Friend­ship by de­sign

An ex­hi­bi­tion mark­ing the 75th an­niver­sary of Rav­il­ious’s death ex­plores his close net­work of artist and de­signer friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors. Pey­ton Skip­with in­tro­duces us to this cre­ative cir­cle

Country Life Every Week - - EXHIBITION -

The key to this ex­hi­bi­tion lies in its sub­ti­tle: ‘The Pat­tern of Friend­ship’. This re­mark­able show of 500 or so ex­hibits cre­ated be­tween 1922 and 1942—paint­ings, wa­ter­colours, draw­ings, wood en­grav­ings, lith­o­graphs, tex­tiles, china, fur­ni­ture, mar­ble pa­pers, books and ephemera—is an en­dur­ing tes­ta­ment to a cre­ative cir­cle of friends and lovers. For those two decades, a gos­samer-like web linked the 16 artists rep­re­sented, most of whom had met at the Royal Col­lege of Art (RCA) in Lon­don.

The dates are ex­plained by the fact that eric Rav­il­ious and ed­ward Baw­den met on Septem­ber 27, 1922, the day they en­rolled at the col­lege, in­au­gu­rat­ing a friend­ship that was only sev­ered by Rav­il­ious’s un­timely death in Ice­land on Septem­ber 2, 1942. The close­ness of the bond be­tween these two very dis­sim­i­lar char­ac­ters forms the cen­tral nar­ra­tive of the ex­hi­bi­tion and of Andy Friend’s ex­cel­lent book of the same ti­tle.

In 1922, the RCA was be­ing trans­formed un­der its in­spir­ing prin­ci­pal, Wil­liam Rothen­stein, who had been ap­pointed four years pre­vi­ously. The re­forms he had in­sti­gated, es­pe­cially with re­gard to the dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines—paint­ing, sculp­ture and de­sign—were al­ready at­tract­ing out­stand­ing stu­dents to what was rapidly be­com­ing one of the coun­try’s lead­ing art col­leges.

Among those who en­rolled at roughly the same time as Rav­il­ious and Baw­den were Barnett Freed­man, Dou­glas Percy Bliss, Phyl­lis Dodd, enid Marx, Percy hor­ton, Charles Ma­honey, Char­lotte ep­ton (later Mrs Baw­den), Peggy An­gus and he­len Binyon, who are all well rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Rothen­stein had aug­mented the per­ma­nent staff of the col­lege with part-time tu­tors, in­clud­ing, in 1924, Paul Nash, whose in­flu­ence, par­tic­u­larly on Rav­il­ious, Baw­den and Marx, was sem­i­nal. Rothen­stein also per­suaded Sir Joseph Du­veen, who had re­cently funded Slade-trained Rex Whistler’s mu­ral in the Tate Gallery restau­rant, to fund sim­i­lar schemes for RCA stu­dents at Mor­ley Col­lege. Ma­honey was al­lot­ted the main hall; Rav­il­ious and Baw­den were as­signed the re­fresh­ment room.

The mu­rals were un­veiled to great acclaim by Stan­ley Bald­win in early 1930, mak­ing the artists’ rep­u­ta­tions and re­veal­ing Rav­il­ious’s fu­ture wife, Tirzah Gar­wood, to public view for the first time.

Fol­low­ing this tri­umph, the nexus moved east, ex­chang­ing

South Kens­ing­ton for the Es­sex vil­lage of Great Bard­field, where Baw­den and Rav­il­ious lodged at Brick House. Tom Hen­nell, who is one of the four re­laxed fig­ures in Baw­den’s 1932 draw­ing May in Am­brose Heath’s Good Food, had turned up there one evening while re­search­ing his book Change in the Farm.

A fur­ther coun­try out­post was added when Peggy An­gus ac­quired the lease of Fur­longs, a prim­i­tive cot­tage on the South Downs that be­came both a tryst­ing place and a cen­tre for artis­tic ac­tiv­ity. Baw­den’s May and Rav­il­ious’s

Tea at Fur­longs might sug­gest a life of leisure, but this was far from the truth. Work was not only a ne­ces­sity for both men, it was the mo­ti­va­tion for their lives, as it was for most of their friends, whose prod­ucts make for the rich di­ver­sity of this ex­hi­bi­tion. Char­lotte Baw­den’s and Tirzah’s mar­ble pa­pers com­pete for wall space with Marx’s tex­tiles, Baw­den’s Cur­wen Press wall­pa­pers and Freed­man’s lith­o­graphs. An early, grainy film, The King’s Stamp, shows Freed­man at work, cig­a­rette in mouth, de­sign­ing the 1935 Ju­bilee stamp.

A nearby show­case de­voted to ephemera pro­duced for the Artists’ In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion (AIA) re­veals an­other as­pect of the group: their com­mit­ment to the Span­ish Repub­li­can cause. It was not for noth­ing that Peggy An­gus was known as the ‘Red An­gus’.

The Towner’s cav­ernous spa­ces have been trans­formed and hu­man­ised for the oc­ca­sion. Vis­i­tors en­ter by way of a large blow-up of Rav­il­ious’s joy­fully Ital­ianate en­grav­ing con­ceived for the dust jacket of Os­bert Sitwell’s Win­ters

of Con­tent, to find them­selves in a se­quence of for­get-me-not­blue, prim­rose-yel­low and mut­ed­salmon-pink spa­ces, the colours redo­lent of Rav­il­ious’s Wedg­wood Coro­na­tion and al­pha­bet mugs.

De­spite the high ceil­ings, the em­pha­sis through­out is of in­ti­macy and dis­cov­ery. The cre­ation of a ‘stand­alone’ book­shop within the ex­hibit is a bril­liant way not only of dis­play­ing the ar­ray of books, il­lus­tra­tions and printed ephemera amassed, but also of evok­ing the spirit of Rav­il­ious’s and Jim Richards’ High Street, pub­lished by Coun­try Life in 1938.

Books, of course, are ev­ery­where through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion, as are the great pre­war wa­ter­colours of Baw­den and Rav­il­ious. One of the wit­tier jux­ta­po­si­tions is that of the lat­ter’s 1940 Bar­rage Bal­loons at Sea with Enid Marx’s chil­dren’s book Bulgy

the Bar­rage Bal­loon, dat­ing from the fol­low­ing year. The ex­hi­bi­tion is a true de­light. ‘Rav­il­ious & Co: The Pat­tern of Friend­ship; English Artist De­sign­ers: 1922 to 1942’ is at Towner Art Gallery, Col­lege Road, East­bourne, East Sus­sex, un­til Septem­ber 17 (01323 434670; www.t owner east­bourne. org.uk) ‘Rav­il­ious & Co’ by Andy Friend is pub­lished by Thames & Hud­son (£24.95)

Fur­longs (1934) by Rav­il­ious, show­ing Peggy An­gus’s prim­i­tive shep­herd’s cot­tage near Lewes, where many of the group stayed

Left: Wil­liam Ni­chol­son’s por­trait of the cap­ti­vat­ing Diana Low, with whom he, and later Rav­il­ious, had an af­fair. Above: The Wire Fence by He­len Binyon (1935)

Noc­turne, Bris­tol Docks by John Nash, who came here in 1938 with Rav­il­ious, whose Pad­dle Steam­ers at Night shows the same view

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