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The draw of the Downs: Sussex in the spotlight

Published 3 March 2017

Sussex has long been a crucible for artistic activity, from the Bloomsbury set at Charleston to Constable’s Brighton escapades, writes Ian Warrell as four new exhibitions open.

  • From the Spring 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In recent years Eric Ravilious’s watercolours of the smooth, chalky flanks of the Sussex Downs have gained widespread recognition (The Westbury Horse, 1939, above). A show this summer in Eastbourne celebrates Ravilious and his circle, following two exhibitions in London this spring that look at how Sussex became a retreat and a source of inspiration for many of his contemporaries.

    Provocatively titled Sussex Modernism, a show at the capital’s Two Temple Place assembles works from galleries and artists’ houses across the county to survey the decades before the Second World War. In doing so it examines the paradox that offshoots of the great international art movement were repeatedly nurtured in the rural corners of this coastal home county.

    The list of artists drawn to Sussex in this period is impressive, embracing iconoclastic figures like sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and poet Ezra Pound, as well as the influential artist and designer Eric Gill. But their presence is all the more striking in that the standard histories of modernism portray it primarily as an urban phenomenon of industrial societies, in cities such as Paris, Vienna or New York. The unconventional artists of the Bloomsbury Group – in particular Virginia Woolf and her elder sister Vanessa Bell, the subject of the second London show, at Dulwich Picture Gallery – were crucial to the first wave of withdrawal to a countryside in which new styles and ideas were fermented away from the metropolitan forum.

    It was, of course, in London during the first decade of the century that the convoluted spirals of the group had aligned creatively, resulting in an outlook that was far more receptive to recent continental trends than the lumbering conservatism then pervading the Royal Academy. But even before she married in 1912, Woolf had been renting properties away from the crowds in unexceptional villages to the south-east of Lewes. It was during her visits to her sister at Firle and Asheham that Bell evolved a bolder means of representation, bringing to the fore her ability to place forms economically and powerfully, whether in portraiture, still-life or abstracted versions of haystacks and Sussex flint walls. In the exhibition at Dulwich, surprisingly the first devoted exclusively to Bell’s output, it is possible to see how the results informed her contributions to the Omega Workshop, where her dynamic designs were used on fabrics and ceramics.

  • Vanessa Bell, Studland Beach

    Vanessa Bell, Studland Beach, c.1912.

    Tate: Purchased 1976. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett Photo © Tate, London 2016..

  • Bell’s pragmatic decision to move to Charleston farmhouse in 1916, mid-way through the First World War, provided a safe home for her family and a refuge for the painter Duncan Grant (her intermittent lover) and David Garnett (then his), both conscientious objectors who were required to do agricultural work. The success of this unorthodox arrangement – artistically at least – reflects Bell’s determination to be both an intellectual companion and a practical facilitator to the men around her. Amid all this, she continued to develop as an artist, while also consolidating links with radical peers as great as Pablo Picasso, André Derain and Georges Braque, and prominent literary figures like E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot.

    By the 1930s the progressive artists based in or visiting Sussex were in thrall to the subversive pleasures of Surrealism. Few collectors embraced this new direction with as much passion as Edward James, who effectively transformed Monkton House, his hunting lodge near Chichester, in the rolling woods of West Sussex, into a Surrealist work of art. There he gathered paintings by René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. But, above all, he is celebrated for his collaboration with Salvador Dalí, with whom he devised the Mae West lips sofa – shaped like two giant lips – that was as brazenly seductive as a Kiss-Me-Quick hat.

    Another of the remarkable people with Sussex associations was the creative polymath Peggy Angus, who rented a cottage at Furlongs, just a stone’s throw from Charleston. Like Bell, her energy attracted friends with diverse talents: as well as Ravilious, she knew John and Myfanwy Piper, Henry Moore, and the émigré architects Serge Chermayeff and Erno Goldfinger.

    All of which suggests that it was less the familiar, stirring features of the coast and more the sociable convenience of Sussex, with its once quick and dependable train service from London, that was the main attraction for successive artistic circles. Retreat from London on these terms was not the real hardship of exile, and generally a process of taking stock: a means of mulling over ideas transplanted from elsewhere.

    In fact, some of the best art produced takes it cue from what Constable came to understand during his spells at Brighton in the 1820s, which are the subject of a concurrent show this spring at the city’s art gallery. Despairing of finding anything like his usual subject matter, Constable simply recorded what was to hand – the sea and the sky – and in the process created some of his most memorable sketches, achieving, to use his own words, “something out of nothing”.

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