In the past two weeks I have posted about Edward Bawden and his home in the twilight of his life. This is the third and last of these posts.
The artists of Great Bardfield all reacted to their surroundings by making paintings or prints of the area that they lived, so when Edward Bawden moved to Saffron Walden in 1970, he naturally used local places in his artworks, from Bridge End Garden’s to the church.
Exhibition list from The Fine Art Society Ltd show 20/ii/1978 – 10/iii/1978.
One of the biggest tourist attractions to Saffron Walden and one of the most prominent buildings in East Anglia is Audley End house and its gardens. It also was very convenient being twenty minuets walk from Bawden’s house, even for an older man.
In 1973 Bawden made a large lino cut of Audley End, a complex task to complete, with the regimented architecture of the building it is one of the more technical linocuts Bawden completed.
Edward Bawden – Audley End House, 1973
The watercolours Bawden completed where many but show off the wonderful and complex landscape of the Audley End Park, it’s follies and the trees.
Edward Bawden – The Temple of Concord, Audley End, 1975
William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, now mostly lost, has slipped into legend. Sensational as it was, it was painted and studied by many artists contemporary to the construction, one of these was Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Beckford, born in 1760, is mostly remembered for being an author and a showman who inherited a fortune and squandered it on a building that partly collapsed and withered away over the next 50 years. Although he died in 1844, during his life he had a natural talent for self promotion. The building was Fonthill Abbey, a mansion with a tower constructed to make a statement, but it was also built to house his collection of fine works of art and keep the complete library of Edward Gibbon he had bought.
The stained glass windows in the building were painted by Francis Eginton. Other works in Beckford’s collection for the Abbey were Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, Agony in the Garden and Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan by Bellini, Philip IV in Brown and Silver by Velázquez. In time when the estate was sold off the list of possessions would show the near shop-a-holic mania of his collection.
It was in the early days of Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey obsession he invited Turner to paint seven large watercolours of the house and it’s grounds. Turner spent three weeks at Fonthill in August, 1799 making drawings for the commission. His sketchbooks from this time show the building under construction and the five watercolours eventually completed, show the abbey from different vantage points and at different times of day.
In having Fonthill Abbey documented by a fashionable young artist (Turner was 24 at the time) he would have no doubt hoped that by association, he and his building would too become fashionable. Various scandals in Beckford’s past had lead to him taking a self imposed and strategic exile from Britain, now returning to build the Abbey he was upsetting neighbours and the Royal court by outbidding them for contractors in their building programs.
Beckford had also invited the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Benjamin West, and Henry Tresham to join Turner on his visit.
When Turner arrived at Fonthill, its building was in full flow. The speed and scale of the work were exceptional. Turner sat and sketched the workmen whom Beckford was employing around the clock in night and day shifts. In another sketch he captured the vast brown scar on the hill on which the building was positioned, created by the small forest of trees that Beckford had felled for the work.
As for Beckford himself, he was rarely seen. The group of artists ate their meals with Williams, Beckford’s steward, rather than being entertained by the patron himself, who spent much of his time engaged in supervising the work on the house as well as riding in his extensive grounds. ♠
At the point when Turner returned to Fonthill its master was losing his battle to regain social acceptability and was already showing the signs of a man who preferred his own company. Beckford was beginning to see his abbey as less a summer pleasure house with which to impress guests, and more a fortress against the wider world. What time Turner did get with Beckford, however, was sufficient to impress on him the profoundly dark tone of his patron’s mind. ♠
In the end Beckford only purchased one of the paintings of Fonthill from Turner. The rest were exhibited by the Artist at the Royal Academy in 1800.
In time Turner’s sketchbook became an important document to Fonthill’s structure as by 1825 the majority of the building had fallen down. Beckford however had cunningly sold the estate some years before and moved on to building another tower in Bath.
The picture of the completed building painted by Turner was based on the architectural plans and projections and finished five years before the building was, the final building ended up with no spire. During the building process the tower would get higher and higher, maybe one reason for it’s downfall, the foundations where not strong enough for this babel like building.
J.M.W. Turner, Projected Design for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, 1798
Beckford’s fascination with his pet project meant that he spent no time at all keeping the family business – the foundation of his wealth – active. The family owned a series of sugar plantations in Jamaica but due to the 1807 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and Beckford’s poor business management meant that by 1822 he is seriously in debt. Selling the estate, he moves to Bath where he builds a neoclassical tower to house his collection. Below is an account of the sale of the Abbey:
Mr. Beckford, on coming possessed of his fortune, made the grand tour, and resided many years in Italy; it was here that he improved that exquisite taste and love of the Fine Arts, for which he is pre-eminent. On his return to England, he resolved on building Fonthill – which he accomplished; and in August, 1822, he as hastily determined to dispose of it – and accordingly gave directions to that eminent auctioneer, Mr. Christie, of Pall-Mall, London, to dispose of it; and so great was the anxiety to view the splendid edifice, that upwards of 9000 catalogues, at one guinea each, were sold before the day of the sale; on the day preceding which, to the surprise and mortification of the public, notice was given that the estate of Fonthill, with all its immense treasures, was sold to Mr. Farquhar for 300,000l. This gentleman has since employed Mr. Phillips to sell the whole of the effects, which will occupy thirty-nine days!
