Monday, 26 October 2009

Heaven and Earth; A Eulogy for William Dyce's 'Pegwell Bay'

Pegwell Bay, situated on the estuary of the River Stour between Ramsgate and Sandwich, is the setting for one of the most evocative images of the Pre-Raphaelite era. Subtitled 'A Recollection of October 5th 1858', William Dyce's painting was the result of a trip made in the autumn of that year, and depicts members of his family searching for shells and fossils on the beach of the then-popular holiday resort. The meticulous rendering of the cliff-face reflected Dyce's keen interest in geology, as did his careful treatment of the flint-encrusted strata of the beach below them. The barely-visible tail of Donati's comet in the sky above places the activities of the human figures below within the broader scheme of time and space, and its inclusion as a fundamental facet of Dyce's composition, mirrored his fascination with astronomy and with the workings of the heavens. The plein air feel to the painting is due the fact that, following Ruskin's precepts, Dyce made his initial studies in-situ, and the entire mood of the image is charged with questions about man and his place in nature. The location is also significant, as it was believed to be the first site of early Christian activity in the British Isles and was also a famous location for fossil hunters, particularly during the Victorian era, when the fascination for all things paleontological reached its zenith.

So expertly rendered, the chalk-cliffs of Dyce's painting are still clearly discernible to the contemporary onlooker. The car-park that overlooks the painting's viewpoint now lays in the vast shadow of 'Hugin', a viking longboat which was a gift from the people of Denmark to the population of the region in 1949 and which underwent extensive restoration in 2004. Hoverlloyd's 1960's cross-chanel port was located here, the vestiges of which have been almost entirely reclaimed by nature, particularly the concrete launch ramp that now trails off amid swathes of sedge and salt-flats now home to wading birds and willow warblers. Dominating the skyline is the mad, jugenstijl tower of the Belle Vue hotel which dwarfs the Victorian flint-built cottages that surround it, whilst in the sky, a continuous stream of freight aircraft fly low over the beach into Manston airport, forever replacing the mysterious comet which, like Breugel's 'Icarus', goes unnoticed by Dyce's crinolined subjects as they search the beach for their geological treasures.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Quiet Witnesses

These simple chairs line the walls of the small North chapel of St. Clement, Old Romney in Kent. One of the most-visited of all the Marsh churches, it was built on an artificial mound to protect it from floodwaters. Old Romney churches have a sensibility that is unique, and in common say, with Fairfield and St. Mary-in-the-Marsh, St. Clement leaves a lasting impression on the visitor. Norman in origin, the nave was enlarged in the 13th century, when the aisles were added. Aside from this, it remains virtually unrestored, with an uneven floor, and a gallery which is reached by means of the narrow, somewhat vertiginous wooden staircase. Elsewhere, the rood-loft staircase, discovered in the 1920s retains its medieval door-frame. In the North chapel where these chairs reside is the mensa of the original medieval altar, with rails that date from the 18th century. The striking box pews also date from the late 18th century and retain the strawberry ice-cream pink that they were painted by the Rank film company for their film of 'Dr. Syn', based on Russell Thorndyke's novel 'A Tale of the Romney Marsh', written in 1915 and based on the exploits of the infamous 18th century smuggler in the region. The Royal Coat of Arms of George III also date back to the 18th century, which includes a lion with a benign yet smug expression. The capitals of the font are embellished with different figures and date back to the 14th century. Despite much depreciation, it is still possible to discern the characteristics of the individual grotesque creatures that they represent. Derek Jarman is buried in the churchyard, and his simple grave, marked by a solid piece of slate bearing his distinctive signature, often has flowers, messages and small votives that have been left by admirers as he lays in the shadow of the great yew near the church's perimeter fence.

Cowboy Small still rides the Range

Originally published in 1949, Lois Lenski's 'Cowboy Small' remains a delightful tale beloved of children worldwide. With his horse Cactus, the diminutive Wild West character greets his readers under the Bar S Ranch sign. Cowboy takes good care of Cactus, who helps him get work done around the ranch, rounding up cattle for branding, and generally they live the good life. At night, Cowboy sleeps in the chuck wagon, sings with his friends, and sleeps under the stars. In short, easily-read stanzas, accompanied by Lenski's captivating illustrations, the daily life of the ranch is made clear to her readers. The book also includes a section which explains the equipment used by horse and cowboy, which features images of attire and equine gear. Lenski wrote and illustrated more than ninety books for children, and won many awards during her long career. This edition, with its cloth cover and charming image of Cowboy Small and Cactus dates from the 1950's.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Dark Monarch's Door: Sven Berlin's studio in St Ives

This ghostly indicator is to be found on the door of a two-storey building in Porthmeor Road, near the Island in St. Ives, Cornwall. Possibly rendered in his hand, the inscription denotes the studio of sculptor, painter and writer Sven Berlin, one of the last surviving members of the St Ives School. The son of a Swedish timber merchant from Sydenham, Berlin never received formal art school training, and was mainly self-taught. His previous career was as a music hall dancer, which bought him into contact with such luminaries of the profession as Bud Flanagan and Nervo and Knox. He came to Cornwall in 1938, and received some training in watercolour from Arthur Hamley, an artist based in nearby Redruth. He spent some time as a gardener in 'Little Park Owles', the large house belonging to painters Adrian Stokes and Margaret Mellis which overlooked St Ives Bay. It was through Mellis and Stokes that he came into contact with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and their coterie, and was later affiliated to the infuential 'Crypt' group, which also included artists such as Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron. Beginning World War Two as a conscientious objector, he changed his opinion of the conflict after becoming deeply affected by some naval bombing in the Channel, subsequently serving in the Army in France. During his tour of duty, he sent back a series of diary-like letters to Stokes, and these formed the basis of 'I am Lazarus', which was published in 1961. It was during the war that he also spent time working on the first (and some would say definitive) monograph on Alfred Wallis, the primitive painter first 'discovered' by Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who began painting in his eighties 'for company', and who died in Madron Workhouse in 1942. First published in 1948, Berlin portrayed Wallis as an 'exploited genius'- to quote Peter Davies in Berlin's obituary from 1999. Berlin's verdict of Wallis' fate angered Nicholson, and as a result, he became estranged from what he perceived as the Nicholson stranglehold in the dealings of the Penwith Society, which largely dominated the St Ives movement.

Berlin's graphic style most resembles that of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, particularly in those images that accompany his own books, According to Davies; 'his subjects were "folky', concentrating on harbour life, on the fishermen and on labourers. Such motifs were no more mundane than they were polemical or political; a flamboyant, expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of almost mythical intensity'.

Berlin left Cornwall in 1953, profoundly disillusioned with the abstract formalism of the St Ives movement and, encouraged by Augustus John, moved to the New Forest, and became fascinated with the gypsy communities residing there. Romany culture became the pivotal component in his novel 'Dromengro; Man of the Road'. published in 1971. His continued interest in fishing and the fishing community also produced the 1964 book 'Jonah's Dream'. Berlin ran a small zoo in the 1960s with his second wife Helga, and it was during this period that he produced 'The Dark Monarch', a barely-fictionalised sort of roman-a-clef, based on his experiences in St Ives. It was withdrawn from sale after four successful libel actions by the extended families of some of the original St Ives painters. He returned to canvas painting in the 1970s, living on the Isle of Wight with his third wife, and his final years were lived in Wimbourne in Dorset, where he continued to write. He produced an autobiography, entitled 'Coat of Many Colours' was published in 1994 and followed by a second volume in 1996, entitled 'Virgo in Exile'.