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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Robert Bevan

Mare and Foal, 1917, Robert Bevan
There are probably other traits about as bad, but one of the worst tendencies an artist can possess in terms of his or her career, is reticence. That is, an innate inability or unwillingness to rise above the immense crowd of other, similarly talented, artists to make ones work stand apart from that of the others. I and others have, at times, referred to this extremely essential need as "shameless self-promotion." It ranges from the old idea that, for an artist, there is no such thing as bad publicity. (Even the drawings of Adolph Hitler sell for thousands of dollars, and his publicity was about as bad as any artist has ever faced.) On the opposite extreme are artists such as Thomas Kinkade and the like, who, whether their work rates it or not, do little else but self-promotion. They're masters at that, if nothing else. Yet, if you were to ask most artists what part of being an artist they hate (or dislike) most, it would be the constant demands (and uncertainties) of self-promotional salesmanship. In short, they love to create the product, but hate to sell it (and themselves). Of course that's when the sharp, agonizing bite of agent and gallery commissions are felt. The British urban landscape artist, Robert Bevan, knew the trait of reticence well. It dogged him virtually all his life.
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Robert Bevan was born in 1865, the fourth of six children, into the Quaker family of the wealthy banker, Richard Alexander Bevan and his wife, Laura. The family had been associated with the Barclays Bank for several generations. Although biographers don't particularly emphasize the young Bevan's youthful personality, I'm guessing, being one of six siblings with some talent for drawing, the boy retreated within himself where he relied on his art for what little self-esteem he may have had. He appears to have been at least twenty years old before he began to pursue any formal art instruction (privately, of course). Eventually he made the move to the Academie Julian in Paris. There he came to know fellow students Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis.

The Forge Pont Aven, ca. 1894, Robert Bevan
In 1890, as a member of a well-to-do British family, Bevan made the most of his position with his first visit to Brittany accompanied by a fellow student, Eric Forbes-Robertson. They stayed at the Villa Julia, in Pont-Aven. He made a second visit in the autumn of the following year before getting up the never to travel to Morocco by way of Madrid where he could study the work of Velasquez and Goya first hand. Apparently becoming something of a playboy, Bevans appears to have done more fox-hunting in Tangier than drawing. He was Master of the Tangier Hunt in his second season there.

The Little Villa, ca. 1895, Robert Bevan
Although there is no evidence that Bevan ever met Vincent van Gogh, it's quite obvious that he knew his work as seen in the swirling trees and landscape of his Breton works (above). However, it's almost certain that Bevan knew Paul Gauguin, who gave him several prints. Bevan also received encouragement from Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who apparently given him lessons in how to draw horses. Upon his return to England in 1894, Bevan lived on Exmoor where he was able to combine his two favorite pastimes, painting with hunting. It would appear that, even at the age of twenty-nine, Bevan had yet to sell his first painting. It must be nice to have rich parents.

A Courtyard at Szeliwy, 1904, Robert Bevan
During the summer of 1897 Bevan met the Polish painter Stanisława de Karłowska at the wedding of a friend in Jersey. By the end of the year Bevan and de Karłowska were also married. Her father owned a considerable amount of land in central Poland and for the remainder of their married life they would make long summer visits there. In 1900 the Bevans settled in London where their daughter was born. A son, Robert Alexander Bevans was born the following year. The next few years the family spent their summers in Poland where Bevan produced some of his most colorful work. It's not hard to see the influence of Gauguin as Bevan developed his use of pure color which led him to a premature Fauvism in 1904. His Courtyard at Szeliwy (above) of that year has been described as, “one of the first exercises in the expressive use of pure color." However Bevan's first one-man exhibition in 1905, which contained probably the most radical paintings by a British artist at that time, was not a commercial success and was largely ignored by the critics. Bevan's second exhibition, in 1908, of mostly Sussex scenes included the first of his paintings in the divisionist or pointillist style of which one of the best examples is Ploughing on the Downs (below).

Plowing on the Downs, 1907, Robert Bevan
Having worked largely in isolation since returning from Pont-Aven, Bevan’s paintings were noticed by Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore, who invited to join Walter Sickert’s Fitzroy Street Group. Sickert encouraged Bevan to paint what really interested him while taking notice of the beauty of everyday things. Thus began a series of paintings recording the decline of the horse cab trade. In May 1911 a new exhibiting society was formed from the ranks of the Fitzroy Street Group, calling themselves the Camden Town Group. By the end of that year Bevan had moved away from the cab yards to the London horse sales at Tattersalls, Aldridges, the Barbican, and Wards as seen in his Horse Sale at the Barbican with its preliminary drawing (below).

Horse Sale at the Barbican, 1912, Robert Bevan
The Camden Town Group lasted only three short years and three financially unsuccessful exhibitions at the Carfax Gallery, after which the owner refused to hold any more. However he still promoted individual members including Bevan who had his third one-man show there in 1913. It was that year that The Cabyard, Night, (below) became the only painting by Bevan purchased for a public collection during his lifetime. It was bought by the Contemporary Art Society for the nation lest a more discerning collector buy first.

The Cabyard, Night, 1910, Robert Bevan
Until the First World War Bevan spent most of his summers painting at family homes in Poland or Sussex. However, when the war came, he was invited to the Blackdown Hills on the Devon-Somerset border as a guest of the amateur artist, Harold Harrison. Until the end of his life Bevan continued to paint in the Bolham valley where his angular style worked well with the strong patterning of the landscape. His London street scenes such as Houses in Sunlight (below), from 1915, were generally more favorably received than his brightly colored landscapes.

Houses in Sunlight, 1915, Robert Bevan
George Bevan died in July of 1925, following an operation for stomach cancer.
Despite memorial shows in 1926 and some thirty years later in 1956, Bevan's contribution to British art was not widely recognized until 1965, the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. In that year the artist's son published his memoir and organized a series of exhibitions. Bevan’s modesty and reticence coupled with his almost complete inability to promote himself or his work ensured that most of his paintings went unsold, going to his wife upon his death. In turn, Stanislawa Bevan left her estate to be divided equally between her son, R.A. Bevan, and daughter, Mrs. Charles Baty. In their donating numerous pieces to museums and organizing retrospective exhibitions, they were not as reticent in promoting their father's work as he had been.


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