Watercolours Explored at the Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam’s recent exhibition, ‘Watercolour: Elements of Nature’, is a concise tour de force, presenting a medium that while often subtle is at its best spectacularly beautiful.  With works drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, the show traces the history of watercolour from the 16th century to the present day, at the same time showing its vast technical range and adaptability.

Nicholas-Hilliard-1547-1619-Henry-Percy-9th-Earl-of-Northumberland-c.1595-299x250At one extreme are miniatures, with examples by Nicholas Hilliard (‘Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland’, c.1595, above) and Isaac Oliver, the watercolour portraits painted onto ivory or vellum with brushes of only a hair’s breadth.  Plants were studied with  similar precision; a Magnolia painted on vellum (1811, below right) by the famed botanical painter, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, looks so immaculate it is difficult to discern any brushstroke at all. Gum arabic was frequently mixed with the paint to give a glossier and more transparent effect as well as heightening the intensity of the colours.

Pierre-Joseph-Redouté 1811 Magnolia macrophylla-1811 vellum

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that watercolour reached its peak.  Alexander Cozens’s paintings illustrate his radical ‘blot technique’ by which he encouraged his students to create landscape compositions from the imagination by starting with a blot of ink or watercolour (earning him the nickname ‘Mr Dingy Digit’!). This echoed a move away from the rigidly topographical towards ideas of the ‘sublime’ and Romanticism, which became fashionable in art and landscape design in the late 18th century.

1131299John White Abbott, a pupil of Francis Towne (the stunning ‘The Source of the Arveyron’, 1781, was shown at the recent Tate Watercolours exhibition), shows the influence of his master in his use of pen and ink outlines with a thin colour wash, for instance in ‘Trees at Peamore Park, Exeter’, 1799 (left), which flattens the forms making them both decorative and slightly ethereal.

Cornelius-Varley-Three-studies-of-Mount-Snowdon-c.1805Cornelius Varley’s ‘Three Studies of Mount Snowdon’ of c.1805 (right) shows even looser and more experimental brushwork. Designed as a sketch and therefore not comparable to the finished pieces next to which it hangs, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the artist playing with watercolour’s unique capacity for the graduation of colour tones.

Peter De Wint is an artist I knew little about, but who, along with David Cox, was one of the great English watercolorists. Examples of both artists’ work are chosen to show their use of variously textured papers – Cox used ‘Scotch’ wrapping paper for its rough texture and dark flecks – and paint used on a dry brush, diluted or with gum arabic, to achieve different results that bring alive the contrasts within their landscapes (Peter De Wint, ‘Yorkshire Fells, c.1812, watercolour with gum arabic, below).

Yorkshire-fells, c.1812, wc with gum arabic, Peter de Wint

I have always loved John Sell Cotman, whose style I associated with that of Francis Towne; here some very different works are picked out in which he uses a thickening agent to create much more intense colours than the typical pale washes of ‘A Shady Pool’ or even ‘Dolgelly’ (1804-5, below top).  ‘Postwick Grove’ (c.1835-40, below bottom) and ‘Bass Rock’ both use a deep turquoise shade to turn the pallid idyll of an English afternoon sky into a vivid, dusky, almost mystical firmament.

Cotman-Dolgelly 1804-5

Postwick-Grove, c.1835-40, wc, Cotman

Several artist focus closely – like the earlier botanical painters – on the tiny details of nature; William Dyce’s ‘A Landscape Study of Rocks and Grasses’ is as 1132996immaculately observed as Durer’s famous ‘Great Piece of Turf’ (1503) while Ruskin’s ‘In the Pass of Killiecrankie’ (1857) uses watercolour with a more opaque bodycolour on board to evoke the rocky banks of a Scottish burn – every minute crack of granite and frond of heather is extolled in paint. 7.-The-Magic-Apple-Tree c.1830Samuel Palmer also mixes his paint with gum arabic or similar medium in ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (c.1830, left), using this alongside Indian ink to create vivid colours that achieve a depth, solidity and substance at the centre where the apples cluster.  Palmer was a follower of William Blake whose visionary subjects and technical experimentation he inherited, standing apart from the mainstream British landscape watercolour tradition. John Linnell, who introduced Palmer and Blake, is also featured, though his lovely ‘Sunset’ (1812) is without the strange otherworldliness conjured by his colleagues.

