Back in February I spent a lovely afternoon in and around Petworth House with my friend 'Raymond'. Part of the day was spent perusing the exhibition Turner & the age of British watercolour which was informative and entertaining if hardly earth shattering. The British Museum's current Places of the Mind:British watercolours 1850-1950 could easily have been curated as a direct sequel to Petworth House's slightly more stuffy selection, starting as it does on the year of Turner's death.
It follows the story from the pastoral, idyllic, pretty pretty works of the late 19c through to the rise of abstraction, surrealism, and fauvism and is, of course, contorted and smashed apart by the two World Wars that dominated the opening fifty years of the 20th century.
It takes in artists as famous as Whistler, Henry Moore, John Singer Sargent, and Paul Nash (whose 1911 work The Wanderer greets us in the foyer to the show, an eerie meditation upon his beloved Kensington Gardens and Wittenham Clumps, an area that for Nash acted as his genius loci) as well as those I'd previously been unaware of. Names like John William North, Helen Allingham, William Small, and James McBey. It's a surprisingly extensive survey for a free show but something the British Museum is, when the mood takes them, very well equipped to do.
Paul Nash - The Wanderer (1911)
Hubert von Herkomer - The Cornfield (1887)
The title of the exhibition comes from Cornish poet and naturalist Geoffrey Grigson's 1949 essay 'Places of the Mind' which posits that every landscape drawing is a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator, an attempt to convey not merely the physical properties of a landscape but an almost spiritual quest to capture its essence and sense of place.
Certainly for the first half of the exhibition the essence of these landscapes seems to be very English and very rustic indeed. Bowling greens, people digging for potatoes and thatched cottages on the outskirts of Haslemere perpetuate the myth of England as a rural utopia. Hubert von Herkomer didn't just idealise the land but the lives of those who toiled it too. He even rose, and started painting, each morning at 4am so he could be like the rural poor of Bushey where he lived.
George Clausen - Haystacks (1889)
Edward Lear - Choropiskops, Corfu (1856)
Though much of the early work centres around an almost mythical Albion some watercolourists travelled further. Edward Lear, more famous for nonsense poems like The Owl and The Pussycat, thought Corfu the loveliest place on Earth and Henry Stanier marvelled at the ancient ruins of Karnak near Luxor in Egypt. Others ventured as far afield as Algeria and New Zealand. Some, like co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti even crossed over into the world of legend. Witness Lancelot and Guinevere over the tomb of King Arthur.
Henry Stanier - Karnak (1868)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Arthur's Tomb (1855)
Edward John Poynter - The Approaching Storm, Lake of Orta (1898)
Whereas Rossetti ponders the power of mythology, Edward John Poynter's The Approaching Storm stands in awe at the power of nature. It's one of the few works in the show that could be considered sublime. Mostly these studies of heather, hay, pansies, grass, trees, and dead birds seem to hew closer to scientific study than artistic revelation.
Sheep farms, views of lochs, Betws-y-Coed, and the cinder path between Letchworth and Hitchen are pleasant enough but most lack the imposing majesty of Staffordshire physician Peter de Wint's study of a Scotch fir. Paul Nash is quoted as saying he saw trees almost as people (individual, dignified, ever changing) and de Wint's work seems to evince the same quality from this magnificent, yet humble, conifer.
Anna Airy - Spring Hedgerow (1955)
Peter de Wint - Study of Scotch Fir (unknown)
John Ruskin, whose name is writ through much of the first half of this exhibition like a stick of rock, told his many acolytes to 'go to nature' (though not pubic hair on women, obvs, he didn't like that) and they did as he said. His own teacher was the splendidly nicknamed William 'Bird's Nest' Hunt and those that followed both Hunt and Ruskin produced enormously popular work in the Victorian era that's not really stood the test of time. There's an awful lot of filler at the start of this show. It's more than made up for by the gems served up later but there are sections that are clearly for the purists only.
There's also quite an insight into the nepotism and incestuousness of the British art world of the time. There are works on display by Paul Nash's brother, John Everet Millais' brother, Camille Pissarro's son, and Ruskin himself's cousin's husband. Another very minor quibble is that some of the works (for example Anna Airy's Spring Hedgerow from 1955) don't even fit in to the curator's own self-imposed time frame. Peter de Wint died in 1849 so, even though his work is undated, it had to have been painted during Turner's lifetime.
It's a cheeky bit of artistic license and it seems pedantic of me to point it out when I'm able to glance freely at the wonders of Whistler and Sargent for an entire afternoon should I wish. By the 1880s inspiration was flowing into Britain from China and Japan, developments in the French art world had crossed the channel (along with some of the artists), and retirement into nature was being given a spiritual dimension.
