by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
Sussex Paths by Eric Ravilious, 1936

The Joy of Sussex

By Roderick Conway Morris
CHICHESTER 6 January 2023


'We travelled through the most beautiful country on a most glorious day. The sweet air and voices of wind, trees and birds, and odors of the happy ground, makes it a dwelling for immortals,' wrote William Blake in the autumn of 1800 as he journeyed with his wife to the Sussex seaside village of Felpham.

This was the first time that Blake had ever left London and seen the sea. But he was just one of a remarkably diverse range of artists - some native born, some visitors, and some settlers from elsewhere - who were captivated by Sussex's unique blend of rolling Downs, woodlands, winding rivers and precipitous coastal cliffs.

Nearly sixty of these artists, from the mid 18th century to the present day, are the subject of an engaging and enlightening exhibition, 'Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water', at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year.

Blake was persuaded to leave London for the first and only time in his life, for a sojourn that was to last three years, by the poet William Hayley, who was born in the ancient Pallants district in Chichester. The visiting artist included an illustration of himself strolling in the garden of his Sussex cottage against a backdrop of the sea, in his 'Milton, a Poem in Two books', which he began during his stay there. The work featured in its preface the now famous 'Jerusalem', in which the Downs are transformed into 'England's mountains green' and a local industrial building became one of those 'dark satanic mills' later more associated with Lancashire cotton mills.

A ghostly watercolour of Felpham is the only known pure landscape by Blake, but nearly twenty years later he made a series of 17 exquisite wood engravings for Robert John Thornton's Latin textbook 'The Pastorals of Virgil' (1821) with scenes unmistakably inspired by the Sussex countryside, which were to have an enormous influence on many subsequent artists.

The exhibition opens with these woodcuts and with Turner's atmospheric 'Chichester Canal' (c.1828), built 200 years ago this year. One of the investors in this project was the 3rd Earl of Egremont, a generous patron of both Blake and Turner, the latter being regularly provided with a studio at the Earl's Sussex home, Petworth House until 1837.

John Constable initially visited Sussex in 1824 not for artistic reasons but in the hope of treating his wife Maria's tuberculosis. He at first found Brighton a rather tawdry seaside resort, but soon began to be fascinated by its sea- and skyscapes. He came to regard the northward view towards the Devil's Dyke as 'perhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world and consequently a scene the most unfit for a picture.' But during the mid 1830s he twice stayed in Arundel and concluded: 'I never saw such beauty in natural landscape before. I wish it may influence what I do in the future.' When he died in 1837 the last painting on his easel was 'Arundel Mill and Castle', now in Toledo, Ohio, but represented here by a fine mezzotint of 1855 by David Lucas.

While some British artists in the second half of the nineteenth century were attracted by more exotic foreign climes, Sussex continued to cast its spell on those in search of stimulating and challenging landscapes closer to home. One such was William Nicholson (1874-1949), who established a regular base at Rottingdean in 1909 and produced memorable, deceptively simple images of the neighbouring hills and cliffs and, indeed, came to describe himself as 'the Painter of the Downs'.

Robert Bevan (1865-1925) was born in Hove and brought up in the village of Cuckfield. Bevan's work was influenced by the likes of Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh and he spent two summers in that powerhouse of Post-Impressionism, Pont-Aven in Brittany. Bevan applied the lessons he had learned in striking works such as 'The Town Field, Horsegate, West Sussex' (1914). Fellow member of the Camden Town Group, Lucien Pissarro, son of the veteran Impressionist Camille Pissarro, moved to England and took a pointillist view of the Sussex countryside in, for example, 'Cottage at Storrington' (1911).

In 1913 Clive Bell and Roger Fry held the ground-breaking Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition in London. One of those inspired by it was Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949), who brought a Futurist and Cubist vision to his images of the Sussex countryside. Few of his early paintings survive, but a rare and notable exception is his 'Landscape, 1913'.