Shakespeare-Cliff, Dover, c.1825, wc, Turner

Then of course there is Turner, master of the watercolour.  Here there is only ‘Shakespeare Cliff, Dover’ (c.1825, above) to represent him – though an excellent choice to show how his twin interests in the effects of nature and the use of watercolour as a medium sometimes resulted in almost abstract, highly expressionistic compositions that were well ahead of his time. (There was, however, an room adjacent dedicated to the Ruskin bequest of Turner watercolours, full of exquisite examples such as ‘Brunnen, Lake Lucerne in the Distance’ 1841-3, ‘Orleans, Twilight’, c.1826-31, and ‘Venice from the Lagoon’, c.1840).Giudecca, 1913, wc over graphite Sargent


Appropriate then that he should immediately precede the French and English Impressionist and Post-Imp watercolorists.  This last, ‘modern’, section of the exhibition is disparate – but understandably so, as art diverged in the late 19th and early 20th century into so many different movements.  And it doesn’t matter given the objective of this show – rather, considering that it represents the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is says a lot for the eye the purchaser and the calibre of bequests – for each work selected illustrates an outstanding mastery of the medium, each in an entirely different style running the gamut from fluid washes of sunlight or mist made solid through to carefully composed still lifes emerging from a void of white paper. (John Singer Sargent, ‘Giudecca’, 1913, above; Whistler, ‘Grey and Silver, North Sea’, c.1884, below).

Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, wc, Whistler

Pissarro’s landscape studies of Eragny and Gisors in springtime sing with limpid colour redolent of sunlight after rain; Signac’s Mediterranean scenes of boats in harbour place colour in careful harmony, a light-handed lesson in Chevreul’s theories; Cezanne’s ‘Still Life – Flowers in a Jar’ (c.1890, below left) uses pale tints of watery colour to outline the skeleton of his composition, leaving the bare space to speak of volumes.

8.-Still-life-flowers-in-a-jar c.1890Philip Wilson Steer, a leading British Impressionist and founder of the New English Art Club, now out of fashion and usually overlooked, is represented by a loose watercolour sketch, ‘Chalk Pits, Painswick’ (1915) – a short reprieve from his war work as an artist with the Royal Navy. British Modernism is represented by Paul Nash’s ‘Monster Field Studies’ – surreal, anthropomorphic postwar depictions of the ancient landscape of southern England – and by David Jones’ intricate yet ephemeral interior ‘The Shepherdess’ (1930); the contemporary finale by a lone Barbara Rae abstract that looked a bit lost by the door.  I had peered in at every painting, initially interested in the technique, then transfixed by its small, beautiful, unknowable world; an hour later I had reached the far end of the room and left with energy and inspiration.

Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery


Working predominantly in pale hues of pencil and watercolour, Ravilious’ style is precise and architectural yet he has an idiosyncratic vision. The exhibition begins with pictures that reflect this aptitude for homing in on the unexpected beauty and oddness of the ordinary. ‘Talbot-Daracq’ (above, 1934), for instance, takes as its subject a rusting car, the parts strewn across unkempt grass behind a wooden shed: a scene one would pass by without looking twice. Yet the derelict machinery is rendered with the exactitude and aestheticism of graphic design.

Eric Ravilious - Downs In Winter (1934)

Ravilious’ debt to his tutor at the Royal College of Art, Paul Nash, is clear from the start: like Nash, he sees both the geometry in nature and the surreal. The man-made and the natural co-exist in peaceful yet uncanny scenes – most without any living human presence (as in ‘Downs in Winter’, above, 1934). westbury horseAs do the ancient past and mechanised modernity in pictures such as that of the ‘Westbury Horse’ (right, 1939), dominating the chalk hillside with a train steaming along the valley below seeming toy-sized in comparison; or ‘Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck’ (below left, 1940), stranded in a snowy landscape.

eric-ravilious-ships-screw-on-a-railway-truck-1940And, like his tutor, he is a master of his medium. Watercolour (which predominates in this exhibition – his printed work very much sidelined bar an interesting series of lithographs) is a very English technique – particularly well suited to our climate – and often unfairly sidelined, though Tate’s ‘Watercolour’ exhibition in 2011 certainly made a good attempt at rectifying that.  But in the early 20th century, and especially the interwar decades, watercolour made a significant come-back among the British Modernist avant-garde: in addition to Nash, Edward Burra, Graham Sutherland, John Craxton and John Piper, to name but a few, were advocates of this subtle and delicate medium. Ravilious made it his own, and it is to the credit of the curator, James Russell, that the ways in which he did this are represented to the spectator in an understated yet illuminating manner. A small text appended to ‘Vicarage in Winter’ (below, 1935), for example, points out the cross-hatching technique that Ravilious brought from his experience in wood engraving to create the luminescent, pellucid light of an English winter’s dawn.


