Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent
Duncan Grant, Landscape, Sussex, 1920, oil on canvas Tate, Bequeathed by Frank Hindley Smith 1940
Sussex, a county of curvaceous landscapes of chalk and trees and iconic chalk cliff coastlines, has long opened its arms to artists, welcoming them with its soft beguiling beauty.
In a delightful exhibition at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery we can now enjoy the beauty of Sussex through the eyes of 50 artists and 100 works of art, including paintings, drawings, photography, and sculpture from the 18th century to the present day.
Artists featured include William Blake, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, William Nicholson, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Lee Miller, Edward Burra, Paul Nash, Ivon Hitchens and Eric Ravilious, ending the show with works by contemporary artists including Tania Kovats and Wolfgang Tillmans.
A site of artistic exploration and inspiration for artists and writers alike, for some, Sussex was their place of birth; for others, a temporary or transient home, or opportunity for alternative lifestyles; a retreat, or place of solace and repair after war; while others just fell in love with it.
Perhaps as a result of these artists and writers, Sussex possibly more often than any other region has long been considered to evoke the idea of the English countryside. The exhibition considers that ideal, and aims to look anew at the history of British landscape art through the prism of this distinctive county.
Before entering the galleries, on one side of the corridor is a large reproduction of a topographical map from 1795, appealing to us all to search for familiar places and names. Some Constable sketches are opposite and a copy of a plate showing Blake’s cottage at Felpham. Blake lived in the coastal village for three years from 1800 to 1803, a period that inspired work on Milton: A Poem, which includes in its preface Blake’s celebrated poem hymn ‘Jerusalem’.
Joseph Mallord William Turner [1775-1851), Chichester Canal, 1828 c. Oil on canvas, Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.
From then on, the artworks take us on a journey into a typical Sussex landscape, from the rolling expanses of the South Downs, along weathered chalk paths, onto slopes and hilltops past sites of prehistory, past tangled bosky hollows, brick and flint walls, out onto wind-blown beaches where, rising into the sky over cliffs and Downs are gulls or parachutists…
In the opening gallery Turner’s glorious Chichester Canal, 1828, on loan from Tate, upstages all. Turner painted this Romantic golden vision of the canal with cathedral spire in the distance when staying at Petworth House, the country house of the Earl of Egremont. The Lord Egremont patronised both William Blake and, more famously, Turner who regularly visited and had a studio in the palatial house.
At the turn of the 20th century, British artists were influenced by the bold colours of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism coming from the continent. Sussex became a site of artistic experimentation. For instance, in work by William Nicholson, who fell in love with landscape painting while staying at Rottingdean, a village along the coast from Brighton; he dubbed himself the ‘Painter of the Downs’. I loved his 1909 painting of the Cliffs at Rottingdean, a giddy view down towards the 18th century smuggler’s cove at Saltdean, and his painting of the village windmill perched on the skyline.
Also works from the Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, along with Grant’s lover, the writer David Garnett, who moved to the dilapidated Charleston farmhouse near Lewes in 1916 and famously created a retreat for artists and writers during the First World War. There, they adopted an alternative way of living which rejected societal norms. Still intact today, the farmhouse and setting inspired many paintings, including Bell’s The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex (c.1916) and Grant’s Landscape, Sussex (1920), which show the influence of Post-Impressionism.
The artist Gluck lived in Steyning in 1944 and led an unconventional lifestyle, breaking gender norms and rejecting her birthname, choosing to be identified instead as ‘Gluck, no prefix, suffix, or quotes’. The Wave (1966) is displayed in a Gluck frame, a three-tiered type of frame patented by the artist.
Paul Nash [1889 – 1946), The Rye Marshes, East Sussex, 1932, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art
Gallery, Hull Museums, UK© Ferens Art. Gallery /Bridgeman Images
In the wake of the destruction of the First World War, Official War Artists Paul Nash and C. R. W. Nevinson found themselves searching for beauty and normality in the natural landscape. I was struck by Nevinson’s View of the Sussex Weald, c.1927, a work so unlike earlier works of his I’d seen and loved that usually were full of drama and angles and bold colour. Yet, this is a lovely depiction of spring blossoms and delicate catkins so ripe and full I felt they might set off my hay fever! Apparently, Nevinson, had converted a caravan post-war and travelled around the south of England, painting in all weathers.