We are told the possessor of this splendid treasure left it almost without a pang. His first resolution was to build a cottage lower down in the demesne, near the fine pond, and let the Abbey go to ruin. ”I can live here,” he said to his woodman, ”in peace and retirement for four thousand a year – why should I tenant that structure with a retinue that costs me near thirty thousand?” Subsequently, however, he resolved to part with the entire, and announced his intention without a sigh. ”It has cost me,” said he (gazing at it), ”with what it contains, near a million. Yet I must leave it, and I can do so at once. Public surprise will be created, but that I am prepared for. Beckford, they will say, has squandered his large fortune: to me it is a matter of perfect indifference.” It would much exceed our limits to attempt even a description of this justly celebrated Fonthill. †
In his later life and typical of the showman act, Beckford would later go on to show off his Turner and describe him thus,
He took me to a small room, where there was a water-colour drawing of Fonthill Abbey. “Ah” “ah there’s the abbey,” he literally exclaimed, pointing to it. I asked him by whom it was painted.
“Turner?” I asked; “he does not paint like that now.”
“Oh! gracious God! no! He paints now as if his brains and imagination were mixed up on his palette with soapsuds and lather. One must be born again to understand his pictures.” ‡
It maybe that Turner painted Fonthill Abbey so far away due to the noise and confusion of the building site, or that he preferred to be a landscape artist and thought it more romantic to have it pictures from a-far. Either way Beckford’s quip about ‘soapsud’ watercolours is something that haunted Turner in the later days as his work became more abstracted.
Beckford’s Turner was originally listed in the Christies sale as lot 112 on the 8th day of the 9 day sale.
† Arliss’s Literary Collections. p105 1830.
‡ The New Monthly Magazine, ‘Conversations with the Late W.Beckford, Esq’. 1844.
♠ Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J. M. W. Turner by Franny Moyle. 2016. 9780670922697
Today it is hard to ignore the artist effect of Eric Ravilious, the tide of books on him alone prove his popularity. This is an article from ‘The Artist’ magazine, March, 1943. It ends with a short record of his death, some weeks before. I thought it was interesting that its intention was a review of his life and works but became an obituary.
Eric Ravilious by Richard Seddon Artists of note: Number 97. The Artist Magazine. March 1943
Eric Ravilious – The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs, 1937
Paul Nash was the first to notice the work of Eric Ravilious. This happened when Ravilious was a student of the Royal College of art under the instruction of Nash in the school of design. His wood engraving impressed Paul Nash as being worthy of special attention, and it was on the latter’s introduction that Ravilious became a member of the Society of Wood Engravers. In the society’s exhibitions Ravilious’s engravings immediately drew attention from publishers and their agents. Ravilious illustrated several books and was soon established as a book illustrator of exceptional status.
Between that time and the present he has consolidated a reputation as a leader of contemporary art; not as a leader in figurative or influential, but rather in the most academic sense, of the advancement of research and knowledge. He does not supinely follow the present tendencies and work in a certain manner merely because that manner can be accepted as the logical outcome of the particular form of art and aesthetics accepted at the moment in the country. He does not look for what is being done nowadays, in order to do likewise.
Leadership in art, as in anything else, calls for the usual hackneyed attributes: courage, self-confidence, faith in purpose, and so on. But in art, somehow, as in anything abstract, it needs enthusiasm enough to keep it up in the face of that inexplicable hostility that people show in face of anything that is ‘new.’
In feeling and temperament the work of Ravilious is very English. Ravilious, unlike so many Englishmen, does not try to paint as though he were a Frenchman. His work has its roots deeply sunk into the life and the countryside and the culture of England. His water colours are the lineal descendants of the English eighteenth century school of water colour than in its time gave England a brief reign as a country important in the world’s art, a reign that lasted until the French impressionists wrested the sceptre for France, a reign into which, it is felt, England was re-entering at the beginning of this war, through the excellence of the contemporary school of English landscape, of which Ravilious is one of the most important members.
That, because of his very full knowledge of the history and methods of English art and design, he carries on the English tradition, is apparent in his work in any of the media he employs. His wood engravings revive and extend the essential tradition of Thomas Bewick and the English eighteenth century wood engravers. In his water colours he takes up the story where Peter de Wint, Paul Sandy, John White Abbott and their contemporaries left off, and carries it a stage farther, in the life of modern knowledge. Examples of his pottery design that he carried out for Wedgwood can take their place in the Victoria & Albert Museum, among the original products of Josiah as if by hereditary right.
