Ravilious & Co. Part 2 – Looking back to look ahead

I wrote the post below to consolidate my memory of the Ravilious exhibition and in part because I’m intrigued by how learning; forgetting and remembering works. But beyond this I’ve also been thinking about what it is that engaged me in the first place about the Ravilious & Co. exhibition and similarly about Jenny Steele’s work. In part it is the artistry; the striking, graphic aesthetic of many of their designs. I bought a book about Ravilious’ ‘Submarine’ series of lithographs because there are aspects of these that mirror the as-yet vague mental imagery I have for some of my own future work. The book traces Ravilious’ references and influences including Russian children’s books from the 1920s and London Underground advertising posters made under the auspices of Frank Pick. Both are design sources I’ve looked at before, but have not been sure why. What is it about them that I like?

Eric Ravilious, Passing the Bell Rock, 1940, Museums Sheffield.

The ‘something’ that I am drawn to is linked – I think – to the title of Steele’s exhibition at The Midland Hotel in Morecambe (referenced in my prior post): ‘This Building for Hope.’ Steele draws on the utopian imagery of Modernism. It was a time in western culture of aspiration and of belief in a better future. This is an aspect that I drew upon too in my 2016 commission ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody,’ looking at the later – but still aspirational – post war architecture of Coventry. There is a risk in looking back to wax nostalgic about these past times, which were in fact complicated and messy (Ravilious for one died during service as a war artist in the second world war). Simple nostalgia is certainly not what I (nor Steele I think) am aiming for. I am interested in a kind of ambivalent history, seen too in the recent exhibition ‘The Return of Memory’ at HOME, Manchester that marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution. To given a couple of example works from that show: Declan Clarke and Sarah Perks’ work ‘One Day The Sadness Will End’ involved naming, each day, someone who was betrayed by the revolution; Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield’s ‘X-Ray Audio’ included records surreptitiously produced on discarded X-ray plates at a time when the music industry was controlled by the state.

I am interested too in how moments that are narrativised as historical turning points offer the possibility for thinking otherwise. They entertain possible futures that never happened. In our present-day when the organising principles of society have succumbed to individualism and the market, there is an appeal to looking at past times when there seemed to be a belief in more collective endeavour (even if it was an ideal not fully realised in practice).

Amelia Crouch, Tomorrow Belongs To Nobody, 2016.

My own work is not particularly focussed on Modernism. I admit I am opportunistic and in site-responsive pieces have hopped around time periods as projects have allowed. Still I have been thinking about whether anything links the approach that I take in disparate works. Broadly speaking the times I have looked at are the Enlightenment, Victorian era and Modernism. Within each there is a narrative strand of rationalism and the idea of doing things for the greater good. Within my work I have often dealt with the interrelationship of individual and collective identity and contrasted rational and irrational behaviours. Perhaps realising this will help me to be more specific and focussed with where I want to take my work next.

I sometimes feel that my artwork is divided between site-responsive pieces (that take a lead from the history of a given location) and gallery-sited works (that usually play with words). There is, however, a parallel between them in that both counterpose order and disorder, sense and non-sense. The word works appear logical, ordered and systematic but in fact their meaning is intentionally fragmented or oblique.

Jenny Steele, Not so Nautical a Divide, digital print on PVC banners, 1m x 56m, Morecambe promenade, October 2017.

To get back to where I started – as I’ve wandered off topic a little – what the Ravilious and Co. exhibition and Jenny Steele’s work have highlighted for me is the relevance of considering the visual language of particular moments or ideologies in a more intentional way. When I heard Jenny Steele talk at a previous event (at the Tetley, Leeds) one thing that impressed me about her methods was the extent of her visual research. Her outcomes are based on extensive time spent in textile archives, gallery collections and doing factory or architectural site visits. Of course I do visual research myself, but with my penchant for wordy works this often comes after I have a focus or intention, rather than driving research.

Ravilious & Co. Part 1 – Poor Memory

Eric Ravilious, Drift Boat, 1941, Museums Sheffield

Some vernacular wisdom gleaned from my Mum (a retired teacher) is that you have to tell someone something 3 times before it will sink in. This advice makes me picture a magician tapping a coin three times on a container until the coin vanishes, later to be revealed within. It came to mind recently too after I visited the exhibition Ravilious & Co. at Sheffield Millennium Galleries.

I hadn’t heard of Eric Ravilious before (or so I thought) and only went to the exhibition to pass the time when in Sheffield for an unrelated reason. I’m glad that I did; it was an enjoyable show. There was a lot to look at in the densely packed hang of over 400 pieces including paintings, drawings, engravings, ceramics, books and wallpaper by Ravilious and his associates; chronicling their impact on British visual culture during the 1930s. I was most enamoured by the work of Tirzah Garwood – which spanned figurative wood engravings and patterned paper and textile designs – and of Eric Ravilious himself. Ravilious’ designs for murals at Morley college struck me in particular. They depicted life in a boarding house with the front of the represented building cut away, to reveal interior furnishings and activities of residents.

But back to tapping thrice.

The day after I visited Sheffield I looked at the online journal Corridor8 to read a review by Jack Welsh of an event I had attended the month before. Artist Jenny Steele – whose recent work references ‘Seaside Moderne’ architecture – launched her solo exhibition ‘This Building For Hope’ at Morecambe’s Midland Hotel with a symposium that included a building tour. Jenny is a talented artist and Jack a talented writer; I wanted to use his reflections to help me reflect back on my own experiences. But what his write-up made me realise is how little of what I’d been told at the symposium had actually sunk in. Jack’s article opens with a quote from Garwood who, Jack writes: “painted the lost Ravilious mural alongside husband Eric Ravilious.” The mural he is referring to is one that was painted at the Midland Hotel in 1933. It deteriorated – thus was lost – but was rekindled in a 2013 homage that now dominates the hotel’s rotunda cafe. This mural provided a central element of our tour. It turned out, I’d been told about Ravilious and Garwood only weeks before.

Jenny Steele, The Fountain- North Beach, Screenprint on card, print on metal, 2017.

That was tap two, so what about the first?

Well, when I looked at Garwood’s work in Sheffield it brought to mind the book papers used by Persephone books. The association was confirmed when – in the gallery bookshop – I noticed Garwood’s autobiography, published by Persephone. Still (I believed) I hadn’t actually heard of Garwood before Morecambe, even if I might have seen her designs. But then last week when I was sorting out old papers for recycling, I found a copy of the Persephone biannually magazine. On the front cover a painted portrait of Garwood and inside a preview of said book that I now remember reading. Accompanying the previous was a photograph of the artist on a ladder painting the Midland mural with Ravilious.