Whistler's work horrified Ruskin nearly as much as the onset of pubarche and his criticism so stung the Massachusetts born painter that he took Ruskin to court and, surprisingly considering Ruskin's ability to call on more respected witnesses, won. Far more importantly, history has been far kinder to Whistler's work than it has to Ruskin's sanctimonious moralising. You can see the influence both of the Japanese woodblock school and French impressionism in Whistler's tiny watercolours but he's taken them somewhere else, somewhere quite new. The sepia tinged Thames at Battersea looks more wistful than ever and the Amsterdam canal, depicted at night in one of his famous Nocturnes, seems to suggest that Whistler was the first artist since Turner to really grasp what Turner was doing in his final sun dappled, almost abstract, paintings. It seems that what Turner had done for sunny days, Whistler was doing for dark nights.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler - The Thames at Battersea (1876-1878)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne (1883-1884)
John Singer Sargent - Torment in the Val d'Aosta (c.1907)
John Singer Sargent - View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911)
John Singer Sargent, though born in Florence, was another artist who'd come from The Bay State to London and he was another who used the influence of French art to put a drawing pin on the seat of the staid British art institution. Whereas Whistler had learnt from the Impressionists, Sargent, whilst acknowledging a debt to Claude Monet, had taken his cues more from the Fauvist school of Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is now celebrated as one of Scotland's greatest ever architects and certainly its leading exponent of the Art Nouveau. But in the 1920s the poor duck was feeling undervalued at home. He felt he'd not received adequate appreciation for his architecture so he buggered off to France for a lustrum, during which time he painted the very lovely, almost Lowryesque (but with sunlit reflection replacing the soot darkened Lancashire skies) Port Vendres.
Arthur Melville - A Barber's Shop, Spain (1890s)
Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Port Vendres (1926-1927)
Eric Ravilious - Wannock Dew Pond (1923)
As Mackintosh looked in appreciation at France and Arthur Melville took a shine to Spain, Eric Ravilious cast his eye over the South Downs and Paul Nash did the same for the Cotswolds. Nash had taught Ravilious at the Royal College of Art and you can see obvious similarities in their style, the muted colours, the promise (and the menace) of nature, and an almost mystical appreciation of open countryside.
Nash's work was painted towards the end of World War II and Ravilious' during the pre-war period but the clouds that hover ominously over the Wannock Dew Pond had been, and were to become again, bigger, more real, and far more deadly. Joseph Pennell's Balloons over London, made at the start of the first world war, shows an already smog filled London cast into further shadow by a series of barrage balloons floating above the Thames ready to defend the capital against the Central Powers.
Paul Nash - Landscape of the Vale (1944)
Joseph Pennell - Balloons over London (1914)
Artists approached the war, and wars, in very different ways. Pennell lays bare the very darkness of the situation to quite chilling effect, his balloons "spread out against the sky/like a patient etherised upon a table", Henry Moore sketched Londoners in their bomb shelters but was also, like Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, receptive to Surrealism. How else to explain the madness, mayhem, and wanton murder of war? How else do you square man's wilful inhumanity to man both in your mind and in your art?
William Simpson's 1857 Summer in the Crimea eerily predates Sargent's Graveyard in the Tyrol, its host of falling crosses soon to hit the ground just as an astronomical death toll was soon to hit Europe. They're both wonderful paintings, almost too beautiful to in any way be associated with the bloodletting they're inspired by. It's as if the artists have managed to find some beauty, some humanity, even in the darkest of times.
William Simpson - Summer in the Crimea (1857)
John Singer Sargent - Graveyard in the Tyrol (1914)
Muirhead Bone - Ruins of the Chateau of Soyecourt in the Santerre (1917)
James McBey - The Long Patrol, Desert of Sinai (1917)
Other artists were less afraid of showing the destruction, the bleak open spaces, and the long days and nights of war. The fruitless trees of Muirhead Bone's Ruins of the Chateau of Soyecourt and the arid, parched, desertscapes of James McBey's The Long Patrol both ache with a yearning for home. Yet, in Paul Nash's sea walls of Dymchurch and Edward Wadsworth's slag heaps we can see that, even after the war has finished, home has changed irreparably. The architecture built for war, and the destruction reaped by it, doesn't disappear when the war ends. It stays, forever a reminder, but rarely a lesson it seems, in how easily humans can spiral down into brutality and killing.