It is not possible to select one or two influences that can be credited with the moulding of Ravilious’s vision. After leaving school in Eastbourne, he attended Eastbourne School of Art, from where he went up to the Royal College of Art, in London. There, under principal-ship of Sir William Rothenstein, he was tutored by some of the most important contemporary artists in the country. Naturally, the powerful influences of such men must have affected his outlook; indeed, they did. In addition he received, asI have said, an exhaustively comprehensive education in art and design, from which soure he derived the solution of those problems of expression that he always seems to face with courage and solve with ingenuity.
He might easily have been tossed for ears upon a sea of conflicting influences; if so, it happened when he was at the R.C.A., and the process was completed by the time he began his career as a practising artist. At least, no indecision has ever shown itself in the work of his maturity. that he owes something, as all artists, to skilful pilotage, can be safely assumed, but that he emerged with an original style is patently a logical result of his own personal outlook.
Eric Ravilious – Design for Coronation mug for Edward VIII, 1936.
He is thirty eight, and therefore can be said to have not yet reached the peak of his artistic maturity. As regards his work, whatever the medium he invariable approaches a subject with an open mind and embodies in the work, whether it is a wood engraving, a water colour, ceramics, or fabric design, at least one idea that arises from the needs of that particular job and no other. Of course he refers in his mind as he is thinking it out not only to history but to past works of his own to help in solving the problem of the moment, but he avoids any tendency to repeat successes of the past ad nauseam, giving the same colours, the same subtleties, the same textures and so on, whether or not they are the right ones for the present job. I stress the fact that he does not walk in such a manner because very many artists, both distinguished and otherwise, do so.
Ravilious never rests on his laurels. It cannot be said about a sequence of his work as it can of the work of other artists that, having seen one, you have seen them all. Though they are all built around the personality of the artist, each of his productions is sufficient unto itself.
Eric Ravilious – Rendering Mines Safe, 1940. (Now called Dangerous Work at Low Tide)
In a Ravilious exhibition, the paintings are, in the truest sense, variations on a theme and not repetitions. It is said that there are four different ways of looking at a picture, Firstly the observer might stand away and savour the emotional content and the subject matter.Secondly, he might appreciate the purely academic appeal, such as the colour harmony and the broad lines of the composition. Thirdly he might go near the picture and closely examine the technical minutiae: the brushwork, the qualities of the surface, the interplay of ‘fat’ and ‘lean’ painting, and so on. Fourthly, he might scrutinise, analytically, the patterns achieved by the painter, by the use of his range of different ways of coving a surface and of filling in a space.
The Victorian painters appealed to the first two methods, and many contemporary schools solely to the last two. A few contemporary painters, including Eric Ravilious, appeal to all four. Ravilious particularly appeals to the last. His textures and patterns, whatever the medium, are an important feature of his work. He composes as a rule within a tight linear framework, making spaces of carefully contrasted size and shape which he fills with textures that derive partly from the intrinsic textures of the original of the subject and largely from his own fertile imagination. The settings for his landscape painting have been the Downs and coast of Sussex, and localities in Essex, Wiltshire and Wales.
Apart from his war painting he confesses to a tendency to paint in sequences: groups of broken-down tractors and old cars and buses in fields, the discarded machinery of Essex. He has painted a series of Sussex hills, a set of chalk figures (such as the Aylesbury White Horse), a set of lighthouses, rowing boats, beds, beaches and greenhouses. Ravilious was educated at Eastbourne Grammar School. He left the Royal College of Art only to return in 1929 as instructor in design, which position he filled until 1938. Whilst a student at the college he and Edward Bawden completed a well known mural decoration in the refreshment room of Morley College, which was destroyed by a bomb.
Other important mural decorations by Ravilious are those in the circular room at the L.M.S. Hotel at Morecambe and the ceiling decorations in the dining hall of the new Merchant Taylors’ School. Since 1926 he has illustrated books for the Kynoch Press, mainly by wood engravings. His engravings have also illustrated Volume I of ‘Signature’ and Gilbert White’s ‘Selborne.’ From 1937 to 1939 he designed pottery for Wedgwood. One of the best known of these designs was the Coronation Mug. His designing for glass he dismisses as a mere gesture; as a gesture it was brief, but effective.
Exhibitions of the work of Ravilious were held at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1934 and 1937, and one at Tooth’s in 1939. Three of his water colour drawings are in the Victoria & Albert Museum, and there are others in the public galleries. At the beginning of the present war he was offered and he accepted an appointment as official war artist to the Admiralty. He holds with the rank of hon. captain in the Royal Marines.
Eric Ravilious – Lewis Gunner
Since this article was written, Eric Ravilious has been posted as ‘missing’. After spending a period in Iceland, in his capacity as official war artist, he life that island by plane and has not been heard of since. Thus ends the career of a very fine artist, whose last efforts were devoted to recording events connected with the war – records which will go down to posterity, and which will keep his memory green, especially in the art world which respected him for his achievements. He was a sane progressive, sound in judgement and method.
Eric Ravilious – Convoy From Merchant Ship At Anchor, 1943