Ben Nicholson, Cedric Morris, Christopher Neve, David Bomberg, David Jones, Edward Burra, Eric Ravilious, F.L. Griggs, Graham Sutherland, Ivon Hitchens, Joan Eardley, John Craxton, John Nash, John Piper, L.S. Lowry, Mary Potter, Paul Nash, Robin Tanner, Sheila Fell, Stanley Spencer, Walter Sickert, William Townsend, Winifred Nicholson
The enormous matter of landscape is the measure of all bulk, the floor on which we crawl.
I love this book. It is perhaps the best book about painting I have read, although in truth I haven’t read that many. I want this book beside me, or rather I want the author of this book beside, as I go around a gallery, explaining to me what I am seeing, what I am feeling.
Or maybe not, since Christopher Neve does quote, with approbation, Ben Nicholson saying that he does not like to talk in front of paintings, because it interrupts what the pictures are saying. But then, before this book, I’m not sure I really appreciated what the pictures were saying.
The book is Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th-Century British Painting by Christopher Neve. It originally came out in 1990, but this is the revised 2020 edition, with additional content on Sheila Fell.
Let me introduce you to this book. I like looking at pictures, but there has never been one type or school of art that I have been particularly drawn to. But over the last few years I have found myself more and more attracted to British landscape painting of the 20th Century. This started with a special delight in the pictures of Paul Nash and then spread from there to his brother John, their contemporary Eric Ravilious, and a few of their contemporaries. What I found in this book was how little I know of their contemporaries.
What you find in this book are short essays on some 20 British painters. Besides the Nash brothers and Ravilious, there are some painters whose work I am reasonably familiar with (Stanley Spencer, David Jones – though mostly as a writer; I have been meaning to read In Parenthesis since I came across the old Faber edition in my teens, though I still haven’t got around to it – and L.S. Lowry – though I know him for his brilliant cityscapes, there is a landscape from 1936, “A Landmark”, reproduced in this book, that I had never seen before and that I find astonishing), and others whose name I recognize without really knowing anything of their work (Walter Sickert, Graham Sutherland, Winifred Nicholson, Edward Burra). But the book is mostly taken up with painters whose names I have never heard and whose work I have never seen (F.L. Griggs, Robin Tanner, Cedric Morris, William Townsend, Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Ivon Hitchens, Mary Potter, David Bomberg), and my immediate and heartfelt response is: why have I never seen these paintings before. There is also one brief essay, “Melancholy and the Limestone Landscape”, that deals with a bunch of artists not otherwise covered, though the essay is not always about melancholy, or about limestone. Given how evocative the other essays are, this left me wanting more: what would it have been like if Neve had written at length about John Craxton or John Piper?
The essays are short, passionate, poetic, full of a deep love for the artists and their work. Many of them are based on conversations with the painters (Neve seems to have known most of them), but they are not interviews. The voice we hear is Neve’s throughout. He writes about how the paintings were made (Bomberg continuing to paint outside even when it was raining, Eardley perched on a precarious path above the seascape she painted so often, Sheila Fell unable to get away from the Cumberland village of Aspatria where she grew up, Ivon Hitchens crouching down so the scene was viewed through the uprights of grass stalks) and the techniques used. But mostly he talks about how the artists responded to the landscapes they painted, how the viewer responds to the pictures they see, how the choice of colours affected they way they saw things. It is brilliant stuff, you see the paintings as if they are fresh, still wet from the paint brush.
I admit, the first chapter, on Paul Nash who is perhaps the painter I know best in this collection, didn’t really seem to work for me. But the next chapter, on Ravilious, left me almost in tears at the end. And suddenly the language was speaking to me. Suddenly this was the best, perhaps the only way to write about painting.
What is the use, Alice said, of a book without pictures. Well there are pictures here, nicely reproduced on glossy paper. They are small, of course, because this is only a small paperback book, so the details aren’t always as vivid as they might have been. The extraordinary blotchy and somewhat unnatural colours in Sickert’s late painting of Bathampton, for instance, feel as though they should be massive so that you can drown in the colour. And the dark seas of Joan Eardley’s Catterline are possibly murkier than they might be if you were standing in front of them in a gallery. But my main complaint is that there are only 30-odd of them. Only. There should have been hundreds of them, huge, so that every painting Neve mentions, even in passing, you can see what he sees, feel what he feels.
This is a book to make you want to see paintings, because you’ve never seen them like this before.