Ravilious’ career was cut short by his untimely death in 1942 – lost in action in a plane over Iceland – and therefore the exhibition chooses a looser thematic, rather than chronological, structure. The major theme that runs through the exhibition, alongside and in contrast to the timeless landscapes, is that of ships and biplanes preparing for war (‘De-Icing Aircraft’, below, 1942).de-icing aircraft 1942

Ravilious was signed up by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in 1939 and assigned to the Admiralty. His subsequent paintings of ships in dry dock and on the North Sea pay homage to earlier war artists such as C.R.W. Nevinson (especially ‘HMS Glorious in the Arctic’ of 1940, below, with its jagged, jazz-age streak of light across the water) and Edward Wadsworth, whose ‘Dazzle Ships in Drydock at Liverpool’ (1919) appears the Futuristic forerunner of Ravilious’ ‘A Warship in Dock’ (1940).

HMS Glorious in the Arctic 1940

People do sometimes appear in Ravilious’ work – theatrical and puppet-like in the design for the Morley College murals, more serious in the lithographs from the ‘Submarine Dream’ series, but still with the two-dimensionality of story-book illustrations.  More frequently one is struck by the absence of people, especially in the his bedroom interiors such as ‘A Farmhouse Bedroom’ (below right, 1930s).


This painting is deeply unsettling with its weird architectural arrangement – a seemingly dead-end corridor, a ceiling like a gauzy canopy – and de-stabilised perspective that recall Paul Nash’s hallucinatory ‘Harbour and Room’ (1932-6), created during the years that Nash was most closely associated with British Surrealism. The exhibition panel suggests comparison with the interior scenes of Van Gogh and Vuillard; though I can accept the influence of a post-Impressionist predilection for pattern here, Van Gogh connection seems based only upon the subject matter of a bed and wooden chair.

Train Landscape 1940

‘Train Landscape’ (left, 1940) also seems oddly deserted, as if something has caused the inhabitants of the carriage to flee, the seats still warm.  Again the White Horse appears, a symbol of the historic English landscape that captured Ravilious’ imagination, and which he would revisit in his well-known paintings of the Cerne Abbas and Wilmington Giants.

The Greenhouse - cyclamen and tomatoes 1935

Another empty interior – of flowers on a country kitchen table – is akin to Winifred Nicholson’s compositions, while other images are closer to Ben’s precise linear style.  This geometry combines with Ravilious’ love of natural forms in the wonderful ‘Greenhouse – Cyclamen and Tomatoes’ (above, 1935).  It is a trait that teeters on the edge of surrealism; like Edward Burra, Ravilious paints ‘living landscapes’ with gently slumbering hills or hedges that roll and glower, threatening to submerge the insignificant figure in ‘Wet Afternoon’ (below, 1938).

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture Gallery FOR REVIEW USE ONLY

Ravilious’ ability to portray in watercolour the harsh and brilliant effects of fireworks as well as the shifting and subtle natural light of dawn breaking or the onset of a summer storm is unsurpassed.  Coupled with his empathy for English landscape and history, his work is a transcendent document of a time and place that speaks more forcefully than words.


Kenneth Clark: Directing Modern British Art

Rodin-Eve-1881Kenneth Clark undoubtedly holds an important place in the development of British art in the twentieth century. There have been plenty of opportunities to admire the work of those artists he supported and encouraged – especially since many of them went on to become official war artists during the Second World War (Clark being in charge of the War Artists Advisory Committee, with an empty National Gallery at his disposal to show their work).  However, the idea of an exhibition devoted to a modern patron and collector was new to me; would this approach work, or would the eclectic taste and the vagaries of life of its protagonist result in a rather loosely related collection of art?