Nature is said to bring balm to the soul. Not for the first, or last time, Sussex became a haven. Paul Nash became a war artist twice over. In a more peaceful time, in 1932, Nash was commissioned to produce paintings for the Shell oil company’s advertising campaign that was aimed at getting people into their cars and out into the countryside, touring counties like Sussex. Yet, strangely, Rye Marshes, East Sussex is devoid of nature, or people.
Eric Ravilious who grew up in Eastbourne and died during active service when his aircraft went down off Iceland in the Second World War had a lifelong fascination for the chalk downland characteristic of Sussex. Unsurprisingly, he is well represented in the show for his watercolours around his home at Furlongs have become synonymous with Sussex and the notion of ‘Englishness’. The watercolour Chalk Paths (1935) with its enticing contours and colours is considered a quintessential view of the South Downs.
Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths, 1935, watercolour on paper. Private collection. © Bridgeman Images
In 1929, Ravilious made a wood-engraving of The Long Man of Wilmington for the month of May in an almanack he was producing - which is why there’s a great bull incongruously leaping into the picture (Taurus, the zodiac sign). The mysterious figure of a man carved into a chalk hillside was once thought to originate in the Iron Age or even earlier, but is now believed to have been created around 1710.
So far, so representational. But Surrealism also features in the exhibition. Photography is strong too, and there are some rarely exhibited black-and-white photographs of the Sussex landscape on view by, for example, Eileen Agar and Paul Nash that depict everyday objects such as ladders, haystacks (Agar’s witty shot of a towering haystack seems to have a bite taken out of it!) and wood stacks (Nash’s Woodstack and Barn, Rye, Sussex, 1932).
Astute photos like these of ordinary objects seen from unusual angles crop up pleasingly throughout the show. Case in point, Edwin Smith’s Peggy Angus’s House near Firle neatly evoking the brick and flint vernacular architecture.
The years after the Second World War saw artists radically redefining the landscape. They used paint to evoke, rather than show places such as the beach at Brighton or a river - or the coastal defences as in Keith Vaughan’s magnificent abstract view of those near Seaford in East Sussex (c.1959-62). Bold and brilliant, it was totally different from Vaughan’s usual subjects. Vaughan’s paintings apparently were usually memories of places, not the result of working outside.
Wolfgang Tillmans [b. 1968), End of Land I, 2002, Ink on paper, Towner Eastbourne, © Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London and Hove
Landscape art post-war began to shift towards conveying the ‘feeling’ of being in a place, rather than just looking. Wolfgang Tillmans End of Land 1 chromogenic print from 2002 might push that a touch too far for some people, as it depicts a woman lying flat on the edge of a cliff looking over… Unsettling for some, evocative for me; Beachy Head beckoned mightily: I must walk there again.
Beyond lay the three newly commissioned works for the exhibition, one of which is a work that was inspired by a walk carver Jo Sweeting and writer Louisa Thomsen Brits made in the sweltering heat of last summer along the Cuckmere River. Sculpted from chalk boulders found in the landscape and engraved with text celebrating the Sussex dialect, it’s called, Errare, deriving from the Latin for "to wander."
And the parachutists? There they are, enjoying themselves, in a 2007 photographic print from Simon Roberts, floating like kites over the South Downs Way.
Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
Showing until: 23 April 2023.
Visit pallant.org.uk to book tickets or for more information.
Birds and Beasts: The Wild Escape, a free exhibition is on until 30 April 2023 in the Print Room at Pallant House Gallery. I recommend it. Wonderful prints and drawings of birds and beasts by artists such as Elisabeth Frink, Graham Sutherland, Pablo Picasso and Enid Marx. From Frink’s sparrowhawk in flight and swooping owl, peregrine, badger and hare, to Y is for Yaffle from Enid Marx, and stunning stag beetles by Sutherland, or the 1965 lino and woodcut by Gertrude Hermes showing a murmuration of Starlings diving down to their night-time roost, it is a treat. Terrific.
What’s more, at a time when so much of our wildlife is under threat, this exhibition celebrates the many wonderful species that call this island home and the joy and inspiration they have given us. The exhibition is part of Art Fund’s Wild Escape initiative to engage children and young people in biodiversity.