Artists in Rye’s Past

Artists in Rye’s Past

The feature photo shows the well-loved fictional character Captain Pugwash as he appears in a special exhibit in Rye Museum honouring  popular Rye artist John Ryan

Yvonne Egan’s chapter ‘Artists in Rye’  in An Introduction to Rye Castle Museum (Rye Museum Association, 1999), was the starting point for much of what follows and is here gratefully acknowledged.  For a partial list of Rye’s leading contemporary artists, click here.

Rye, Artists’ Mecca

Rye has always been a Mecca for artists of many media and styles.  Here is a brief starter list of some of the artists who have lived or worked in and around Rye over the centuries.   For an idea of the extensive collection owned by Rye Art Gallery and information on recent and contemporary artists, be sure to visit the Rye Art Gallery site.

BAYNES, Keith (1887-1977), Rye resident for many years and friend of Venessa Bell, Duncan Grant and in particular Raoul Dufy who had a great influence on him,  He exhibited regularly with the London Group from 1919.

BURRA, Edward (1905-1976) Although born and raised in Rye — at Springfield House on Rye Hill — and a resident in the 1920s and 1930s, he was somewhat disparaging of it, calling it Tinseltown. and in later life painting dark, hard scenes of Rye rather than the usual prettified versons beloved of tourists.  As a student Burra had shown a talent for popular illustration especially of everyday existence, taking much of his inspiration from cinema, dance and music halls.  For example he was fond of visiting the bars of Hastings with his artist friend John Banting (1902 – 1972) in search of ‘a good time’.

CHING, Raymond (1939) lived and worked in Rye for many years,. He achieved a worldwide reputation for his wildlife studies, particularly of birds.

FRENCH, Kitty (1924-1989). Head of Art at Thomas Peacocke School, her paintings and collages have been described as ‘wonderfully witty and often cutting’ and she attracted a keen following of collectors.  Both as a teacher and a flamboyant bohemian about Rye she is said to have influenced many of the 300  or so artists of recent years working in the Rye area.

HARGREAVES, Brian (1935-2011).  Brian was Britain’s top butterfly artist.  But Ryers know him best for his meticulous line drawings of Rye and its buildings, and  for all he and his artist wife Joyce did for Rye Museum (Joyce still edits our Newsletter). In 2010  he released a book Exploring Rye with Brian Hargreaves and followed it the next year with Exploring Romney Marsh with Brian Hargreaves  Both were filled with his much admired detailed line drawings.

In earlier years Brian helped to restore well-known London churches, cathedrals all over the country and the Houses of Parliament; he even gilded the ball and cross on top of St Paul’s Cathedral.  His many works on butterflies and other insects include the Collins Guide to Butterflies of Britain and Europe, published in nine languages, and his specially commissioned work on the butterflies at Buckingham Palace was presented to the Queen on Anniversary occasions. Besides lecturing on art subjects, he exhibited widely throughout Britain (e.g at the Royal Academy) and Europe. His illustrations also grace postage stamps issued in various countries around the world.

MACKECHNIE, Robert Sang (1894-1975) and Margaret Helen BARNARD (1892-1990) came to live in Rye in 1925, at No 4 Watchbell Street. They were a highly influential husband and wife team. Robert had become the enfant terrible of his day and in 1919 had established the & & 5 Society. Unfortunately he suffered a breakdown which meant he was never able to fulfil his early pr9omise, but he maintained friendships with such artists as Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson and Cedric Morris who are better known today than MacKechnie.  His wife, Margaret Barbardm a fine painter, made her name as a designed and lino-cut printer.  The Rye Art Gallery has various examples of her work.

MEACHER, Neil (1934-2010).  Neil’s favourite subjects were maritime along the coast of Southeast England. He used bold linear designs and bright colours, chiefly in watercolour, to produce intense joyful pictures of marine subjects.  He and his wife Margaret even settled in a warehouse studio along Rye’s Strand Quay where they could look out onto boats on the Tillingham.  Neil was a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in water colour and won awards at RI and other exhibitions. In 2011 a new  Neal Meacher RI Sketchbook Award was initiated in his honour. For many years Neil taught full-time at major colleges and was an active participant in the local art world.

