Paradise Found in the Blackdowns

THE Blackdown Hills, on the border of Somerset and Dorset, is a mysterious and beautiful area, with dramatic escarpments, ancient ridges, fringed with trees, and a heritage of myths and dramatic historical events.

Now designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it exerted a powerful hold over members of the Camden Town Group of artists in the years before and after the First World War.

Several of the group, an important post-impressionist movement, including Robert Bevan, Spencer Gore, Charles Ginner and Stanislawa de Karlowska visited and stayed to paint the farms and countryside around Clayhidon.

Strikingly new in their time, these paintings now evoke a powerful sense, not only of that ancient landscape but also of an unspoiled countryside that has vanished in much of Britain, and a farming way of life that has gone altogether.

A project to connect contemporary artists and the Camden Towners has led to a major exhibition, Paradise Found: New Visions of the Blackdown Hills, which is on at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton until 3rd June.

The Camden Town Group’s paintings represent a connection between a new century’s response to an ancient English landscape and the progressive French grop which included Cezanne and Gauguin.

Today’s artists, invited to take part by co-curators Fiona McIntyre, Tim Craven and Sandra Higgins, represent a broad canvas of 21st century landscape artists, working in many different media and in styles from representational and photorealist to abstract.

The commission was to respond to the Blackdown Hills and the work of the Camden group through the changes to the architecture, ecology, agriculture and land management of the protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The artists include Belinda Crozier, Paul Newman, Abi Kremer, Alan Rankle, Mark Dunford, Ruth Piper, Blaze Cyan, Frank Creber, Narbi Price, Ferha Farooqui, Day Bowman, and Tim Craven and Fiona McIntyre.

Excitingly, several of Robert Bevan’s splendid paintings are in the show, including the magnificent 1916 oil, The Hay Harvest. We may not see these paintings as revolutionary now, after more than a century of upheavals in the art world, but there is a depth of feeling and sense of place that certainly stands up to comparisons with Cezanne.

This is an exhibition to revisit – you won’t take it all in on first sight. It is exciting to see the Bevans, and to explore through the eyes of contemporary artists how this timeless landscape has evolved – but also to celebrate what we find in the Blackdowns, the trees, the old long-houses, the prehistoric earthworks and the footprints of human life. It is a living landscape not a rural idyll in aspic and that is what the 2023 artists are showing us.

From the stark abstract of Day Bowman to the joyful colours of Abi Kremer, from the photorealism of Tim Craven’s watercolours and Paul Newman’s graphite drawings to the explosive colour of Alan Rankle or the stormy mysticism of John Ball, this exhibition will undoubtedly, in the words of co-curator Sandra Higgins, “add to the legacy of this area.” FC

Pictured are the exhibition logo in a collage with David Ferry’s The Pub Quiz Champion and a detail of Robert Bevan’s iconic The Hay Harvest, on loan to the Thelma Hulbert Gallery by the Bevan family.