During the subsequent decades, the Sussex landscape was interpreted in Post-Impressionist styles by a wide range of artists. Reflecting on the trend, Clive Bell remarked in 1913: 'Who has not, at least once in his life, had a sudden vision of a landscape as pure form? For once, instead of seeing it as fields and cottages, he has felt it as lines and colours?'

In 1916 Clive Bell's wife, Vanessa, moved to Charleston, a farmhouse near Lewes, where, along with her children, Julian and Quentin, she was joined by another artist friend, Duncan Grant, and his lover, the writer David Garnett, both conscientious objectors who were working on a nearby farm. Clive Bell, Roger Fry and other members of the Bloomsbury Group were regular visitors. Bell, Grant and Fry all left painted records of Charleston and the surrounding countryside, executed in a modernist manner.

Painting the Sussex landscape framed by windows became a virtual genre in itself during this period: 'From My Window in Ditchling' (c.1925) by Frank Brangwyn; 'View of the Sussex Weald' by C.R.W. Nevinson (c.1927) and 'The Terrace' by David Jones (1929) are charming examples of the artful use of this vantage point here.

Eric Ravilious's family moved to Eastbourne when he was five and his natural abilities as a draughtsman won him scholarships to Eastbourne School of Art and, in 1922, to the Royal College of Art in London, where he joined the Design School there, studying illustration and wood engraving. Edward Bawden and Douglas Percy Bliss were fellow students and their teachers included Paul Nash, who shared Ravilious's interest in the possibilities of watercolour as a modern medium. Nash's boldly schematic oil 'The Rye Marshes, East Sussex' (1932) is among his works on display here.

In 1926 an exhibition at the V&A entitled 'Drawings, Etchings and Woodcuts by Samuel Palmer and other Disciples of William Blake' introduced a new generation of engravers to Blake's woodcuts for Thornton's 'The Pastorals of Virgil'. The experience of seeing the show left Ravilious 'fired with enthusiasm for rural endeavours' and he went with Bawden and Bliss to Shoreham in West Sussex early in 1927.

Another pupil and friend of Nash, who worked almost entirely in watercolour, was the Rye-born Edward Burra. Better known for his cosmopolitan images of urban life and bars in places such as Harlem, Mexico, Spain and France, Burra also produced memorable paintings of his home county, such as 'The Harbour, Hastings' (1947).

Between 1934 and 1939 Ravilious was a frequent guest at the painter Peggy Angus's Sussex cottage Furlongs. They went on painting expeditions together, one of the results of which was Angus' 'Asham Cement Works' (1934). While at the cottage Ravilious rescued two old horse-drawn Crimean War 'fever wagons' from a junk yard, converting one into a studio and the other into living quarters to rove the countryside in search of views. And, as the artist recorded, 'Furlongs altered my whole outlook and way of painting, I think because the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious.' Among the fruits of this extraordinarily productive period in Sussex was his superb 'Chalk Paths' (1935) and his tribute to Angus, 'Tea at Furlongs' (1939).

Ravilious was one of the primary inspirations for another highly talented wood engraver, Gwenda Morgan, who was born in Petworth in West Sussex in 1908. She studied at Goldmiths' and then Grosvenor School in London but returned to live in Sussex, whose landscape became her lifelong theme. She won commissions during the 1930s, but in 1939 joined the Women's Land Army. After seven years working on the land, she resumed her artistic career and her evocative post-war engravings are one of the revelations of the exhibition.

The Sussex landscape has since the war proved an attractive subject for numerous photographers, both British and foreign. One of the pioneers was Lee Miller, the American model and fashion photographer turned war reporter, whose archive is now preserved at Farleys House, her former home in East Sussex. Bill Brandt used the stony beaches and backdrop of chalk cliffs at Seaford as a setting for a number of his intriguing nudes. Inspired partly by the work of Henry Moore these studies have an extraordinary sculptural and often surreal quality, blurring the boundaries between nature and the female form.

Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water; Pallant House, Chichester, 12 November 2022 - 23 April 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024