THIS bright exhibition cheerfully stretches from Chichester to the further eastern part of both the diocese and the county, undivided by the local reforms of 1974. It also cuts across winter and runs into late spring. Chalk, wood, and water define much of the land around the South Downs, while relationships, sexual and artistic, link many of the artists shown here together.
For the exhibition, Simon Martin, the director, and his co-curators have brought in more than 100 works, alongside several from their own collection, to tell the story not just of a localised landscape, as the sub-title of the exhibition might suggest, but also to celebrate landscape painting in the British tradition over 200 years.
The big names are here. As one might expect, J. M. W. Turner, who was patronised by Lord Egremont at Petworth House, and members of the Bloomsbury group who, from 1916, colonised a farmhouse on the Firle estate; and then Eric Ravilious, Ivon Hitchens, Keith Vaughan, and many others.
Contemporary artists have been commissioned, to telling effect; Susan Collins’s commission Dell Quay is a digital display in real time, filmed on the Sussex coast with a webcam. A walk in 40°C temperatures along the Cuckmere River in June 2022 inspired the carver Jo Sweeting and writer Louisa Thomsen Brits for Errare, slabs hewn from chalk inscribed in celebration of the Sussex dialect.
The 3rd Earl of Egremont patronised both William Blake and, more famously, Turner, who painted at Petworth House between 1809 and 1827. Egremont opened the Chichester Canal in 1822. The view captured in Turner’s portrayal of the expansive canal with the cathedral in the distance beyond the basin (dated c.1828) remains unchanged; for anybody who wishes, a twenty-minute walk from Pallant House along the river basin captures two centuries of history.
Then, far to the east of Lewes, the Bloomsbury group sub-let a farmhouse in the lee of the South Downs below Firle Beacon. As a monument to their art, Charleston farmhouse was rescued for the nation by the American art dealer, Deborah Gage, in the 1980s.
Vanessa Bell’s Modernist painting The Pond at Charleston, East Sussex, the first work that she painted in her new home, usually hangs in her studio there. At Charleston, a black-and-white photo of Heniokhos, the life-size statue of the Charioteer of Delphi, is propped up behind it on the top of library shelves. Here, it is seen between renderings of the same garden by Duncan Grant and Roger Fry.
Bell and Grant had fled London in the First World War. In 1917, Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) and his wife moved to neighbouring Ditchling and were followed there in 1922 by David Jones, who joined the bizarrely incestuous community around Eric Gill. Brangwyn’s From my window at Ditchling and Jones’s later The Terrace (1929) seem peaceful and almost innocent.
With the coming of the Second World War, Sussex again offered sanctuary for artists, besides becoming highly productive with the Women’s Land Army under the honorary directorship of a suffragette, Lady Denman, who chaired the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. The 232 WI centres in the county were pioneers in setting up co-operative market stalls and fruit-preserving plants. In 1913, she had officially named Australia’s capital city Canberra as wife of the fifth Governor General of Australia.
I hope that those who visit Chichester for its great cathedral will spend time here and in the Novium Museum. The range of shows and the detailed material provided at Pallant House are exceptional. This winter show follows hot on the heels of another first, that of Glyn Philpot, the outrageously gay, successful socialite painter of the 1920s who, in Simon Martin’s delicate handling, emerged as a more-than-second-rate artist (Arts, 8 July).
At the opening, Mr Martin seemed upbeat and confident, despite the loss of the annual £89,000 funding from the Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, in the recently ordered savage cuts across the arts. It remains to be seen whether Chichester District Council will continue to give its generous support (£130,000) to Pallant House, as that funding was contingent upon the gallery’s continuing to receive ACE NPO funding.
The artistic landscape is changing, even if we think that the landscape itself remains a constant of chalk, wood, and water. But that is not true either. For me, the really unsettling moment came with the decision to include the chromogenic print End of Land I, from The Towner (Eastbourne). Staged and photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans back in 2002, it depicts a woman lying on the precipice of a cliff to look over the edge.
The curators give it a new back story and emphasise its significance in the past decade’s ructions over Brexit. But this remains a cold and calculating view of Beachy Head. Is the woman peering down at yet another suicide? Has her own nerve failed? Has she turned her back on the British landscape?
“Sussex Landscapes: Chalk, Wood and Water” is at Pallant House Gallery, 8-9 North Pallant, Chichester, until 23 April. pallant.org.uk