Before covid, I used to go to art history talks often and have been to some wonderful talks at the National Gallery, Tate, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy of Arts and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) over the years, and heard some great speakers, like Simon Schama and Alastair Sooke; artists like Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin and Barbara Rae. London is such a fantastic place to be if you enjoy art … and music and theatre, too, of course. Over the last year or so, as things have opened up again, I’ve been to a number of exhibitions, like Whistler at the RA, Van Gogh Portraits at the Courtauld, but not a talk. In fact, a lot of talks are still online and while I’ve done some excellent online courses with the brilliant Marie-Anne Mancio at Hotel Alphabet, I was really longing to get back to that ‘in person’ experience. Thus, when I got an e-newsletter from the V&A announcing an onsite talk about ‘The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars’, and describing how it would ‘explore how artists such as Eric Ravilious sought to respond to their times’, I couldn’t resist booking a ticket. It was Eric Ravilious that did it for me. I’ve become a great fan of his work in recent years and now his beautiful paintings are finally getting the notice they deserve. Finally, because Ravilious died in 1942, aged just 39. He worked as a war artist– as well as painting lovely landscapes and working in other mediums – and a plane he was in was lost off Iceland.
I like to combine my art excursions with finding somewhere good to eat. Timing yesterday meant I either ate very early or (for me) late. The talk started at 7.00 p.m. but we were asked to arrive at 6.30, and it would end at 8.00, followed by a drinks reception. Well, I’m an early riser and thus early eater, so I decided to eat first. But something light, and it turned out that tapas was ideal. Of course, if I’d been in Spain then tapas early evening with a drink before an event would be followed by a late supper, even as late as 10 or 10.30. But that’s more like my bedtime!
Getting to the V&A is generally easy for me: a bus or car to Richmond and a half hour journey on the District Line to South Kensington, followed by just a couple of minutes walk. However, we are in the midst of a series of rail strikes. The Tube had been on strike the day before, but was starting to run again. It wasn’t running from Richmond in the morning so I was uncertain I’d make it to the talk, but as the day went on the services appeared to return to normal. When I got to the station in the afternoon, I was assured they were normal … I only discovered that wasn’t strictly true when I set off for home!
Just a minute or so’s walk from South Kensington Tube station, the bottom part of Exhibition Road opens wide into a pedestrianised area full of restaurants and cafes. On a warm summer’s evening, it was just the place to find somewhere to eat and I chose Brindisa so I could have a couple of tapas and a drink. I’ve tried to get in here before, but it’s been fully booked. It pretty much was yesterday but I was so early, they had a table I could have until 7. I assured them I’d be long gone before then as I was attending an event at the V&A. It was a perfect evening to be outside. It was 26C and slightly muggy, so I was grateful for a gentle breeze that cooled things down.
The service was friendly and very quick and efficient. I ordered a glass of cava (£7.50) and a carafe of tap water came too.
I ordered a couple of tapas. It’s always slightly tricky wondering how many will be enough, but one can always order more. A salad seemed a welcome idea in the heat and I chose Ensalada de Bacaloa (£9): Salt cod, blood orange, sour cream, orange blossom honey, mixed leaves.
I like salt cod a lot and these soft, tender pieces, slightly salty still, were perfect with the fresh salad and its sweet honey dressing, on a bed of sour cream.
The Croquetas de Dia (£8) – croquettes of the day – were made with Manchego cheese and spinach. They were gloriously crispy on the outside and creamy but incredibly light on the inside.
I probably could have managed another tapas, or perhaps should have ordered the ‘Sally Clarke’s house breads’ at £3.50. But by the time I decided this, I thought I’d have a dessert instead. I ordered Tarta de Melocoton – Peach & almond tart (£6) – and an espresso to go with it (£2.50).
The tart was very Spanish – heavier than a French equivalent – and quite sweet, but not too sweet. I enjoyed it and the coffee was excellent.
It had been a perfect early light supper and I only had a very short walk to the V&A afterwards for the talk.
I joined a queue at a side entrance as instructed by email. Apparently there was a private party going on in the main entrance. It was quite a long walk through to the lecture hall but thankfully security people were stationed at frequent intervals to show us the way – otherwise this might be a blog post about getting lost in the V&A!
The speaker was Frances Spalding, a well-renowned art historian, critic and writer. She is Emeritus Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge and has held many academic roles, including Professor of Art History at Newcastle University between 2000 and 2015. She also has a CBE. Her talk was based on her latest book, The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars, just published by Thames & Hudson.
An Eric Ravilious painting illustrates the front cover of her book and she explained some of the ‘messages’ one might take from the painting: the three windows reflecting a classic triptych; the ‘3’ showing this is a third class carriage and thus for ‘ordinary’ people; the way the painting connects the traditional with the modernist. She credited Ravilious with his huge contribution to the appreciation of watercolours and he is known for his techniques such as using both dry and wet brushes with the paints.
Spalding began with the war artists and showed some moving paintings by John Nash, John Singer Sargent and others, but also discussed how ‘news’, ‘media’ paintings didn’t necessarily convey the artist’s personal experience of war. They didn’t always act as a cathartic exercise for the artists who needed to process their experiences in other ways and with different kinds of art.
A critical part of what Spalding talked about – and has written about in her book – is how British artists have been undervalued for too long. Ravilious has only fairly recently gained popularity, for instance. Spalding spoke a lot about women artists too and the lack of appreciation of what they were doing. She confessed that she had for a time only thought of Vanessa Bell in the context of being Virginia Woolf’s sister and part of the Bloomsbury Group but later discovered that she was pioneering in her work with cubism. Women were easily overlooked and dismissed.
One of the key elements of British painting in these between the wars years was the transition between classic and modern; the war itself bringing about a longing for stability (the classic) but also the recognition of moving forwards to the new (modernism). Perhaps it’s this ‘caught between two stages’ that results in the stillness for which painters like Ravilious are known – a time when we must just stop and take measure.
I enjoyed the talk, I certainly enjoyed being present at it, and definitely felt I’d learnt a few things. I would though have liked a little more on important artists like Ravilious and perhaps John Piper, whom Spalding has written about. There was an interesting question at the end from someone in the audience about the difference between British art at this time and art in Europe with movements like Cubism and Surrealism. Spalding pointed out the important fact that Britain was never invaded; that European countries had different experiences in the war which acted as catalysts to different art movements.
I sat next to a lovely woman and we shared some of the experience of the talk and she told me about a new film, to be released on 1 July, about Ravilious: Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War. She has a ticket – I certainly want one and will find out where it’s being shown.
So the talk ended. I decided not to hang around for drinks and made my way back to the Tube station. There I discovered trains were no longer running to Richmond – only as far as Turnham Green. Mmmm. It was probably as well that I hadn’t got into the drinking and been any later. From thinking I’d be home in about 45 minutes, suddenly the likelihood was it would take me a lot longer. I decided to take the train as far as Hammersmith where I knew I could pick up buses to Richmond, where I’d left my car. As it turned out, it wasn’t nearly as tortuous as I feared and I was home much quicker than anticipated. I did, however, settle down with a small glass of my favourite tipple: Chivas Regal, Aged 12 years. My lovely dad introduced me to whisky, and I still enjoy the occasional one at night and it was especially welcome after a lovely evening but slightly uncertain journey home.
It had been a good ‘art & food’ day and may there be many more in the near future.