Monday 24 November 2008

Steven Spurrier

The pictorial map that accompanied Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons when it was first published in 1930 was drawn by Steven Spurrier (1878-1961). He was also commissioned to provide illustrations throughout the book but they didn’t match what Ransome had in mind and were never used. They are now in the collections of the Brotherton Library in Leeds. Ransome's adventure story drew upon his own childhood memories of holidays by Coniston Water in the Lake District.

Spurrier was a prolific commercial artist in the decades on either side of the Second World War with the Illustrated London News in particular using a lot of his work. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1913 and was elected RBA in 1933 and RA in 1952. Born in London, Spurrier was imbued with that urban vision of the vitality of the rural outdoors, as indicated in the holiday poster below.

Spurrier’s style captured perfectly the mood of the day. This oil painting of his from the 1940s, Portrait of a Country Girl, with its ruddy-cheeked references to a healthy and wholesome rural life, is part of this project.

James Ravilious

Just to follow up a comment on the earlier piece about Eric Ravilious, it is very true that Eric’s son James has also made a significant contribution to contemporary perceptions of the countryside. He is Eric’s second son and taught painting in London for a number of years before moving in the early 1970s to North Devon, birthplace of his wife Robin. In 1972, he was commissioned by the Beaford Centre to make a photographic record of life in and around the village of Dolton where he lived. The result is a wonderful natural portrait of the countryside and its people. The images today are to be found reproduced in books and as cards nationwide.

Beaford, a village south of Barnstaple, was chosen in 1966 as the base for a North Devon offshoot of the Dartington Hall Trust with a brief to develop education, community and arts initiatives in the area. Dartington itself has a place in the story of the twentieth century countryside. The estate was purchased by Leonard Elmhirst and his wealthy American wife, Dorothy, shortly after their marriage in 1925 and they used it as a laboratory to develop their own vision of a sustainable countryside based on agricultural development, rural regeneration and encouragement of the arts.

Friday 21 November 2008

Rural Arts and Crafts

This copper tray is the latest addition to the project. It bears the stamp of the Keswick School of Industrial Arts and was made in about 1903. The School was a scion of the Arts and Crafts movement of the second half of the nineteenth century and was dedicated to the promotion of hand-crafted skills and of inspiration drawn from the natural world, as a way of combating the perceived de-humanising effects of industrialisation.

The school was founded by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920), friend of John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter, campaigner for the protection of the Lake District and co-founder and secretary of the National Trust. It was initially based in parish rooms close to Rawnsley’s church at Crosthwaite, near Keswick. In 1894, the school moved to purpose-built premises and through its apprentice scheme and night classes steadily achieved a national reputation in decorative metalwork.

The school changed and diversified over the years but remained in operation all the way through to 1984. The tray is a reminder from the early twentieth century of a social philosophy set within a rural context. Rawnsley is a key figure in the origins of the conservation movement.

Shaping the Methodology

This is a new type of project that involves the development of new approaches. We are consciously trying to break away from the collecting framework that a museum such as this has operated within hitherto.

We are targeting the twentieth century on a decade by decade basis and will develop themes within each that will knit together into an overall story. Themes are beginning to emerge through the knocking around of key words. So for example below:

1900s end of the old order; divided society
1910s War and Remembrance
1920s discontent and inspiration
1930s resurgence; rural suburbia
1940s modernisation; the new England
1950s hope and chemicals
1960s motor cars and urban invaders
1970s agri-business; nostalgia; folk revival
1980s conservation; New Ageism
1990s contested countryside; another new order

Running through and alongside this are three thematic streams of material;

□ Art, style and design in the rural context, because our collecting has previously been characterised primarily by technology, technique and tradition

□ Rural icons of the 20th century: material with a strong rural association or origin which has crossed over into mainstream culture.

□ Commonplace/otherwise overlooked items of importance to the countryside and country life as suggested by individuals and the public.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Eric Ravilious

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), with Paul Nash as one of his teachers and Edward Bawden as a close friend, was an artist and designer who expressed the mood of the inter-war English countryside as powerfully as anyone. His downland scenes of the 1930s, drawing on his Sussex boyhood, are very human in scale and light in touch and yet there is a more sombre tone beneath, part melancholy and part nostalgia for something lost.

Ravilious brought this same perspective into a wide range of commercial design commissions. One claim has it that it was Noel Carrington – see earlier post about Puffin Books – who introduced him to Wedgwood in 1936. His designs for them, described as examples of archaic modernism, included the Garden and the Harvest Festival dinner services in the years immediately before the Second War. Ravilious died in 1942 whilst on duty as a War Artist with the RAF. Wedgwood revived the two dinner service designs in the 1950s. A plate from each has been acquired for this project.

Monday 17 November 2008

Baler twine and welly boots as 20thc icons?

