Monday, 6 September 2010
Father, son and English scenes
Having pompously thought of myself as 'citoyen du monde', I realised how through this blog Englishness seems to have become a recurrent theme in my middle years; English churches, music, paintings, books keep popping up in the cosmopolitan mix like an inescapable rondo theme. I hope I'm no would-be ruralist reactionary, but I'm not ashamed to declare how passionately fond I've become of the works of Eric Ravilious - through that superlative Imperial War Museum exhibition 'Imagined Realities' - and Edward Bawden.
Their sons have followed the tradition in their own different ways, too. We made sure to catch the last day of the 'Familiar Visions' exhibition featuring the works of Eric and James Ravilious in the father's old stamping ground of Eastbourne, where the new Towner Art Gallery tucked away unsigned alongside the Congress Theatre houses quite a collection. And while I marvelled again at Eric's sometimes disconcerting mix of straight lines and curves, the human and the natural, in those now-familiar watercolours, it was the photographs of his son, born only a few years before his untimely death in the Second World War, which brought tears to my eyes.
Almost immediately, in fact, with a vast 'View towards Iddesleigh and Dartmoor, Devon, leading you into infinity down a lane between frost- and sheep-covered fields. I don't know why, but I felt I knew and loved this scene at first sight (in a sense, I do). But James wasn't just a poetic black-and-white snapper of landscapes. He got to know and be trusted by the local community, and took about 80,000 images recording a vanishing way of life for Devon's Beaford Archive. He never posed his subjects but caught them in action - stooksetting, muckspreading, lambing, shearing, orchard-shaking. His favourite subject, old farmer Archie Parkhouse, must (I'm crudely guessing) have been something of a surrogate father figure - Archie, James and his idol Cartier-Bresson all shared the same birthday. Here's Archie taking ivy for his sheep on the cover of an indispensible book:
Apart from the fact that I can't seem to contact the Towner for copyright permissions, I don't think that otherwise reproducing some of the photos here would do them much justice. You can, though, see the entire half-hour documentary narrated by Alan Bennett on YouTube. As usual, I recommend clicking on the picture once you've started to get the fullscreen version over on the site proper.
James comes across as such a sincere, gentle man. He certainly wasn't trading on the 'Ravilious': when he went to St Martin's College of Art, he took another name. And you never get the feeling that the Devonians felt some toff was intruding on their turf.
I should finally point out that the exhibition - finished now, alas - covers much more than just photos and watercolours. There's also a wonderful room half-filled with Eric's woodcuts, which I heard some of the many visitors declaring they liked best. And it's quite a size too - four sizeable galleries, all well themed and, in the case of Eric's work at least, complemented by eloquent if slightly over-interpreted commentaries. It makes the South Downs exhibition on the first floor seem rather tame by comparison.