Why History?

In 1976 I arrived from my country grammar school at the Historical shrine of Peterhouse. At the time, although the smallest of the colleges of Cambridge, it had the highest number of History dons.

The study of History was taken seriously and the effect on me was to be lifelong. The key people for me were Maurice Cowling and Brian Wormald. Sitting in front of these strange, intense men reading an undergraduate essay was profoundly challenging. Historical writing involved seeking to understand the reality behind why men acted in the way they did; and that reality was hugely complex and not to be confused with the descriptions of it in the work of historians. For those writing about the past always have an agenda. The identification and evaluation of that agenda is part of the reader’s challenge. The effort to abandon – or at least admit to – that agenda is part of the historian’s challenge.

Henry Lamb

To the Salisbury Museum to see a good show of Henry Lamb’s work. The Gallery isn’t big enough for a major retrospective, but it was a good effort. The challenge with someone like Lamb is to persuade people to come and see pictures by a painter few can have come across. A secret weapon in this case turned out to be the extremely well-known portrait of the young Evelyn Waugh, which one wants to say anyone would recognise.

Charming staff made the visit special by proudly showing me some of their Rex Whistler archive.

Sir Denis Mahon

At Westport House in the West of Ireland this week, I saw a portrait of Mahon as a young man. He wears a suit and his OE tie. Turns out that his mother was a Browne, the family name of the Marquess of Sligo, owner of the house until recently.

Mahon doesn’t come across too well from his part in the Tate Affair. He left behind a string of silly, rather hysterical notes, in which he commented on the situation as if he were a member of Dad’s Army, using quaint, absurd quasi-military language. He clearly regarded hounding John Rothenstein as a great game, which he relished. It was disappointing to find his own papers inaccessible because uncatalogued.

Anthony Fry at the Holburne, Bath

Chris Stephens from Tate Britain took over at the Holburne last year and this exciting show is an example of how he intends to develop aspects of this Bath gallery, which is situated  at the end of the extraordinary Great Pulteney Street.

It is not easy to see a collection of Fry’s pictures ; there haven’t been many shows and examples of the work trickle only occasionally through the sale rooms, but never in any quantity. So it is a treat to see a carefully constructed group of his pictures, covering in a couple of small galleries a number of aspects of his long, if sporadic, painting career.

He presumably had enough money not to need to live off his painting output. This impression is reinforced by there having been a long period when it is said he gave up painting altogether. Such a luxury does not always result in successful pictures; one only has to think of the self-indulgence of some of Prunella Clough’s later work, after such promising beginnings in the 1940s. She seems not to have needed to sell anything because of family money.

Fry, on the evidence of this show, avoided complacency. He experimented as he moved around subjects and styles. The captions suggest that the fact that he lived in a variety of places in the world for long periods had no effect on his work, but one might query that. It seems to me that his palette must have been influenced by the places he lived in, not to mention the occasional appearance of camels and elephants. His palette reminded me of Craigie Aitchison’s.

So, interesting pictures outside any group or style; yet another 20th century British  artist developing his ideas almost in isolation from any identifiable mainstream influence.

Great things will happen at the Holburne. We should all keep an eye on it.


Bawden at the Fry Art Gallery

The private view yesterday was full of an enthusiastic local crowd. Edward Bawden is the poster boy of the Fry Art Gallery; something close to their raison d’etre. The Gallery always has plenty of his work on show and they busy themselves in the London art market from time to time snapping up work by their favourite artist which appears there. Not that they seem to have much in the way of funds: the Gallery is as near as one can get amongst places where serious modern art can be seen to a sort of enlarged shed.

If that sounds critical it is not intended as such. As readers will know, I adore Bawden’s watercolours, and also the pictures by many of the artists normally represented in this wonderful Gallery. The show they have on at the moment is more of the usual: a bewildering display of examples of Bawden’s many artistic talents. Why he isn’t presented nationally in the way that Piper is, I can’t imagine. He had talent for so many different artistic endeavours.

So well done to this tremendous Gallery; putting a show like this on in the conditions they have to work with is nothing short of a miracle. All London modern British art lovers should get out to Saffron Walden as soon as they can.

Ghika and Craxton at the British Museum

There is a great treat in store in Room 5 at the BM: a curious show of the work of the Greek artist, Ghika, and of John Craxton. They knew each other in Greece for many years and they also mixed there with the cosmopolitan world of Paddy Leigh-Fermor and his wife, Joan ( nee Eyres-Monsell).

One hardly ever sees a picture by Ghika on public display in England these days, although there was a time in the mid-20th century when his work was fashionable here. He knew Cyril Connolly ( and presumably Peter Watson), such that he was featured in Horizon in March 1946. There was also a retrospective at the Whitechapel in 1968.

One can certainly see the influence of Ghika on Craxton; their landscape treatment of scenes in Greece has similarities which become obvious when their work is juxtaposed in this way.

There is a large accompanying catalogue, which I am looking forward to reading. Why this show should be at the BM, with its crushing hordes of tourists and schoolchildren, is a mystery to me. Perhaps there is a curator who is a fan of the pictures.

Ravilious and friends at the Towner Gallery

Very serious and impressively put together show. This is as good as it gets when exploring the world of a series of excellent British artists:Ravilious, Bawden, Paul Nash, John Nash, Barnett Freedman, Percy Horton, Tom Hennell, Enid Marx etc. Ravilious came from Eastbourne, hence the link. Quite a few loans from the wonderful Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden.

The draftsmanship of Horton was a revelation to me; why does one see so little of his work in the main London salerooms? Interestingly from a Rothenstein angle was the support a number of the artists got from William Rothenstein at the RCA in the 1920s.

Keith Tyson at the Jerwood Gallery

Something unusual happened yesterday.We went to the wonderful Jerwood Gallery in Hastings to see the Eileen Agar display.Before we found it, we walked into the Keith Tyson show of studio drawings.

Now I had heard of Tyson, but had crudely assumed, based on nothing at all, that he wasn’t my type of artist: too much of the Turner Prize and not enough traditional skill as an artist. Turns out I was wrong. We absolutely loved the work on display; thoughtful and thought-provoking. We watched the artist talking on a screen and found him entirely sensible, cleverly explaining his objectives.

So one eats humble pie.

Nicolas Nabokov and Peter Watson

Just finished reading a good biography of Nabokov by Vincent Giroud. No mention of Watson, but their worlds overlapped heavily at certain points and they knew each other in pre-War Paris and later.

The early connection was through the French music scene. Watson knew Fevrier, Sauguet, Auric, Poulenc, Markevitch and others, as did Nabokov. He also of course knew many members of the same French high culture, as did Nabokov, such as Comte Etienne de Beaumont,  Comtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles and the Princesse de Polignac, as well as Russian exiles like Princess Natalie Paley and Pavel Tchelitchew. They were both friendly with people like Pierre Colle.

Later, with Nabokov’s work for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Watson would have had another link into him through their mutual friend, Stephen Spender, who was Encounter’s first editor. Watson attended a CCF meeting in Paris with Spender.

There is a report of Watson being seen having lunch with Nabokov in New York after the War.