Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Light and Shade

During the last few days, our oven has exploded, the fridge has broken and my car's dashboard keeps flashing an orange light, warning of imminent doom. It feels as if we're in a Stephen King movie. As far as I know, there are no Native American burial grounds under our house, but we're near the site of the Battle of Lewes, so perhaps some tormented medieval souls are making their presence felt.

This morning I took the car to be serviced and walked home, cutting through some of the many twittens that are tucked away behind the main roads. Because it was so early, the sun was still low and I was struck by the contrast between the intense, golden light of the castle walls and the gloomy, muted colours of the narrow twittens.

I don't normally walk around thinking about light and shade, but last night I went to a fascinating talk about Eric Ravilious, given by author (and blogger) James Russell. Organised by the wonderful Much Ado Books, it was so successful that the venue had to be to changed to a larger place.

I'd say that there were at least 150 people at the talk - a number that any bookseller would be very happy with. Even the largest city centre stores struggle to achieve figures like that, so it's remarkable that an independent bookshop in a small Sussex village attracted such a good turnout.

It's a great tribute to both the growing popularity of Eric Ravilious and the marketing skills of Much Ado Books and James Russell.

I seemed to be the only person there under 50. I'm not quite sure why, although I know how difficult it is to do anything in the evening if you're in the tunnel of parenthood. Perhaps Banksy would have drawn a different crowd.

As for the talk itself, I think it would have been interesting even if I'd never heard of Eric Ravilious, thanks to James Russell's passion about his subject. Using a series of slides, he showed the contrast between Ravilious's paintings and the actual scenes. To a layman like me, it was a revelation.

For example, here is a lithograph that Ravilious made of Newhaven Harbour:

And here is the actual scene, which I've pinched from James Russell's blog:

I had no idea that Ravilous had excercised his artistic licence so liberally, compressing distances and altering the perspective to suit his purposes. That is one of the things that makes him a great artist, along with his ability to capture the spiritual quality of a place:

For example, compare this watercolour by Ravilious of the South Downs in winter:

With this traditional downland scene by a contemporary artist:

Perhaps my favourite Ravilious painting is 'Dangerous Work at Low Tide', which comes from the final years of his life when he was an official war artist. I bought a 420mm x 594mm print from the Ministry of Defence for the ridiculously cheap price of £18.

If this takes your fancy, you can buy it here.

Even if you only have a very casual interest in the art of the interwar years, I'd strongly recommend getting along to one of James Russell's talks. Recent venues have included London, Oxford and Bristol, so it's worth checking his blog to see where he's off to next.

Finally, a quick plug for Much Ado Books. The owners - Kate Olsen and Nash Robbins - ran a successful bookshop in Marblehead, Massachusetts for over 20 years before moving to Alfriston in Sussex. When 'Much Ado' first opened, I confidently predicted that they'd close within two years because Alfriston was too small to sustain a bookshop.

Instead, they went on to win the Independent Bookseller of the Year award and now have a thriving business which is an object lesson in how to run a bookshop in the age of Amazon and ebooks. It just shows how much I know.

In hindsight, they followed one of the golden rules of bookselling: open a shop where there are lots of posh people. Alfriston may be small, but it has a wonderful catchment area full of literary types who think that buying books at discounted prices from Amazon is insufferably vulgar. The owners have successfully exploited the area's Bloomsbury connection and both the stock and presentation are pitch perfect. It's hard to believe that they're relative newcomers to Sussex.

On April 22nd they're holding a book swap, hosted by Scott 'Me and My Big Mouth' Pack and Robert Husdon. The idea is that you bring a book that you love along and swap it for one you haven't read.

Frankly, if I love a book, I'm buggered if I'm going to let anyone else have it. I don't even lend books, so I'm not sure whether I'll go or not. Perhaps I could bring a book I'm not that keen on and pretend to like it, but I suppose that really isn't entering into the spirit of the occasion.

On the subject of books, I almost forgot to mention why James Russell was holding an event with Much Ado Books. He's written some books - beautiful, lavishly-illustrated hardbacks - that focus on different aspects of Ravilious's art. Here's one I bought earlier:

I wouldn't be tactless enough to include an Amazon link, but they are available from all good booksellers and, no doubt, some bad ones too.


MikeP said...

I love Ravilious - gave my sister who lives in Arlington the Sussex volume for Christmas. My bibliophile uncle used to go on about him at great length when I was a nipper - didn't pay much attention at the time, but something stuck. When I was a grown-up publisher back in 1982 or thereabouts I put 'Wiltshire Landscape' on the cover of the Hogarth Press paperback of T F Powys's Mr Weston's Good Wine, and was very pleased with myself - it fitted the book perfectly.

Thanks for the MoD tipoff - who'd have thought it? The buy link isn't working due to 'unprecedented levels of traffic' - perhaps you've started something! Or perhaps it's just people trying to buy aircraft carriers.

Martin said...

I quite like the idea of a book swap. Usually, once I've read a book, I rarely get time to read it again. And when I do get the time, I want to read something new.

Love the Ravilious paintings, and saw the signed lithograph of Newhaven Harbour on the Antiques Roadshow on Sunday.

By the way, couple of your images have gone AWOL.

Rog said...

The name "Ravilious" makes a good original adjective for his work.

Steerforth said...

Mike - Off topic, I know, but I'll shortly be moving to a more visitor-friendly unit, just off the A27, so if you're passing by, let me know and I'll pop the kettle on.

Martin - It's a lovely idea, but if I love a book I can't bear to part with it, even if I know that it's unlikely I'll ever read it again.

Hopefully the images are okay now - Blogger's been playing up a lot today.

Rog - You're right - a sort of cross between ravishing and gorgeous.

MikeP said...

Will do, back in May some time.

James Russell said...

Great to meet you last night - thanks for coming and thanks for your generous report on proceedings.

I'm glad you were able to devote a part of today to the pleasures of light and shade!

I'll pop in to the Visitor-Friendly Unit next time I'm struggling along the A27.

Sarah said...

There's no way I'd part with a much-loved book either. Books I lend have a habit of never being seen again.

I'd quite happily 'lend' one I didn't care for though.

There's that online booking swapping site, BookCrossing, or something. I tried it once here in France, got rid of a book, it took weeks to be picked up and never got heard of again.

Steerforth said...

There's a great blog called Bookcrossing, here:

Re: lending, I'm afraid that I'm one of those awful people who is a bit obsessive about a book's condition, which is the other reason why I don't loan them. I can't bear seeing a much-loved novel return (if I'm lucky) with creases and coffee stains.

I used to lend things all the time. I let a friend take my camera on holiday with him, as he didn't have one. When he returned it, the camera didn't work and I opened up the battery compartment. As I lifted the lid, a load of sand and seawater came out.

Never again!

Annabel (gaskella) said...

He's a wonderful artist. I was just looking at the new book that's just come out The High street which he illustrated, in our indie bookshop the other day, but couldn't quite bear to part with £20 for it. I would love to have some Ravilious prints in the house though...

I'm finding it easier to let go of books these days, but I still keep around a third of what I read.