There should be a place in this project for some of those less lauded but now indispensable items without which life on the land would be that much more difficult. So ran the thread of a lively discussion last week on the online forum of Farmers Weekly readers.

Baler twine in particular received many votes, with contributors vying amongst themselves to record its multitude of secondary uses on the farm: everything from calving ropes, to an emergency repair on a water main, to replacement bucket handles. No farmer it seems leaves home without a few strands in his pocket, just in case they might come in handy to mend a bit of fencing or tie up a gate.

It all goes back to the introduction of the reaper binder which by the 1890s was tying its sheaves with string, rather than the wire that was tried first. Binders were later replaced by combines but hay and straw balers continue to use large quantities of twine. Originally, the string or twine was made from fibres of the sisal plant but since the 1970s, polypropylene - a very strong and virtually everlasting man-made fibre - has taken over and become a ubiquitous part of the countryside.

Wellington boots were amongst other items mentioned. It's difficult to imagine life without them. I don't know when rubber boots became commonplace on the farm. We'll have to start logging their appearance in the photographic archive. This is an image from 1947:

Thursday 13 November 2008

Edward Bawden connections

There’s another book in our library with a Bawden connection. It’s a Penguin book called Life in an English Village and was published in 1949. It contains 16 lithographs by Edward Bawden showing the daily round of village life: the Vicar in his study, the child welfare clinic in the village hall, the farm machinery repair shop, the ladies at work in the bakery, the pupils in the village school etc.

They are charming though unsentimental vignettes that seem based on real scenes and real people.

The illustrations are preceded by an essay on village life by Noel Carrington which paints much the same picture in words. He wants to demonstrate that time doesn’t and shouldn’t stand still in the village and that the countryside, with its own life and vitality, is not simply a recreation ground for the town. Change has come to the village but for the most part – like better sanitation and housing, and the rural bus service – these are changes for the better and there is a sense in these early post war years of wanting to look forward rather than back.

Noel Carrington had been editor of Country Life books before the Second War (he also farmed at Lambourn in Berkshire) and was the man behind the concept of the Puffin picture book series for children that was launched in 1940. An early and subsequently updated title was On the Farm by James Gardner.

In its 30 pages, it manages to provide a surprisingly detailed and comprehensive breakdown of what farming was all about for both rural and urban audiences. Images such as these, absorbed at an early age, have made a lasting contribution to cultural perceptions of the countryside today.
James Gardner (1907-1995) was a commercial artist and designer who was involved with such projects during the Second War as developing dummy tanks and landing craft to fool the Germans. Subsequently he played a prominent role in the Britain Can Make It exhibition in 1946 and the Festival of Britain in 1951. In the 1960s, he designed the interior of the QE2 amongst other things and latterly was known internationally as a museum and exhibition designer.

Monday 10 November 2008

Farmers Weekly joins in; the Aga and rural culture

The Farmlife section of Farmers Weekly for 7th November 2008, includes a column about the project and encourages readers to submit ideas on what items should be included. It picks up on the point about the Land Rover as a rural icon (see first posting to this blog) and puts out a call to find the Land Rover with the best story attached.

In perhaps a similar vein, the Sunday Telegraph of 1st November reported on a competition currently being run to find Britain’s oldest working Aga. The Aga was actually invented and patented by a Nobel Prize-winning Swede, Dr Gustaf Dalen, in 1922 and manufacture under licence was introduced to this country seven years later. By the 1950s, it had become indelibly associated with the farmhouse kitchen and thereafter became one of the great domestic style icons of the twentieth century. Agas are renowned for their longevity, are much loved by their owners, and the warm glow they give off, psychologically as well as physically, is proof of the continuing strength of the rural idyll in our culture. However, economic downturns are not so kind to high status items such as this and the company recently issued a profits warning.

We have in our collections a copy of Good Food on the Aga, a book of operating instructions and recipes written by Ambrose Heath and first published in 1933. The illustrations, including the cover design, are by Edward Bawden (1903-1989). He was a friend and fellow student of Eric Ravilious at the Royal College of Art and during the 1920s and 30s became a successful illustrator and graphic artist. His images on rural themes are some of the most evocative of their day.

The seasonal recipes are organised into months and each chapter is introduced with a Bawden illustration.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Up and Running

The first item to be acquired through this project is an oil painting by Claughton Pellew-Harvey (1890-1966) which was purchased at auction at the end of October. It is a work of striking colour and vibrancy that depicts the village of Trunch in Norfolk, near where Pellew-Harvey lived, in about 1930.

Pellew-Harvey was a friend and associate of the artist brothers John and Paul Nash – he and Paul were at the Slade School of Art together – and one of that group of artists of the inter-war period that found inspiration in themes of nature and the rural landscape. For Pellew-Harvey this was particularly poignant because he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector in the First World War and thereafter sought solace deep in the Norfolk countryside with his wife and fellow artist Kechie Tennent (1888-1968).