Public art project brings iconic landscape painter out into the streets

“My own take is that he found something a little bit different.” Nick Stockman, Towner Eastbourne’s Newhaven Creative Producer, is musing on what makes the landscapes of artist Eric Ravilious so striking. “That combination of artificial objects and industry, with this beautiful appreciation of the countryside. You can’t really look at his work and say he was a luddite or old-fashioned. He had an eye for the future and realised that things were changing.”

Ravilious grew up in Sussex, becoming best-known for his glorious and often unconventional watercolours of the English countryside. He’d often stay at the home of his friend, fellow artist Peggy Angus, which sat close to Newhaven harbour. The bustle of the port fascinated him, feeding his passion for setting natural beauty against made objects. Between the wars, he’d capture romantic views of the Brighton Queen cross-channel ferry, dredgers and local lighthouses.

Now Towner Eastbourne is staging a reassessment of Eric Ravilious’ works on the streets of Newhaven.

Drawing from their extensive Ravilious collection, they’ve invited some of the country’s most exciting contemporary artists to provide their own response to a selection of his iconic works. Following Ravilious – Newhaven Views will be pairing these together on a series of large billboards around the area. Some are even situated on the same vantage points where the acclaimed artist would have worked 90 years ago. The project stems from a belief that residents hold a similar affection for their town.

“He was really drawn to the place. And was one of the first artists to recognise that connection between the rural, the marine and industrial. We wanted to bring those pictures of Newhaven out of the collection at Towner and show everyone that he was one of their own.” The responding artists are divided between established local talent and those making waves on the national scene. Emily Alchurch is based in Hastings and recreates Old Masters artworks with a range of digital processes. She’s taken on Ravilious’ Channel Steamer Leaving Harbour (1935), offering an interpretation of a similar modern scene. Jo Lamb is another local artist, who similarly finds herself inspired by the industrial and marine landscape of Newhaven. Once living on nearby Fort Road, her paintings are personal and intimate, but take on a universal quality through bold use of composition and colour.

“We were looking for something which combined Ravilious’s view with a more contemporary perspective. We want to give people a feeling of what Newhaven is about at the moment,” says Stockman.

“Invited were artists from all around. There are very hyper-local people, who ‘live and breathe’ the area. But also, those who has more of a generalist eye for landscape and textures. The aim was to show that in contemporary art – there’s still a relevance in what was drawn back in the 30s.”

Also taking part is Mark Titchner, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2006 with work exploring words and language. Recently, much of his output has been based in the public realm. His works are often created from group activities with young people and in mental health settings. Also contributing is Charlie Prodger, whose practice encompasses moving image, writing, sculpture and printmaking. She was the winner of the 2018 Turner Prize and represented Scotland at the 2019 Venice Biennale, as well as receiving 2017‘s Paul Hamlyn Award and 2014’s Margaret Tait Award. “It’s great that they’re very different artists. They work in different mediums and have different world views. This demonstrates how Ravilious can be a catalyst for very different reactions and responses.”

As Britain has evolved over the years, Newhaven’s fortunes have also changed.

“In the time that Ravilious was painting, there were grand hotels and luxurious accommodation on the boats. Many of the artists around the area came to Newhaven a lot, not just to travel to France but to enjoy the town.” Much of the glamour and manufacturing industry has since moved elsewhere, leaving behind scrap metal merchants, aggregate suppliers and a futuristic recycling plant. Slowly, it’s figuring out its new identity.

If Sussex was a boy-band, the town would likely be the Gary Barlow of the whole set-up. Other members get more appreciation because they’re more attractive or outrageous. But try getting anything done without Gary and everything starts to fall apart very quickly. Stockman tells me the community are increasingly speaking with one voice. “At Towner, we’ve been supporting creatives in Newhaven for a few years now. There is that perception of it being left behind, but things are changing. And they will change even more over the next few years.”

This speaks directly to the power of public art. It can help develop pride in a place and sense of ownership in the space around us. Focussing on this potential, Following Ravilious – Newhaven Views platforms an artist who loved the town. There’s certainly more to the area than a harbour, a fort, a stature of Ho Chi Minh and a memorial bench dedicated to notorious 90s gangster rapper, Eazy-E (I swear I’m not making that one up). Nestled between the South Downs National Park and a UNESCO world biosphere coastline, there’s a rugged dichotomy between the remains of industry and the natural world.

There’s also a thriving creative scene, which has wholeheartedly embraced the project. 

“There are some creative and community groups who we work with quite closely, like Hospitable Environment and Newhaven Festival, and the reaction has been incredibly positive.” There’s now a whole range of fringe events running alongside everything, including a showing of the Ravilious film which debuted last year and walks around the trails, where local artists will be giving us their unique perspective on his work. There’s also a talk at the hotel where he boarded when painting many of his works. 

The exhibition forms the centrepiece of a regeneration programme, which features events and arts activities funded by the Newhaven Enterprise Zone and delivered by Towner Eastbourne, in collaboration with Creative Newhaven. The Enterprise Zone is aiming to create a new era for the town through quality, inclusive and sustainable growth. There’s a vision to recreate the area as a thriving business destination and a major contributor to the regional economy by 2030. 

The project has been a genuine local undertaking, with businesses like the Newhaven-based modular housing company Boutique Modern, printers Prismaflex UK and scaffolders Austins Cradles all helping bring the plans to fruition. “So much of the expertise and effort has come from companies in Newhaven, which is indicative of the spirit here and how people are working to develop the town. It’s been a way of showing what we can do.”

Stockman is really keen that this large-scale exhibition brings pride to the area.

The three-moth run coincides with the Turner Prize coming to Towner Eastbourne only a few miles away, and hopefully many its visitors can be encouraged to come and see work by one of Britain’s most inventive landscape artists in the very place where they were created. And this is only the beginning for exciting arts events in Newhaven. “There’s a real commitment to support and develop the creatives in the area. None of what we’re doing is flying in stuff from further afield. We’re working with and for the community. This is a milestone, but it’s certainly not the end…”

The Following Ravilious – Newhaven Views art trail is open now until the end of October, across Newhaven.

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