Seurat-The Forest at Pontaubert-1881

Eclectic it certainly seemed throughout the first two rooms indicating his early influences and his personal collection, before becoming more focused in the rooms dedicated to his patronage of a distinct circle of modern British artists.  However, the veritable cabinet of curiosities representing his personal collection was perhaps the most interesting – in its sense of rifling through the back rooms of an auction house and coming upon a treasure trove of disparate yet often exquisite works of art.  There were illuminated manuscripts, pub sign illustrations, Coptic textiles, and a design by Larionov for Stravinsky’s ‘The Fox’; there were numerous sketches by Cezanne, a Seurat so beautifully simple as to be almost abstract (‘The Forest at Pontaubert’, 1881, right), and a Rodin sculpture of Eve (1881, above left), these rubbing shoulders with a C17th Madonna and Child in oil on a jagged block of quartz, a ghostly unfinished portrait by Reynolds, and a brightly glazed Luca della Robbia frieze.

Henry Moore recumbent figure 1938

What really impresses itself over the course of the three rooms exploring Clark’s patronage and war art commissions is the extent to which by these methods he effectively dictated the course of modern British art.  There is a certain era – broadly the 1930s-1940s – which is defined aesthetically by the art of his proteges: John Piper, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and Henry Moore (‘Recumbent Figure’, 1938, above).  Perhaps Ben Nicholson should be included in the roll call too;  Clark did own one ‘white painting’ by Nicholson but was generally opposed to total abstraction, preferring a clear inspiration from nature.  They are still considered as a group today – Clark’s ‘New Romantics’ recently dubbed ‘Romantic Moderns’ by Alexandra Harris – and this is largely due it seems to the authoritative position, generous support and relentless PR of Kenneth Clark.

Nude 1941 by Victor Pasmore 1908-1998Beyond the famous shelter drawings of Moore and the sombre, moonlit ruined architecture of Piper, a good number of lesser known works are on show too.  The Euston School in particular are rarely shown in such quantity and stand up well against their contemporaries of the Bloomsbury group and New Romantics as examples of Clark’s early patronage.  Victor Pasmore I would never have recognised; having seen only his later abstract work, the deep colours and blurred edges of ‘the Red Tablecloth’ (1936) or his ‘Nude’ (1941, left) which has all the frank nakedness of a Freud or Saville rather than the timeless classicism of the Nude – which even Sickert BenUri3-217x300upheld despite the squalor of his Camden bedsits – were a revelation.  William Coldstream’s ‘Mrs Auden’ (1936-7, right) had an equally immediate presence, though subdued in colour, the features delineated with a lightness that conveys the pale fragility of the old woman herself.

Clark was also keen to revive the quintessentially British medium of watercolour, as demonstrated by David Jones, Frances Hodgkins and the Nash brothers.  Watercolour was encouraged by the WAAC; Paul Nash produced ‘Bomber in the Corn’ (1940, below), an idyllic scene of the English countryside, a pink sunset seeping across its horizon, in which the crumpled metal of the crashed plane – were it not for the painted cross – could almost be mistaken for a picturesque tree stumps or derelict cattle pens.

Bomber in the Corn 1940 by Paul Nash 1889-1946At the end of the room, full of large, powerful images such as Nash’s ‘Battle of Britain’ and Sutherland’s ‘Devastation’ of 1941, are a collection of pale pastel-coloured paintings of ethereal, waif-like figures.  These are by Mary Kessell, one of only three women to be commissioned as a war artist, who travelled to Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war, as the concentration camps were closed down, to document the refugees (‘Refugees’, 1945, below right).  Kessell isolates the figures, briefly sketched in in a thin wash, painting around them with a impenetrable mist of opaque pigment that cuts them off from any background context, their identity obscured and their refugee status rendered visually.(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In the end Clark was best known to me – and probably to many others – for his television series ‘Civilisation’.  The final rooms are an odd mixture after the force and focus of the War Commissions display; they tail off into an epilogue of TV clips, and an assortment of objects from Saltwood Castle where, from 1953, Clark mixed ancient and modern with effortless style – an effect difficult to achieve in a gallery, and which might have been better unattempted.  Still, the exhibition certainly achieves its principal objective, illustrating the pivotal role that Kenneth Clark played in 20th Century British art, and offers some lesser-known artists a well-deserved place in the limelight too.

Cats in Ruffs & Other Idiosyncrasies: Modern British Art at the RCA

The autumn season of art fairs has begun – and in suitably September-ish rain – with the 20/21 British Art Fair.  My mission (after tracking down the source of complimentary wine) was to find the Burra painting – just the one, though used to publicise the whole event.  Why is Burra suddenly the star of the show?  Is it the very scarcity of his works on show, along with his recognisable and idiosyncratic style, that distinguishes him from all the other prestigious names represented at the fair?