Wadsworth, the supremo of seaside Surrealism, was on his way to Liverpool to work on the infamous dazzle ships when the slag heaps of the steel works caught his eye. Nevinson, one of our greatest ever war artists, also looked at the rebuilding of the nation after the war had ended. His Air Street has something of Charles Sheeler and his fellow American modernists sense of building a new future about it. It shows the construction of Piccadilly Circus tube station and the Piccadilly Line that would run through it.
Paul Nash - Dymchurch, Sea Wall (1925)
Edward Wadsworth - Slag Heaps at Leeds Steel Works (1920)
C.R.W. Nevinson - Air Street (1924-1926)
Henry Moore - Crowd Looking at a Tied Up Object (1942)
John Craxton - Churchyard (1942)
Within less than 15 years the world was at war again and this time death and destruction must've been joined by even more disheartenment and disillusion than before. How could this happen again? Will this carry on for ever?
Henry Moore showed a mob staring (in awe?, in supplication?, in disgust?, it's not clear) at a rather phallic looking object that's been restrained for either its, or the mob's, own good. We can all see what it is but, like the war, none of us can work out why, exactly, it's happening.
John Craxton didn't send out mixed signals. The gravestones that populate 1942's Churchyard were soon to be joined by ever younger corpses as the war ravaged the continent, and much of the world. Picasso's Guernica is undoubtedly one of the strongest, most powerful, pieces of war art ever made and it was to him that many of the modern British artists looked. Keith Vaughan claimed that "what Picasso did to the human figure, Graham Sutherland (Vaughan's primary inspiration) is doing to the English landscape". Sutherland may've ripped, scarred, and mutated the rolling green fields of England but he could never do as much damage to the landscape, the country, and the world as the Nazis had done.
Keith Vaughan - The Wall at Ashton Gifford (1944)
David Jones - Eric Gill's House at Ditchling, Sussex (1922)
Eric Ravilious - The Red Cottage (1927)
The pleasant bucolic settings of Eric Ravilious' Red Cottage and David Jones' depiction of Eric Gill's Ditchling abode (remarkably free of natural light as if to show the darkness of the renowned paedophile's heart) had given way to tombstones, false idols, and meditations on a paradise lost. By the time Peter Lanyon made 1949's Portreath (in black chalk and grey wash so not strictly a watercolour, tsk), apparently about the decline of the Cornish mining industry, we'd moved almost fully into a violent abstraction not dissimilar to the works of Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and the Abstract Expressionists that were becoming such a force in America.
Michael Rothenstein's Essex Landscape was rendered only slightly less savagely, Bedfordshire's John Tunnard was another who was inspired by Sutherland's Neo-romanticism and he later went on to include satellites and moonscapes in his work as if to escape the mess we've made of this planet and start afresh elsewhere. Henry Moore (and this exhibition is something of a revelation to those of us who were hitherto only really familiar with his work as a sculptor) takes inspiration from the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico as well as the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Peter Lanyon - Portreath (1949)
Michael Rothenstein - Essex Landscape (c.1942)
John Tunnard - Projection (1941)
Henry Moore - Two Upright Faces (1936)
But in the build up to, and in the aftermath of, the Second World War it was Surrealism that, according to the curators of this exhibition, really took hold. Inspired by Sigmund Freud, microscopic life, theories of biological development, the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, and the Spanish Civil War the works of Cecil Collins, Reuben Mednikoff, Ralph Maynard Smith, and John Banting took on fluid, alien, gauzy qualities that hark back to forebears like Constable, Cotman, and Turner (there's a small section devoted to these antecedents) but also look forward to future developments in watercolour proving it not to be a dead, dusty, form to be preserved under fingerprint smudged vitrines but a living, breathing, media as easily changeable as that of the pigments in their water based solutions themselves are.
This alluring survey of the form started off slowly, but as with the advent and development of first the railway system, and then the motor car and the road network, soon spread its tentacular arms out into all corners of the British (and beyond) art world. There wasn't even time to cover Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Rackham, John Minton, Samuel Palmer, Spencer Gore, Ben Nicholson, or even the 'primitive' Cornish fisherman, scrap merchant, and boat painter Alfred Wallis (all featured in this show) so rich and deep was this overview. I came away both educated, entertained, and, somehow, simultaneously energized and exhausted. I hope, in some small way, my write up has the same effect on you.
Cecil Collins - Seashell, Mysterious Joy (1936)
Reuben Mednikoff - October 2, 1938, No.4 (1938)
Ralph Maynard Smith - Better Be Yourself, Make Your Own Music (1948)
John Banting - The Orator (1937)