Friday, 18 April 2014

John Craxton at the Fitzwilliam

On Sunday with the bf I went to the Craxton exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It was a relatively small affair, and only touched upon his graphic work, which I particularly like. More of that in a future post. Outside the gallery in the lobby space was a video playing of Sir David Attenborough (just him?) talking about the artist. The space was small, crowded at times and too loud. We didn't stay to find out if anybody else appeared.
Craxton, like many of his contemporaries, such as John Piper or Osbert Lancaster, worked in a number of disciplines – illustration, ‘fine art’, theatre design. In fact compared to a polymath such as Piper, or say Robert Harling, Craxton’s reach seems rather narrow – but that’s only relative. Luckily for them there was less specialization than there is now and I suspect that the width and indeed depth of their knowledge was greater than today too.
Craxton was born in 1922 into a middle class family. His entry into the art world seems to have been quite precocious but due to circumstances Craxton’s formal art education, at least at a tertiary level, was quite limited. Unfit for active service he spent the War in London sharing a studio with Lucian Freud. The two men spent the time honing their drawing skills. They were also courted by luminaries of the London art scene. They were funded by Peter Watson and went drawing in Pembrokeshire with Graham Sutherland. The first work on display dates from this period. It is deeply Neo-Romantic, dark and brooding, and some of it surprisingly monumental, but essentially graphic work in ink and none the worse for that. (If the selection made for this exhibition is anything to go by the oils of that period tend to be small.) Nature is transformed into something writhing and menacing; trees, for instance, mutated into something massive and fleshy like tentacles; figures are submerged in the foliage or hide in the trunks of ancient oaks. There is his famous study of a dead hare, (Craxton and Freud drew a lot of dead animals), revealing incidentally a love for use of coloured paper – usually a mid-tone that enabled him to use both black and white media to build up volume and texture. These are my favourite works in the exhibition, although a couple of portraits done later in Greece were a revelation: small and intense, they could have been the work of a Northern Renaissance master. I suspect that like John Minton, Craxton was really a graphic artist, and that it was only through dint of hard work that he managed to ‘think big’. The ‘Pastoral for PW’, 1948, (80” x 103”), shows him struggling with scale.
By then Craxton had visited Greece and had fallen in love with the people and landscape. He eventually settled there, semi permanently, until his death in 2009. It was to have a profound effect on his art. Not only does the work become brighter, but his discovery of the mosaics of the Easter Roman Empire and early medieval Italy (by their nature monumental), finally gave him the language, the ability, to work on a larger, monumental, scale. I suspect the increasing use of a thick line of paint (the width of a tessera?) around each separate object or volume is a direct influence.
I wonder, in retrospect, whether Craxton had, at any one time, two vocabularies: one was employed when he was drawing from life, and I think was pretty constant and was honed in those years working with Freud – what one might consider empirical; and the other was a more stylised, perhaps even self-conscious, manner of the public art in which the imagination and the intellect come into play. Sometimes that come close to each other, other times there is more distance.
In preparing this post I’ve re-read the chapter on Craxton in Malcom Yorke’s ‘The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their times’ (Constable, London, 1988), and found myself in sympathy with the opinions of some of the critics. There is just something missing, particularly in the later work with their acid colours and frankly decorative quality – ‘a bit GayTimes’ commented the bf about a group of their sailors eating and drinking about a taverna table. It was hard to disagree.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Work in progress....

Here's an update on the watercolour drawing I posted yesterday plus another arch from the 'Extraordinario Libro' by Serlio.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Work in Progress

Thanks to Vaughan Hart's book on Nicholas Hawksmoor, I've become interested in the work of Sebastiano Serlio (1475 - 1554), particularly the 'Extraordinario Libro di Architettura' (Hart refers to it as the 'Libro Extraordinario').  Several of the plates (showing gates) in the 'Extraordinario' are used in Hart's book to illustrate the influence of Serlio on Hawksmoor.  Inspired myself by the designs I have begun a series of watercolour/mixed media drawings based on the designs.  This one is the first one I feel any confidence about.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Laura Ashley

The regular reader will know that I have a deep admiration for some of the fabrics and wallpaper created by Laura Ashley in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Looking at early editions of the World of Interiors in my collection (alas an incomplete one) Laura Ashley is ubiquitous, to be found in all sorts of places, from the Country house downwards; and there is a sort democracy to that I find pleasing and that harks back to Arts and Crafts theory.  There was also a sort of high seriousness, an earnestness, about those early designs; more than a hint of the Gothic Revival with their heraldic beasts. Colours, fittingly, could be incredibly bold and striking - rich and dark in a way unimaginable today.  At least on the High St.  Looking around Pinterest I found these designs to illustrate.  Apologies if you find an image of yours in this selection.  I hope you don't mind.