BurraWell here it is, presented by Austin/Desmond Fine Art.  Entitled ‘The Garden’, it is dated 1927, a period when Burra was excitedly discovering the South of France, holidaying at Toulon with his art-school friends, and visiting the seedier parts of Marseille.  Burra, never in the best of health, would withdraw to his hotel room during the heat of the day and sit at a table painting in watercolour from the lower right hand corner outward across the page as his imagination dictated.  Jean Cocteau was at one point staying in the same hotel, and Burra’s friend Barbara Ker-Seymer, who was beginning to earn a reputation as a society photographer in her own right, was commissioned by him; she recalls being unable to carry this out owing to the thick haze of opium that permeated his room.

The painted palm trees suggest a location on the French Riviera, while the androgynous central figure is dressed in some sort of effeminate adaptation of a sailor’s outfit.  Sailors as a social group held a fascination for Burra – much as they did for Stephen Tennant too, who spent most of his life attempting to write and illustrate a novel called ‘Lascar: A Story of the Maritime Boulevard’.  Yet though there is always (to a greater or lesser extent) androgyny, none sport the striking blue eyeshadow of the the sailor in ‘The Garden’.WorkImageFull-1643

And what of the dog (or is it a cat?) with the ruff around its neck?  Is this a nod to the commedia dell’arte, elements of which so frequently appear in Burra’s pictures?  It certainly adds to the sense that this is a scene without narrative, plucked from a vaudeville piece now lost and, lacking its comedic context, looking a bit silly.  In fact, could it be a satire on the decade’s obsession with dressing-up for pointless theatrical tableaux? Though Burra was far from critical; indeed he positively revels in the flamboyance.

WorkImageFull-1244Considering the title of the Burra, there were two interesting comparisons: John Nash’s ‘The View from the Rose Garden’ (left, 1928) and Julian Trevelyan’s ‘The Garden’ (above, 1946).  One is exotic, the other in its muted colours a clearly English landscape; in both, however, the garden itself dominates – it is the subject, in itself – while Burra treats his garden, trees like cardboard props, as a backcloth to the human comedy that undfolds in the foreground.  It shows what a wealth of difference such a simple title can encompass.

????The Nash brothers were particularly well represented this year.  Paul Nash’s lithograph ‘The Strange Coast (Dymchurch)’ (above, 1920) contrasted with his brother’s garden scene in its monotone precision.  Rather than an idyllic vision of timeless nature, the lithograph seems to recall the man-made coastal defences of the recent war, the repetitive wooden groynes and tiered rocks of the sea wall standing like ranked armies.

1003_NORTHCOTE NASHMessums was showing John Nash’s ‘The Woodpile’131143 (left), just as accomplish- ed as his brother’s quiet tree- dominated reveries – though without the foreboding that often dominates Paul’s seemingly innocuous landscapes, imbuing them with a mysterious symbolic meaning.  Meanwhile Lucy Johnson presented Paul Nash’s ‘Haystack at Oxenbridge Farm, Iden, near Rye’ (1923), a gentle vision in pencil and watercolour.

Bell_river_at_cagy_artworkThe Court Gallery had an interesting pair of works by Nevinson – though ‘pair’ is the wrong word because one would never imagine they were by the same artist.  One was a 1911/12 prepatory drawing for a fragmented, futurist-style composition with dominant typographic elements; the other a colourful painted nude in traditional figurative style.  It was a particularly stark example of an avant-garde artist whom the Great War turned backwards (neither, sadly, seem to be illustrated on the website).  Also at the Court Gallery was a lovely Vanessa Bell, ‘The River at Cagy, France’ (c.1950) – as close to a Monet as anything I have seen by an English artist, though painted almost a century after the arch-Impressionist’s first depictions of bridges over the Seine.

tn_253704At the London Art Fair earlier this year Ewan Mundy Fine Art showed some very fine Elizabeth Blackadder paintings; this time it was the turn of the Colourists – Cadell’s deserted white beaches of Iona and George Leslie Hunter’s ink drawing of ‘A Street in Provence’ (left, c.1927-9).  An exquisite Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolour of catkins may have been my ‘most desirable object’ of the entire fair.

