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As we bid farewell to our summer exhibition, some observations on British Art:Ancient Landscapes by Engagement Volunteer, Alan Crooks…

With my scientific background (former Health Service scientist and latterly a Teacher of Chemistry) I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that there are several artists featured in this exhibition of whom I had never previously heard, despite them being well-known – even famous. Among these are Eric Ravilious and Derek Jarman.  Indeed a major joy of having retired and taken on a role as a Museum Volunteer is the opportunity to learn things outside of my previous sphere.


Eric Ravilious

My scientific background gives me a completely different perspective on many of the works, that were not picked up by the curator, Professor Sam Smiles, either in his introductory lecture or in the accompanying book. For example, several visitors have commented to me that they are not keen on Derek Jarman’s ‘Avebury Series IV’ (1973) picture. However, this is one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition because, I think,  it evokes the scientific approach to archaeology. Thus the horizontal and vertical lines are evocative of graph paper, hinting at the need to precisely record the positions in which artifacts are found, whereas the horizontal lines also hint at stratification: the layering of deposits within an archaeological site according to age. The images of the stones exemplify the need to accurately record artifacts by drawing.

To another visitor however, the colours in the picture were reminiscent of Mondrian art.  The Dutch artist and architect, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)  evolved a non-representational art form called ‘neoplasticism’ which consists of a white ground upon which is painted a grid of horizontal and vertical black lines and the three primary colours. Piet Mondrian was another artist of whom I had never heard until mentioned by this visitor.

Having never previously heard of Derek Jarman, it is interesting how his name has impinged on my consciousness several times since this exhibition started, including two BBC Radio 4 programmes. One of these was ‘The Film Programme’, in June,  when they were discussing Jarman’s 1990 film, ‘The Garden’. Jarman created a garden on a shingle beach in the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station. He retreated here to live in a “humble fisherman’s cottage” when he was diagnosed as having HIV AIDS, the “gay man’s plague”.  Jarman commented that he “became a hermit in the desert of illness”

While on the topic of stratification, another visitor commented on Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Two Figures (Menhirs) (1964) asking, “How did Barbara Hepworth find such a large block of slate with no cleavage lines?”.  In fact, if one looks at the ‘face-edge’, to use a woodworking term, one can see that there are cleavage planes, but the slate has been so highly polished as to render them almost invisible. Another visitor wondered whether Barbara Hepworth had selected the block because of the “lovely pattern” on its surface. All of a sudden I realised that this pattern was a fossil whereas, hitherto I had wondered whether she had carved it, even though the sculpture is perfectly smooth to the touch. This set my brain to ‘scientist mode’. Slate is a metamorphic rock; that is a very old rock that has (usually) been subjected to enormous heat and pressure, sufficient to change its appearance and behaviour. Slate is derived from an original shale-type sedimentary rock. However, compared to most metamorphic rocks, it was formed under relatively low heat and pressure, leading to ‘low grade metamorphism’. For this reason, any fossils formed during the sedimentary stage  can sometimes survive. The description of this fossil given by The Tate is that it “was caused by a small creature swimming through the silt that solidified, preserving the pattern of eddying mud in the stone”.

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) served as a war artist and died when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland, while involved in a search for another aircraft which had failed to return from a patrol. Ravilious’ depiction of barbed wire in his pictures, for example, ‘The Long Man of Wilmington, reflects his wartime experiences. Professor Smiles described Ravilious’ ‘The Valley of the White Horse’ (1939) as having a foreground like the hide of an animal with hairs coming out. However, a visitor to the exhibition commented that this part of the picture was reminiscent of the top surface of the wing of a military aircraft, painted in desert camouflage colours.  When I mentioned this to a different visitor on another day, he commented that this was unlikely as the Desert Air Force (DAF) was not formed until 1941, and Ravilious had been killed in 1942. However, these were interesting conversations.

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The Long Man of Wilmington, 1939 Eric Ravilious (Victoria and Albert Museum)

A gentleman came in and stopped sharply in front of Yoshijiro Urishibara’s two colour woodcuts of Stonehenge. Turning to me he commented that he immediately recognised these as being Japanese due to the use of the pigment, Prussian blue. He went on to explain that Japanese painters and woodblock artists didn’t have access to a long-lasting blue pigment until they were able to import Prussian blue from Europe in the 1820s. Prussian blue, (iron (III) hexacyanoferrate (III)) was the first stable and relatively light-fast blue pigment to be widely used following the loss of knowledge of how to prepare Egyptian blue. Hitherto, artists had been using indigo or other dayflower petal dyes. However, the synthetic pigment was more vivid, provided a greater tonal range and was more resistant to fading.

This conversation made a nice link with a Salters ‘A’Level Chemistry unit I used to teach called ‘Colour By Design’ which brought together ideas about why things (including rainbows!) are coloured, and ways of making colour. The Unit explained how from earliest times people used natural substances around them to colour themselves and their possessions, and went on to discuss the use of mineral pigments and synthetic dyes.

Altogether this was a fascinating exhibition which involved me in many interesting conversations in which I have been able to bring my scientific background to bear.