Thursday, 21 July 2011

The summer outing to Sussex

Even though Arthur Rigden Read had a house in Winchelsea for many years, he never made a woodcut showing the county that became his home. But plenty of other printmakers couldn't resist the glories of Sussex, amongst them Diana Gardner, Sue Scullard, Sylvan Boxsius, Phillip Needell, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Helen Lock, Kenneth Broad, Michael Renton. From mysterious dewponds to dubious Brighton, Sussex has it all. But I have to begin with a surprising colour woodcut I've unearthed by Eric Slater (1896 - ?). I say surprising because he comes across to me like a hack watercolourist alot of the time but the one above looks pretty good. If you know the Seaford and Cuckmere Haven area where he lived and worked, his prints do have an undeniable charm though why he fetches the prices he seems to, is beyond me. This one has no title that I can read but I assume it's our county because Sussex is his subject.

It was the unlikely object of German bombers as shown in this stylish wood engraving of 1940 by Diana Gardner (1913 - 1997). It shows the village of Rodmell where she lived with her father. (It was also the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf). The stark lighting, the dramatic pose of the figure, the overscale planes all recall the work of Eric Ravilious, himself Sussex bred if not born.

This early morning view of Rye by Phillip Needell (1886 - 1974) is altogether a much more delicate affair. Probably on a visit because he recorded places as far apart as the northern Atlantic and the bridge at Avignon. Not always to my taste, I still regret not buying Needell when I could (and must also acknowledge Clive at Art and the Aesthete where I pinched this from). I get the feeling that small towns like Rye and Winchelsea, Lewis and Arundel, were full of people who read books and bought pictures and this may help explain why so many artists moved that way.

Michael Renton (1934 - 2001) made more than one letter-heading for a bookshop at Rye. He is more modern than the printmakers seen so far but illustrates the way that printmaking and literacy still go hand in hand in Sussex.

Like Michael Renton, Sylvan Boxsius (1878 - 1941) was a Londoner. Unlike Renton, he spent most of his working life in London but must have visited Sussex more than once to compose his two small colour woodcuts of Winchelsea and his lovely woodcut Houghton Bridge, Sussex. Readers may remember this print from my Boxsius post and I will not have to explain that I include it here out of sheer love of his work. He had such a good sense of scale and form, he could leave alot out and achieve a childlike simplicity without ever becoming self-conscious.

With Hastings by Sue Scullard (b 1958) we move into the uneasy territory of the professional printmaker. She has done everything from editions lsuch as this to cookery book illustrations and I suspect you would search Scullard's prints in vain for a defect like Hall Thorpe's misregistered ladybird or Sylvan Boxsius' printing crease. Work like hers depends upon a perfect surface and she achieves a delicate tone and nice range of greys. But for all the clever shifts in perspective on the boat and huts, with the gulls a touch overscale, I miss the unselfconscious quirkiness of the pre-war artists. But then Scullard was trained by Yvonne Skargon (b 1931) who is no slouch herself and who in turn was trained by Blair Hughes Stanton and John O'Connor. Long gone are the days when you learned from Frank Morley Fletcher who had taught himself.

 Eric Ravilious (1903 - 1942) is too well- known to need any commentary from me. His chic lithograph Newhaven Harbour of 1937 belongs to the lithographs for schools series. (I remember this coming up at auction in the early 1980s and it not even selling the first time. I think we were too intent on colour woodcuts even then!) The wood-engraving below has the rigmarole of imagery that people of his generation became fluent with. It includes the chalk figure known as the Long Man of Wilmington and one of those dew ponds. I'm not sure what the flying bull is doing there and hardly feel it matters. But Ravilious was a native and not only knew Sussex but loved it, too, as anyone can tell from his exceptional paintings.

Kenneth Broad (1889 - 1959) was another Londoner who lived in both Surrey and, I think, Sussex for a while. This is a new photograph of A Sussex Farm and does the print far more justice than the one I included on my Broad post some while back. Not much of a draughtsman or watercolour painter, he used the Japanese manner to achieve a fine luminosity in his colour woodcuts. Normally producing rather heavily constructed prints, here he abandons that approach for expressive brushwork. He offers all we need to know with the long morning shadows, the dark leaves of midsummer and the washing that tells which was the breeze blows. For all his apparent concentration on the farm buildings, this is his least architectural and most emotive woodcut.

Nor could I resist re-posting Helen Lock's masterly image of a Keeshond. She made quite a few of these and was a friend and archivist to a lady breeder in Sussex and conclude that she has put the dog firmly onto downland turf with the Sussex countryside well behind.

And last but far from least, a panoramic capriccio called Brighton Pier by Edward Bawden (1903 - 1989). A contemporary of Eric Ravilious and fellow student studying under Paul Nash at the RCA, his work looks forward to the range of professional printmaking that did become the norm in Britain after the war. He manages here to balance his affections for the landscape and its oddities with a strong sense of design (and wonderful use of black and white). It has become so commonplace a style, we forget that someone had to invent it. Others that followed never seemed to quite get it right.

And, of course, it was necessary to include a railway poster - this time by Alan Durman (1905 - 1963). I don't have a date for this but it must have been designed after nationalisation in 1947. (It's for British Railways). Durman has it all, folksy in the foreground, south coast elegance beyond, an appeal to children, the peach and lemon of Italy - just in case we were thinking about abroad - and could that be the deco version of the modern world? Fine all the year round.


  1. What great morning reading this article and what a great idea approaching and travelling through beautiful Sussex in this way. And learning about the artist on the way. Great post !

  2. Some artists you only have one print for; some have no biographical details; some only ever made one that you like! If I ever say, 'It's a Sussex', Gerrie, you'll know what I mean.


  3. i really appreciate all the time you put into these, charles. and i love the needell. that's a perspective i've seen and am always quite taken with them.

  4. Wonderful post! Thanks, Charles.

  5. Thank you. It was fun to do. And with a Bank Holiday coming up, I'm wondering whether we should all go somewhere else. North of the border might be nice.