The South Downs have long inspired artists, as a new book demonstrates. From JMW Turner’s evocative etchings of Arundel and John Constable’s moody portrayal of women collecting corn just above Brighton to modern abstracts of poppy fields and chalk marks, its distinctive beauty captivates.
Former journalist Terry Timblick and his wife Christine, a retired teacher, have spent most of their married lives in thrall to the area, first living in Polegate, where they came to know the Seven Sisters well, and now residents in Chichester, with The Trundle as a backdrop.
“I think we’ve walked or visited almost all of the Downs and the appeal hasn’t dwindled a bit,” says Terry, a Rambler and CPRE member.
He was prompted to begin work on a book after interviewing a Sussex artist for a magazine profile.
“He was one of a number of artists I’d become aware of whose work drew from the local landscape. With the South Downs being granted National Park status in 2011 I thought it would be nice to include all these artists in a celebration of a new era.”
A Picture Of The South Downs was something of a labour of love for the couple.
Tracing the area’s artistic representation over the centuries, the book opens with works by Turner, George Stubbs and other leading artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, before moving on to the significance of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s Charleston farmhouse, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden in Sussex’s cultural history.
They then interview 40 contemporary artists in their studios in Sussex and Hampshire and look at the way each has chosen to interpret the South Downs.
For Brighton’s June Broadhurst, it’s the challenge that keeps her hooked.
“The Downs put to the test all my knowledge of perspective, observation, composition, sense of design and, most importantly, my sense of colour,” she tells the Timblicks.
Hastings artist Robert Falla describes his linocuts as “an attempt to transmit the intense, sublime, changing moods of the landscape, while capturing a feeling for place by the use of line, tone and colour.”
Paul Brown, of Ditchling, has exhibited all over the world but remains loyal to Sussex. His paintings of local farmscapes, horse racing scenes and bright days on the sands of West Wittering are highly sought-after by those after a reminder of an outstanding part of the world.
“With the variations in light and wonderful cloud formations it is a magical and uplifting part of England to paint,” he says.
In his foreword, Lord Egremont of Petworth House writes of the myriad ways the book’s featured artists approach their subject.
“Some make realistic attempts to show the landscape; others look at it through their imagination, occasionally in disturbing ways, as in Eric Ravilious’s brilliant May, a woodcut of the Long Man of Wilmington.
“All the works reflect the often startling shapes and lines of the hills against the sky and the land beneath them.” While the Timblicks were unsurprised to find their beloved landscape was so important to numerous artists – “It’s the beauty, the space, the sky” – Terry says they had not expected to find such a consistently high quality of work being produced throughout the county.
“Sussex boasts a lot of professional artists but also a lot of amateurs who are as good as professionals.
“It’s an incredibly inspiring place that’s nurtured the talents of Kipling, Turner, Constable and many others besides and we think our artists are as good as that.
“Every artist in the book has a highly individualist and personal response to the landscape.”
The book has naturally been accompanied by a number of exhibitions in Chichester Library and a gallery in Alfriston and Terry hopes the format could be rolled out further still.
“My joke is that there are 15 National Parks so you could say, one down, 14 to go – although Christine looks a bit boggle-eyed when I say that!
“I do think there is a strong case for looking at the artists who have been inspired by other wonderful parts of the UK. But it’s the Downs, of course, that will always mean the most to us.”
A Picture Of The South Downs, published by Halstar, priced from £24.99