As an addendum I'd like to add these images of Laura Ashley designs in my own collection(!)  The first is a piece of wallpaper from a roll I bought sometime in the late 1980s and was never used except to line drawers and shelves.  I rescued this piece, and three others, from some bedroom furniture that had been my parents and I was about to throw out.  The other two, the dark, dark blue 'Lady Fern' and 'Elizabethan Trellis' I bought recently on ebay. 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

St John The Baptist, Morton

St John the Baptist, Morton, stands at the end of the long and wide village street that leads from the high land to the west, east into the fens.  Morton has this long, linear pattern in common with the other three fen edge villages that already appeared in this blog: Thurlby, Baston and Langtoft.  Like the latter two it has no village green as such (Thurlby had a village green but that was built over in the sixties and seventies).
Morton is a grand, rather imposing church, being cruciform (almost), with a tall central tower and built on a mound.  Most of what you can see from the outside is Perpendicular.  There are north and south doors to the nave, but the main entrance is from the west.  The west door is protected by a porch - quite a rare thing. The top of the  tower is very close in design to the one at Bourne Abbey Chuch.  The interior is spacious, but there are no fittings of note.  The best thing is the space under the tower, which has a tierceron vault decorated with cusping and a circular bell-hole.  There are also a number of bold foliage capitals, the carving like that Langtoft (see previous post).

Sunday, 23 February 2014

F L Griggs RA RE 1876 - 1938

I have been labouring on this post for months on and off, and finally it is here - phew!

A page from the Highways and Byways of Sussex, 1904, Steyning Church

It was looking at Gavin Stamp's proficient pen drawings back in November last year that turned my mind back to a favourite illustrator of mine, Frederick Landseer Maur Griggs.  Quite a mouthful.  The 'Maur' was added when he converted to Roman Catholicism.
There were many fine architectural artists and illustrators in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain - but then it was Golden Age for architecture and related arts - Pennell, Haig, Atkinson, Brangwyn, Walcot, but for me the finest was Griggs.  All of them could work in pen and ink with amazing fluency, but Griggs's work has an intensity and lyrical poetry that at times is breath taking.  He was draftsman of prodigious talent, and an etcher of sometimes visionary transcendence.  And being a bit of armchair biker I've always warmed to the idea of him biking around England drawing old buildings.  Seems an ideal way of spending your time.
I was introduced to his work by an article by the architectural historian and critic Alan Powers - not a bad draughtsman himself - in 'Country Life' magazine (April 17th 1986).  A fitting place considering that it too was a product of that late flowering in British architecture.
F L Griggs was born and raised in Hitchin, Hertfordshire - a small market town on the edge of the Chiltern Hills.  He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London, and 1897 he moved to Bedford to train as an architect under the Arts and Crafts influenced C E Mallows.  Before then however he had been introduced to the work of Samuel Palmer (1805 -1881).  Palmer, one of a number of followers of William Blake known as the 'Ancients', was a mystical painter and etcher of extraordinary, haunting vision.  He was also a convert from non-conformity to High Anglicanism.  Palmer's powerful influence, which was as much intellectual and spiritual as artistic, was to remain with Griggs for the rest of his life; and it is by the assimilation of both Palmer's life and work to his work, and later in life the direct and indirect influence he had on Graham Sutherland, Robin Tanner and Paul Drury, that Griggs became a link in a Romantic, if not mystical, chain that is a persistent, if sometime underground, element in English art.
Griggs soon earned a reputation as an excellent draftsman and made perspectives for other architects such as the Arts and Crafts practitioners Charles Ashbee and Guy Dawber.  In 1902 he commenced work the 'Highways and Byways' volume on Hertfordshire.  He had in effect become a full-time illustrator, and henceforth it seems practiced architecture rarely - I have only found a few examples of his work, and two of those were domestic work, (a renovation and a 'new build'), for himself.  The 'Highways and Byways' work would, unintentionally, occupy the rest of his life, illustrating a further 12 volumes right up until the time of his death.