NASH, Paul (1889-1948), considered by some to be the greatest  British artists of the 30th century, came to live on East Street in Rye in the 1930s after suffering a breakdown caused by the horrors he had witnessed as a  World War I War Artist. His bleak paintings, including  those of Romney Marsh, the seawall at Dymchurch and other local subjects. are highly esteemed yet convey great sadness and melancholy.

RYAN, John  (1922-2009), illustrator, animator and author, is probably best known for the well-loved TV and book character Captain Pugwash. The BBC commissioned the first series in 1957.  It ran to 58 black and white episodes, with an ingenious system of flat cut-out characters and boats, moved by Ryan family members using hidden cardboard levers. Later revivals reflected advancing technology — colour episodes in the 1970s and computer animation in the late 1990s.

Ryan, who had produced cartoons for the Eagle comic magazine and Radio Times first made his name on TV with Mary, Mungo and Midge aimed at a younger audience than Pugwash and featuring daughter Isabel’s voice as Mary. This was followed by 32 episodes of Captain Prancelot but it is Captain Pugwash who endures today in 24 books. Two of them, Murder in the Churchyard and Captain Pugwash and the Huge Reward are set in Rye. (There are 35 other books besides.) Ryan also produced regular cartoons for Catholic Herald and in Rye produced works for the Town Hall (a  large Nativity scene displayed each year), Anthony of Padua and workshops for children.

From their home only a few steps from the Ypres Town, he and his wife Priscilla — also a well-respected artist who shared in Captain Pugwash creations — involved themselves in many good causes in and around the town (as Priscilla still does).   There is a Captain Pugwash display in the Rye Museum where some of his books are for sale.  For more on his books for children go to Stories Set in Rye, also under Literary and Artistic Rye at right.

STORMONT Howard Gull (1859-1935) and Mary Elizabeth SAPWORTH (1871-1962) eloped to Rye in 1898 and were married in St Mary’s Church. They settled in an old candle-maker’s loft in Rye, converting it into a studio, and spent the rest of their lives there painting.  Many visiting  artists of note visited them there as they were well-respected and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. Henry James was a good friend as was Beatrix Potter who stayed with the Stormonts during her holidays in Rye. The Stormonts were also collectors of art and it was this collection which formed the basis of the Permanent Collection left in Trust for the people or Rye.  In addition to the collection they left an endowment fund and their home to provide an Art Gallery so that the people of Rye and the surrounding area could experience fine art at first hand. The Rye Art Gallery was established after Mary Stormont died in 1962; it flourished and has recently been expanded to include the former Easton Rooms to form an important home and exhibition centre for a range of  contemporary arts as well as the Permanent Collection.

Among the fine artists who have lived on Rye Hill are Charles Lewis POWELS (1860 – 1942) who produced many water colours of Romney Marsh and a well-known portrait of Henry James,  Elsie DRUCE (d. 1965) who produced woodcuts and Dinah LOW (1911-1975) known for her evocative paintings of the sea and children (e.g. Grandparents on the Beach in the Rye Art Gallery).  Actual people of Rye appear in her paintings.

As for Artists who have Visited Rye and painted it, their number is legion.  Here are some of them:

Early Visiting Artists

TURNER, J M W (1785-1851 ) Romantic landscape painter in oils and water colour, known as the ‘painter of light’. He painted many views of Rye and Winchelsea.  His interest in capturing reflected light on land and sea is evident in an attractive sketch of Rye made in the 1790s — held in the National Galleries of Scotland.

VAN DYKE, Anthony (1591- 1641), Flemish Baroque artist who became England’s leading English court painter,  drew some of the earliest surviving views of Rye. The town are unusually detailed, a boon tho those trying to discover what Rye looked like in the early 17th century. They are thought to have been made while he waited for a ship to the continent to arrive.