_sjc1706There was, as always, a tempting array of prints – easy to imagine on the walls of even the smallest flat, so almost affordable…  Hockney’s ‘Cushions’ (right, 1968), where the protagonists’ absence creates an atmosphere tense and palpable with expectation; or Henry Moore’s placid ‘Sheep in a Landscape’ (below, 1974) – both at the William Weston Gallery.  Or the charming Peter Blake etching accompanied by a poem about Monica, beautiful and poignant, at Simon Hilton, that I wish I could remember.

moore_-_sheep_in_a_landscapePiano Nobile showed some superlative Dieppe views by Sickert.  And a ‘Siamese Cat Asleep’ (1925) by Christopher Wood – close rival to Mackintosh in the hallowed halls of my imaginary collection.


A Crisis of Brilliance in Dulwich

a-crisis-of-brilliance-L-Slh71eIn 2009 David Boyd Haycock wrote a book entitled ‘A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War’.  The five artists referred to are Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington, and the title is quote from Henry Tonks, Professor of Drawing at the Slade during the crucial decades which saw the emergence of some of the greatest British modernist artists. The Dulwich Picture Gallery has now brought this narrative to life in an exhibition that traces, through paintings, drawings and prints, the development of these five friena-crisis-of-brilliance-L-GWolOuds from their Slade training, through their disparate responses to the Great War, and leaving them post-war with a nod to their future careers.  We are introduced to the five central characters, along with a few of their lesser-known contemporaries, in 1910-1912.  Portraits of themselves and each other show the emphasis on the traditional skill of draughtsmanship that the Slade was renowned for – though the school otherwise had a fairly avant-garde reputation.  More interesting are two drawings from the imagination; Spencer’s ‘Fairy on the Water-Lily Leaf’ combines the strange and fantastical cast of Richard Dadd or Arthur Rackham with the solid, down-to-earth mien of the women who peopled his beloved Cookham.  Nash’s ‘The Combat’ (above) illustrates a poem written shortly after his mother’s death in a mental asylum; an angel stands on a hilltop fighting a winged devil that has flown down from the star-speckled sky.  The combination of religion and poetry seems indebted to Blake, or perhaps more immediately to the Pre-Raphaelites, while the detailed – and very English – landscape recalls the etchings of Samuel Palmer.  It is the latter element that would come to define the artist’s future career.

Bomberg_David_Racehorses_©Ben_Uri,_The_London_Jewish_Museum_of_Art._©_The_Estate_of_David_Bomberg._All_Rights_Reserved,_DACS_2012The introduction to the following sequence of paintings describes the impact of Roger Fry’s exhibition, ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, in 1910.  The pictures, however, tell a different story.  Though this exhibition undoubtedly had a pivotal effect upon the consciousness of the British art world, the immediate reaction among our protagonists appears more ambiguous, and the insistence on its impact therefore misplaced.  On the one hand we see Dora Carrington continue to produce accomplished studies of Renaissance-style nudes, as well as a charming scene of Bedford market in pencil, ink and watercolour – a far cry from Parisian modernism.  On the other, we see Nevinson and Bomberg charge ahead towards abstraction, but in apparently the opposite direction from the French avant-garde – Nevinson embracing the dynamic and fractured Futurist aesthetic promoted by the Italian Marinetti, and Bomberg striking out on a totally individual path with ‘Racehorses’ (above, 1913), an almost unidentifiable mass of sharply angled, tubular limbs. Despite the clear disparities, Spencer’s ‘John Donne arriving in Heaven’ was included in the following Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912 – a painting less Post-Impressionist, or more steeped in English landscape and culture, is hard to think of.

war-5The divisions only become deeper as the bond of the Slade is broken and each artist moves forward in a different direction.  The London art world at this time was fraught with factions. The Bloomsbury critic and painter Roger Fry set up the Omega Workshops in 1913, keen to attract new talent; but soon after its establishment, Wyndham Lewis fell out with Fry and set up his own Rebel Art Centre, more avant-garde in its aesthetic links to Futurism (though Lewis repudiated any association with Marinetti’s movement by announcing his own: Vorticism).  Gertler and Carrington remained with the Bloomsbury circle; Nevinson joined the rebels.  In addition, the Camden Town Group continued to show their work together, and, attracted no doubt by the emphasis on landscape (and townscape), Nash exhibited with them in Brighton in 1913-14 – though so did the Vorticists, so no real oppositionary stance can be concluded from so catholic a show.  These two groups, Camden Town and the Vorticists, combined to exhibit as The London Group after 1913.  Such a plethora of new styles and artistic theories, into which the five young artists were thrown, can only result in a confusing and eclectic array of pictures.  Those exhibited certainly show the variety and extent of experimentation, but fail to maintain any real unity between the protagonists.