Another page from the 'Highways and Byways of Sussex', 1904, showing the Market Cross and Cathedral Spire, Chichester.

His drawings for 'Highways and Byways' evoke a hot still summer's day, sometime about midday when everybody is ether at lunch or sheltering from the sun.  They are suffused with light.  It radiates from the page.  Buildings, trees, the grass are drawn in meticulous detail, but are never allowed to overweigh the composition.  Every element - paper, ink and later, pencil - are held in equilibrium.  It is hard not to draw, in that epicene stillness, an analogy to the noon day of British power.  The Empire was drawing to it's zenith after a long century of British naval and industrial supremacy.  Perhaps even when they were produced, they had an air of nostalgia and loss; Griggs after all was an Arts and Crafts practitioner, who in 1904 had moved to the epicentre of Arts and Crafts production Chipping Camden, in Gloucestershire.

Yet another page from the Highways and Byways of Sussex, 1904, Old Shoreham Church

For me the Arts and crafts is pervaded by a sense of deep loss, and it is that sense of things being under threat from industrialisation and progress that can be sensed, I think, in Griggs's illustrations.  It can be argued that for all of Morris's revolutionary socialism the Arts and Crafts movement was essentially conservative - I'm tempted to label it 'High Tory'.  It was just as concerned with the preservation of the past as it was with creating new work.  It's been commented that Griggs's illustrations concentrate on the old to the exclusion of later things; certainly his laborious technique responds most warmly to old buildings - buildings that is with texture and patina; the magic is just a bit lacking in his drawing of the Pantiles in Royal Tunbridge Wells.  There is however more than that; due to the intellectual influence of Pugin and Ruskin Arts and Crafts practitioners privileged the Middle Ages and had a suspicion of Classicism - in some ways seen as destructive influence as industrialisation on native traditions, and I believe influence is observable in Griggs's illustrations with their careful editing out of the modern world.  I think this can be summed up in his own words. In 1937 he undertook his last 'Highways and Byways' - Essex, and wrote of the experience, which he undertook to support his family, in these terms: "Towards the end I began to get very sick of it, and remembered [Samuel] Palmer's 'The Past for Poets, the Present for Pigs' and was mightily glad to be back among my books again."  F L Griggs died the next year, the final volume incomplete.*
There is something more with Griggs that sets him apart from the rest of the Arts and Crafts movement: for Morris socialism and art took the place of religion - 'spilt religion', according to T E Hulme.  In 'News from Nowhere' Morris envisaged the post-revolutionary society to be a kind of 'cleansed' Middle Ages - cleansed of religion as well as Capitalism; a godless society.  An anarchistic one too.  Griggs however followed Pugin: in 1912 he converted to Roman Catholicism.  His utopia had to be western catholic if it was ever it to be like the Middle Ages.  There is a logic to that.  However, as Pugin himself realised, Roman Catholicism had changed post -Reformation crisis, and itself had to be restored.  And so with Griggs, as with Pugin, there came a spiritual as well as a material nostalgia.  This reflected clearly in a great series of visionary etchings he undertook after 1912 until his death, the year (I believe) he established 'The Dover's House Press' to publish his own work.  Influenced by the etching's of Palmer they evoke not the High Church vision of a pastoral Eden, but the Catholic High Middle Ages, and also the melancholy post Reformation decay of the fabric of Catholic England.  And as with his other work the etchings are suffused with light  - his love of East Anglia surely?  Noticeable is general absence of people.  Noticeable too the metamorphosis - England is transformed, and her architecture has become elemental, sublime as though grown out of the earth itself and not the work of man.

I think it was during my teens, or perhaps during my twenties I saw a documentary on Robin Tanner, the etcher and illustrator; he related how he had been asked that considering his 'radical' politics why his art hadn't taken on a more political or radical aesthetic.  His reply was that by showing the world as it once was, or could be they were his protest.

*  It was finished by Stanley Badmin