From Sickert to Gertler: Modern British Art from Boxted House
Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, Suffolk, until 13 December
Private collections of art are fascinating, both for the light they shed on the tastes and preoccupations of their owners, and for the otherwise often hidden network of associations they can reveal. Paintings and sculptures made on a domestic scale exert a subtly different appeal than the products of public or museum art. The intimacy of the home setting often awakens a resonance in the art which the de-personalised aura of a gallery can stifle or deny. However, few collections, apart from the grandest, are maintained in the houses for which they were assembled, and if they are left to museums are inevitably broken up and lose their identity. In Modern British Art from Boxted House, we are fortunate to see an intensely personal collection kept together and presented in the intimate milieu of Gainsborough’s House. The result is highly effective.
Boxted House, just north of Sudbury in Suffolk, was the home of Natalie and Bobby Bevan for almost 30 years. Bobby was the son of the painters Robert Polhill Bevan and Stanislawa de Karlowska, and himself pursued a successful career in advertising with the firm of S.H. Benson, of which he eventually became chairman. (He was immortalised by Dorothy L Sayers in her 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise.) Bobby devoted much of his wealth, spare time and energy to the promotion of his parents’ reputations, and made their work the hub and focus of his own art collection. In 1946 he married Natalie Sieveking (née Denny) whom he’d first fallen in love with and proposed to 20 years before. Natalie was a great beauty and society hostess as well as being a talented painter and latterly an exuberant ceramicist. (Her ‘Elephant and Columbine’, c.1968, included here, is a particularly lively example.) The Bevans made a remarkable team and settled in Boxted House which they proceded to recreate and beautify. It became a gathering place for their friends, many of whom were artists, and was by all accounts memorable and inspiring to visit.
Ronald Blythe, a neighbour and friend, has written about the complex pleasures of the house and the collection, and notes astutely that ‘the pictures told of relationships rather than purchases’. As a collector, Bobby had three main areas of interest: the work of his parents and their contemporaries, a group of the other artists he or Natalie had known such as Mark Gertler, Augustus John and John Armstrong, and the local East Anglian artists who included such distinguished painters as John Nash, Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. All three areas are celebrated at Gainsborough’s House.
The centrepiece of the display is Mark Gertler’s delicious portrait of the young Natalie (she was 19 when she posed for it), entitled ’Supper’ (1928). It’s a rich, dark painting, ripe with fruit and flowers and the good things of life. Sensuous yet calm, it has a directness which is opulent but also compelling. Around this majestic picture are hung a number of impressive landscapes and portraits. I was particularly drawn to ‘A Polish Church, Mydlow’ by Robert Bevan, based on drawings made during Bevan’s final visit to his wife’s native country, and Harold Gilman’s unfinished but wonderfully evocative portrait of Spencer Gore. Bevan was friends with Gore and Gilman, and through them associated with Sickert’s Fitzroy Street Group and later exhibited with the Camden Town Group and then the Cumberland Market Group. The Sickert connection is illustrated here by a powerful painting called ‘The System’ (1924–8), in which Sickert ponders the evils of gambling in a Dieppe casino scene.
Bevan was adept at the manipulation of flattened forms and strong colours, an interest which grew out of an earlier passion for pointillism, as can be seen from the predominantly green and purple ‘Gravelye Farm, Cuckfield’ (c.1911). Compare the colours of vegetation, earth and water emerging through the whiteness in John Nash’s beautiful ‘Ice and Snow’ (1959). Those who say that Nash was a watercolourist who couldn’t paint in oils are proved wrong here. Besides being an East Anglian neighbour of Bobby and Natalie, Nash was also a very youthful member of the Cumberland Market Group and absorbed the rudiments of his early style from Gilman. So the connections proliferate.
There’s a delicate alabaster carving by John Skeaping (somewhat underrated today) of a gazelle. He was a friend who stayed with Cedric Morris and Lett Haines when they lived at Higham before moving to Hadleigh and nearer the Bevan powerhouse. Another artist who has yet to be given his due is John Armstrong (1893–1973). He is represented by a distinctive still-life from 1955, painted when he was staying at Boxted and escaping the ruins of his unfortunate second marriage. I am currently researching a monograph on Armstrong, so if anyone owns paintings by him or would like to share memories of him, I can be reached care of The Spectator.
Next to the Armstrong hangs ‘Paysage du Jardin No 2’ by Cedric Morris, all lovely texture and colourful patterns. Among the other treasures are Gertler’s solid and dominating portrait of his mother, and Augustus John’s romantic etching of Wyndham Lewis. I liked seeing John Nash in lighter mood — his watercolour and ink drawing ‘Girls Being Tiresome’ — and in telling contrast ‘Piscatorial’ by Lett Haines, its perspectives sufficiently odd to escape the straightforwardly decorative. Meanwhile, an Adrian Daintrey watercolour of Natalie and Bobby on the terrace at Boxted captures something of the refined chic of their life there.
Works from the Bevan collection have been shown before at Gainsborough’s House, in 1978, and that earlier connection is now brought to triumphant fruition in the museum’s 50th anniversary year. (Before reclamation for the arts, it was rather a sorry temperance hotel for commercial travellers, as Ronald Blythe recalls.) Organised by the National Galleries of Scotland, and dedicated to the memory of Natalie Bevan (1909–2007), Modern British Art from Boxted House is a reduced version of the show first seen in Edinburgh (March to June this year). It is a delightful exhibition and provides ample confirmation that private collecting offers insights into the art of a period that can be gained in no other way.