LCM129344Nevinson visited Paris, where his nascent Futurism became more Cubist – especially in ‘Le Vieux Port’ (above, 1913-14) where typescript appears in fragments across the facetted surface, as it was doing simultaneously in synthetic Cubist works.  Meanwhile, the statuesque figures of Spencer’s ‘Apple Pickers’ and Gertler’s ‘The Fruit Sorters’ (right) start to show an appreciation of Gauguin.  But each remains idiosyncratic, with Gertler returning to his Jewish East End heritage, and Spencer’s work forever rooted in Cookham.

The war presented a decisive moment in all these artistic careers, establishing some, unravelling others, and bringing many to an untimely end.  Nevinson, who volunteered as an ambulance driver in France, produced perhaps his best and most memorable work in response to his experience on the Western Front, and later on the Home Front too.

cec13172726817His study for ‘Column on the March’ (left, c.1914) shows just how successfully he adapted the dynamism and sharp lines of his Futurist/Vorticist aesthetic to the subject of war, causing the Times to observe that “Mr Nevinson gives you the black gloom, the horror, the feeling of despair that make even death and mutilation seem trivial incidents in an epoch of horror.”  Nevinson taught Nash various printing techniques, resulting in lithographs such as ‘The Pill Box’ (below, 1918); typically of Nash  – and most famously in paintings such as ‘We are Making a New World’ – all human life is absent, its destruction and mutilation signified by that of nature in the amputated tree trunks and disfigured, pock-marked earth.  Bomberg, like Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts, was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund; his first response and the one exhibited here, ‘Sappers at Work’, was dismissed as a ‘futurist abortion’, forcing him to return to a more recognisable figurative and narrative style.  This reaction was necessitated across the board in order to fulfil the documentary requirements of war commissions, as can be seen in Nevinson’s official war paintings such as ‘Southampton Docks’ (below) and ‘La Patrie’, depicting wounded French soldiers lying in rows in a barn.  This enforced adaptation of avant-garde tendencies at such a formative stage would alter the course of modernism in Britain; Lewis, Roberts, Nevinson, Bomberg – all came closest to abstraction in the years immediately preceding the war with the encouragement of their peers, and all essentially returned to figuration and relative isolation afterwards.


In contrast to such paintings are Gertler’s and Carrington’s; from those represented one would never know there had been a war at all.  Gertler was a pacifist and joined the conscientious objectors of the Bloomsbury group at Garsington, painting the gardens and literary friends such as Gilbert Cannan.  Carrington met Lytton Strachey and her portrait of the writer with whom she became obssessed (below) is the only example of her work shown in this section.  This total dislocation from world events is misleading, however, as Gertler’s ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ is a powerful and unsettling attack on the futility of war and arguably his most famous work.  Its absence is inexplicable.


After the war the artists were even more literally divided; Nevinson went to New York, Bomberg to Spain and then Palestine, Nash to Dymchurch on the Kent coast.  Dora Carrington visited Spain with her brother, but lacking confidence in her abilities exhibited little, and committed suicide after Strachey’s death in 1932.  Gertler, having been regarded at the Slade as the most talented of his generation, rejected the lucrative career of portraitist and gassed himself in 1939.  The most successful career in terms of longevity and status was that of Spencer who, after his stint in the RAMC – to which the Sandham Memorial Chapel stands testament – remained for the rest of his life in Cookham, gaining a knighthood in 1959.  The final room does little to sum up the show, but its muddle does at least adequately represent the chaos of the post-war British art world.  Carrington’s portrait of the farmer’s wife, ‘Mrs Box’, is majestic and one mourns the loss and lack of recognition of such a timeless talent.  But it is the odd-one-out among its companions, which maintain in their many incarnations a dialogue with their time and place.  The final, monumental, painting – Spencer’s ‘Unveiling Cookham War Memorial’ (1922) – provides a much needed sense of an ending.  Like a Renaissance fresco in its scope and subject, it shows middle England coming to terms with the recent war, human emotions existing side-by-side with a religious sense of redemption.