Sunday, 6 March 2016

Leslie Moffat Ward: news from nearby


Leslie Moffat Ward could travel as far as he liked to find fresh subjects but the farther he went, so far as I am concerned, the less he often gained by going there. In fact, unless he kept to the Isle of Purbeck, he almost always fell short of what he did best. There were exceptions but, even so, the Cotswolds or the Sussex Downs, can be quite a lot like Dorset in their massiveness. So, this post will not provide anything comprehensive but will take a look at what I like best about him. That said, turning up his best work hasn't been straightforward. His quaint and telling night-scenes seem to unavailable anywhere online. It is beyond me.

He moved to Bournemouth as a child and spent his adult life working as a teacher at the school of art right from its opening in 1913 until his retirement in 1955. Some of the time Thomas Todd Blaylock was headmaster and following his own early retirement after the war, turned out some outlandishly colourful colour woodcuts. Ward was more restrained and more distinctive. He also worked well within the British landscape tradition and I find it difficult to understand why his work remains such a minority or even local enthusiasm, especially when his irresistible etching A mile to Worth Matravers (1932) can be seen illustrated in Kenneth Guichard's well-known  British Etchers 1850 - 1940. But there you are. Stuff happens.

In common with Samuel Palmer, the naïve vision tends to make people assume the work itself may be lacking in sophistication. But as with Palmer, the effect of the art was achieved by a rigorously original approach to technique and respect for the work of other artists. I can see those two cows in the foreground of Near Bradle, Dorset (1951) in Salomon van Ruysdael, ingenious but nevertheless well-observed moo-cows. Ward goes in for pattern-making, too, but never overdoes it, and no one could ever call him decorative; he selects with care, his crooked road in A mile to Worth Matravers is what helps make the print and it is exaggerated but light, shade and the effects of weather all soften the effect.

The Isle of Purbeck for readers out of the UK lies south-west of Bournemouth and is partly surrounded by the English Channel and the large inlet of Poole Harbour. It isn't somewhere I know but Dorset is one of the most distinctive counties in Britain and Ward obviously responded to the place in a way he did to nowhere else. So, there is no point anyone saying (as they have tried to do quite recently) that Ward had some kind of breadth just because he depicted the Pool of London, say, or the Lake District or Ronda. Making big claims for your own enthusiasms doesn't actually help the artist much and I don't want readers to miss the point of Ward. In terms of style (especially given those art deco sycamores) it is hard to believe there could be twenty years between the first two prints ion the post but there are subtle differences between them. The second is a work of maturity made when the artist was sixty-three and was deploying a range of skills and displaying a depth of vision that wasn't there before. There is an academic tinge there, too, but hardly a surprise given his background as a teacher. But he had the job because he had the skills. For instance, he was well-able to simplify form in the way he did in The condemned dwelling. It gives the print the naïve impact it has. But in the later work, to use the wonderful phrase by the French artist, Paul Serusier, he was searching out the greys; there are no extremes of shadow and dazzling light of the kind you can see in The long man of the Downs (above). He has a terrific sense of tone, so delicate and discriminating he can approach an etching like a watercolour. Beyond that, the perspective is beautifully rendered. Like a Chinese brush drawing, it reads upwards but also makes use of recession in the Western manner, (both more obvious in The long man of the downs).

The way he works the surface with so many marks gives everything that typical sense of solidity. It's a paradox but this is what true visionary art entails. He was also enquiring. You only have to look at the way he looks into the ruined dwelling or explores the nooks and valleys of the uplands. There is nothing vaporous about Ward. Even his clouds are muscular - especially his clouds! And I think his idea of the countryside is a true one - the ruined houses, the bent figures with their cattle or tools, each farm with its own incline and huddle of trees. You only get that sense of place when you know somewhere well enough. He is like S.G. Boxsius in the way he takes you round but Ward's tour is better-informed. It is what Oliver Rackham once called 'social countryside', a country of paths and lanes which everyone from cowmen to ramblers makes use of. It is of course diminutive but then you can't have everything.

Ward also took an architect's pleasure in neat new roads and houses and well-placed trees. State schools like Bournemouth taught a broader range of practical skills than they do today, including the bascis of geometry and architecture. What Ward summons up is that kind of diversity, there are social shades of meaning of the kind you find similar designer-artists like Eric Ravilious. It is a world of focus and workmanship and the applied arts as well as the imagination. The more you look, the more you understand.


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