Thursday, 18 June 2015

Recording Britain in World War 2 now showing in Southport



Byron Dawson's watercolour of a Lancashire village
The chairs were being put out in readiness for a school visit when I went into Southport’s Atkinson Art Gallery. The new exhibition ‘Recording Britain’ was on loan from the V&A. This wartime project was designed to capture the landscape and architecture of Britain at a time when many feared it was about to be destroyed by war. There are watercolours and drawings of the smoking rooms of pubs, of churches and chapels as well as landscapes featuring disused Cornish Tin Mines, Welsh slate quarries and the like. Many of the pieces have a nostalgic air of ordered scenes that time rather than war have destroyed. The pub at Ashopton is now submerged below the reservoir that provide water to Sheffield but its bare, and by modern standards, austere rooms was typical of pub interior that was dying out about the time I started  visiting such places guided by the early CAMRA publications.

The Smoke Room, Ashopton Inn, by Kenneth Rowntree (1915-97). Watercolour. Ashopton, Derbyshire, UK, 1940.

 

The idea for commissioning these works apparently came from Sir Kenneth Clark, who in later life was famous for his BBC series on Civilisation which even when it was first broadcast seemed backward looking and Eurocentric. In this collection it appears that he was not only trying to capture a Britain he feared might be destroyed but to rescue what he felt was a particularly British art form.  

The project came under the auspices of the same department as the War Artists and gave useful employment to some of the country’s finest artists including Paul Nash, John Piper and William Russell Flint. The Council does own works by many of these artists and I noticed their Paul Nash painting of the WW1 Ridge at Vimy was hung in a side room.

There was rooms for more additions like that, the John Piper from the permanent collection would not have been out of place or the very fine watercolours of the dunes and slacks where the natterjacks and the sand lizards noisily breed that are randomly displayed around the Town Hall in rooms the public never get to visit.

 

The Atkinson has only has a portion of the 1500 works that make up the collection and these do include some gems. The watercolour of the village of Downham near Clitheroe in Lancashire by Byron Dawson, an artist usually associated with the North East, is one.

Holy Trinity Church and the new Allotments, Clapham Common, London; Recording Britain (April 1940) Watercolour painting on paper Stanley Roy Badmin


I was surprised to find an absence of allotment gardens. In the WW2 gardens and public spaces were all given over to the Dig for Victory Campaign. It had a dramatic impact on the landscape. I checked out the full ‘Recording Britain’ catalogue on the V&A website and there is only one allotment picture in the whole 1500 collection and that isn’t part of The Atkinson Exhibition. There is an incidental kitchen garden in a drawing of a rural cottage on display at The Atkinson but if the Project was meant to record wartime Britain it seems a strange omission especially when they make such interesting subjects for artists.

Sunset Monksdale Rd Allotments Valerie Pirlot

 

A few weeks ago when I had a couple of hours to kill on south London I visited the Dulwich Galleries to see the much reviewed exhibition of works by Eric Rivilious.  I had spent part of the previous week at a funeral in the South Downs which features so much in his work. The vicar who took the funeral used one of the Rivolous drawings as an illustration for a sermon.


These unassuming pictures drawn with the skill of an accomplished draughtsman summon up a distant England but whereas Clarke seemed to be motivated by an inward looking vision of England that he feared was under threat Rivilious, for all his choice of quintessentilally English subjects, sees himself as part of a European tradition. I recalled that one of his drawings hung on a wall at Farnborough Rd School. The same print was on display at my school 50 years ago. It has certainly stood the test of time.
 

I remember those trains with their bench seats and the leather straps on the windows. The last time I recall travelling on one was in 1974- although BR had abolished 3rd Class by then. I can be precise about the date it was October 10th, General Election night. I was going from Leamington to London on the last train. I was a student in London but I had been helping back in Leamington during the election. I had arranged to meet up with some friends at the NLC to follow the results as they were declared. The train was delayed. All the station staff were waiting to go home. In the end one of them lit a fire for me in the Waiting Room and left me a bucket coal and they all went. In those days nobody objected if you stretched out on those bench seats and that’s what I did that night-there was a fierce heating system under them.









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