19th and 20th Centuries

ATWELL, Mabel Lucie (1879-1964)   Illustrator for books and magazines. Lived at Robin Hill, Mermaid Street, in the 1920’s.  Developed a trademark style of sentimentalized rotund cuddly infants, which became ubiquitous across a wide range of markets: cards, calendars, dolls.. . . . She was visited here by Beatrix Potter which explains why Robin Hill features on the dust jacket for Potter’s Tale of the Faithful Dove, set in Rye and Winchelsea.

BRABAZON, Hercules  (1821-1906), whose family home was near Sedlescombe, was a prolific producer of ‘Turner manner’ watercolours and a friend of John Singer Sargeant.  He visited Rye many times and also travelled extensively. His watercolours of local scenes and those abroad are highly regarded.

GODWIN, Albert (1845-1932), prolific and well-travelled painter, mentored by John Ruskin, whose work  synthesized the influences of J M W Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. His work is in numerous public collections.

MARSHALL, Herbert Menzies (1841-1913), best known as a watercolourist who painted landscapes and cityscapes thgroughout England and on the continent.  and as a professor of landscape painting. He exhibited widely .

MILLAIS, John (1829-1896)  One of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood based in Hastings in the mid 1850s, he also lived for a time in Winchelsea. Several of his paintings of local scenes are still popular on postcards  One examples is The Blind Girl (1856) which shows two beggar sisters resting on the road below Winchelsea after a rainstorm . (The painting is now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). Another painting called The Random Shot (also known as L’Enfant du Regiment) shows a little girl who has been accidentally shot by a stray bullet –perhaps from the musket of a Cinque Ports Volunteer.  She has been laid on the tomb of Stephan Alard (brother of Gervais Alard who became New Winchelsea’s first Mayor in 1294  and later (1306)Admiral of the Western Fleet).   She has been covered with the jacket of a soldier,  having sobbed herself to sleep, overcome with pain and terror.

PHIPSON,  Evacates , a jobbing painter, visited Rye in the early 20th century and painted many of its houses and important sites. Some of these are in Rye Museum. A large collection of his work can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

PIPER, John (1903-1992), considered by some to be the most versatile of 20th century artist because of his range of interests was nonetheless primarily a  painter and printmaker,particularly fond of painting churches.  As an official War Artist, he painted Coventry Cathedral the morning after the air raid which destroyed it. He collaborated with people such as Sir John Betjeman (on the Shell Guides) and Osbert Sitwell, designed stained glass windows (most notably for Coventry Cathedral) and tapestries for cathedrals and sets for operas, and wrote extensively on modern art. In the Rye area he is best known for his Romantic depiction of the flat landscapes and tall spires of Romney Marsh. He was part of the Recording Britain project, painting the after effects of war on Britain’s architectural heritage and was a chief instigator of the campaign which led to the formation of the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust which saved these churches.  His 1950 book of paintings and notes on the churches, Romney Marsh is highly prized on the book market.

PISSARO, Lucien (1863-1944) was a landscape painter, printmaker, engraver who also designed and printed fine books.  He used technique of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. He left France to base himself in Britain. He spent a productive summer holiday painting Rye with fellow artists  Christopher Wood (1901 – 1930) and J B Mason (1879 -1945) who painted mostly flowers and became Director of the Tate.

SHORT, Sir Frank. R.A. (1857-1946).  His preferred media were printmaking, engraving, etching and watercolour. He contributed over  half of the plates for J M W Turner’s ambitious Liber Studiorum which aimed to show all the styles of landscape composition in one large book.  Though he lived at Seaford, many of his etchings are of  scenes in the Rye area and Dr Fanny Baldwin of Rye Art Gallery has produced a 54 entry catalogue of his works in the Gallery’s permanent collection.

SYMONS, William Christian (1845-1911) settled in Udimore in his later life.   Besides executing many of the decorations — especially mosaics — in the interior of  Westminster Cathedral and painting the portrait of the Cathedral’s architect, John F Bentley, he produced vibrant oil paintings of Rye and environs.

First posted in Literary and Artistic Rye on 30th March 2013
Last updated: 3rd April 2013