentine’s to Albion’, and Kirsten Morrison, who performed a 20 minute set with her brother – a showcase for her extraordinary operatic voice. There wasn’t a huge turn out (the hall was half full or half empty depending on your point of view, although we did get a few more in the second half) but it still felt worth it – a coming together of bardic kindred spirits and ‘Children of Albion’. We ended with dancing, with music supplied by Jay’s partner, Christina McLaughlin. It was a great chance to ‘shake the feathers’ and to break down the artificial demarcation of audience and performers. It helped to ‘shift’ my mood a little – releasing some endorphins. Alas, it was over all too soon, and the music wasn’t all my cup of tea (lots of frantic trance stuff). It was bit like being at a school disco, being a wallflower, waiting for a good track to come on! Oh, for some good ole’ rock and roll!

 

I got a lift back with David and despite both being tired, we had one of our lovely chats – one of the joys of such ‘adventures’. When he dropped me off I gave him a wee present to show my appreciation – he has been a rock to Firesprings, and as a friend, throughout all of life’s ups and downs – The Drovers’ Roads of Wales (in our first show, Arthur’s Dream, he created a framing narrative about Dafydd the Drover who stumbles upon the once and future king and his knights, slumbering under a Welsh mountain until Albion needs them once again…).

 

Afterwards, Anthony described it thus: “Every act was magnificently professional, passionate, and committed. Despite the small and delayed turnout of the audience, I think we did something really significant together. I hope the relationships between us all will continue to deepen and lead to other things.”

I had to get up early the next morning (6.15am) to catch the train to my next engagement – a big stately home called Compton Verney – which involved catching three trains to Banbury, then a taxi, shared with Kirsty Hartsiotis, my co-performer, who had set these gigs up (3 weekends worth – I was standing in for her partner Anthony today who had a prior engagement in Yate, at the Heritage Centre, where I’ve performed before).

The themes of the stories were meant to allude to the various exhibitions in the house. We had plenty of scope…North, Winter, hunting, animals, forest, etc. I focussed on tales from the North, and animal tales. I did three sets – Mabon and the Oldest of Animals in set one; Raven’s tale and Fenris the Wolf in set two; then two solar myths, Bladud and Baldur in set three. The first two went well, but the third was disappointing – we were down to two by the end (a mum and her five year old son) although Bladud and his swine went down well. The problem with all of the slots was the really young members of the audience – five and under (!) playing on the ‘Once Upon a Time’ rug like it was a kindergarten. It is difficult to perform to under sevens, you have to do something especially tailored for them (e.g. balloon-puppetry, clowning, tricks, etc) and we are not trying to be children’s entertainers. Time and time again this has happened, despite us pointing out the fact we offer entertainment for adults and older children. We happily accommodate a mixed age audience, as long as the majority are adults, and children are seven plus. Otherwise, you’re just wasting energy trying to fruitlessly engage the youngest and end up losing the rest of the audience. I spent the majority of my performance time staring down at the carpet of toddler, trying to keep them interested – rather than maintaining eye contact with everyone. It’s hard to, as you can in a normal mixed audience.

 

Kirsty was better at engaging the really young ones – perhaps less scary than a tall, shaggy man! She is really shining these days. And to think how nervous she had been when she first performed at the Bath Storytelling Circle eight years ago, when we did Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin together (after I had persuaded her to give it a go – it was to be her first storytelling performance). And now we’re professional storytellers – Kirsty mainly performing with her partner, Anthony, the founder of the circle.

 

We were both tired afterwards. I was glad not to be doing it five more days, to be honest – although Compton Verney staff looked after us, and the place is very impressive. The gardens were designed by Capability Brown and it was a shame there wasn’t an opportunity to explore them.

Our erstwhile taxi driver turned up – we were relieved to see him, thinking he may have got lost again! – but it was merely the time of day and the conditions. I was happy not to be riding today, as it was a real pea-souper outside, like some Hammer horror story about a couple who take a wrong turning and end up in a village that doesn’t exist… The taxi driver made his slowly cautious way back along the narrow windy lanes, each turn giving us palpitations as he seemed to only notice it at the last minute! Finally arriving at the station he asked if he should make the receipt out for £30 not £27 (the actual fare), but Kirsty refused. He had charged us £30 before on the way there, after getting lost, so he had conned us out of a tip anyway (we had been quoted £25). Good job Compton Verney were paying travel expenses – but the taxi cost as much as the train, more in Kirsty’s case. Fortunately, Anthony will be driving the rest of the time.

By the time I got home I was too tired to go out again, or even do anything much at home – I had popped into On the Video Front on the way back from the station, and just stared at the rows of films like a zombie. Uninspired by any, I left. The storyteller had wanted a tale told to him for a change… Instead, I went to bed early with a good book – the most reliable entertainment!