Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: The Art of Acquisition: The Great Bardfield Artists' Houses; from Eric Ravilious to Grayson Perry

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: The Art of Acquisition: The Great Bardfield Artists' Houses; from Eric Ravilious to Grayson Perry

Article excerpt

The Art of Acquisition: the Great Bardfield Artists' Houses; From Eric Ravilious to Grayson Perry

Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, until 25 October

When I went to visit Edward Bawden he vigorously denied that there were any modern painters in Essex. That may not have been true then -- this was in the 1980s -- or even now. What is indisputable, however, is that there have been plenty of artists in the county. They are the subject of two small but delightfully jam-packed exhibitions at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden.

Bawden (1903-1989) is at the heart of both of them, even if the second point he made to me -- equally emphatically -- was that he called himself a designer rather than an artist ('out of self-defence, mainly'). That distinction, and the quirky humour, are both relevant to the question of Essex art, especially the variety that is the focus of attention at the Fry.

From the early 1930s to the 1960s there was an informal artist's colony in the north of the county, centred on the village of Great Bardfield. It included, among others, Bawden, his friend Eric Ravilious who lived for a while nearby at Castle Hedingham, plus the painters John Aldridge, Michael Rothenstein, Sheila Robinson and Walter Hoyle.

This was as strongly flavoured in its way as the settlement of abstract artists on the other side of England, in St Ives beside the sea. But the emphasis was quite different. The Cornish modernists were affected by currents from abroad; Mondrian almost joined them, until he reflected that there was too much nature around in Cornwall and headed for New York instead. The Essex crowd, in contrast, were sturdily indigenous in their influences and revelled in the rural scene.

Several of them devoted as much energy and attention to design -- including interior design -- as they did to painting pictures. Accordingly, one of the mini-exhibitions at the Fry is devoted to the houses of the Great Bardfield artists. These were decorated in an idiosyncratic manner, blending pieces of British folk art such as Staffordshire figures with items of their own design. Among the latter, the wallpapers by Bawden and Ravilious's ceramics were outstanding.

The overall effect is exuberant, cluttered and eclectically cosy. On show there is a dresser crammed with bits and pieces of old pottery, interspersed with Ravilious's plates, teapots, bowls and mugs, produced by Wedgwood. …

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