Saturday 23 December 2017

The Pattern of Friendship

The other day, in Sheffield, I finally caught up with the Ravilious & Co exhibition I'd somehow failed to see when it was at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne all through the summer. Now it's at Sheffield's excellent Millennium Gallery (free entry, what's more) and I'm delighted I've finally seen it.
 It's a big exhibition, but with none of the oppressive feel of a blockbuster. There's such a rich variety of material – paintings and drawings, prints of all kinds, textiles, illustrated books, wallpapers, posters, marbled papers – and most of what is on show is so full of energy, humour and good cheer that it can only lift the spirits. The mood is only broken by the late watercolours painted by Ravilious when he was at sea as a war artist (before he disappeared on a flight over Iceland); these remarkable paintings convey a quite unexpected sense of mental turmoil and impending tragedy.
 But this exhibition is about much more than Ravilious. It explores, as the title puts it, The Pattern of Friendship – the web of connections between Ravilious and the group of friends, collaborators and like-minded artist-craftsmen around him. Edward Bawden is of course well represented, as are John and Paul Nash, Barnett Freedman, Douglas Percy Bliss and the less well known Thomas Hennell.   Happily the women in the Ravilious circle also get their due here – his multiply talented wife Tirzah Garwood, the engraver and textile designer Enid Marx, painter-designer Peggy Angus, painter-printmaker Helen Binyon... And, both revelations to me, Diana Low and Bliss's wife Phyllis Dodd. The latter is represented by a group of superb, high-impact portraits in oils, including one of Ravilious – that's it at the top of this post. And Diana Low – with whom Ravilious had an affair (she was not the only one) – is represented by an extraordinary portrait of her mentor William Nicholson.
It looks unfinished but is quite perfect as it is – that yellow waistcoat, that blue cushion are worthy of Nicholson himself, and the pose and facial expression perfectly capture the essence of the man.
This remarkable painting hangs with Nicholson's return of the compliment, his harshly lit portrait of Diana Law, the yellow curtain rhyming with his waistcoat.

This is a terrific exhibition, hugely enjoyable, impressive without being overpowering – and, in the end, as Ravilious's death draws near, very moving. It's impossible to read Edward Bawden's letter of condolence to the dazed and grieving Tirzah without the eyes misting up.

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