ROBERT POLHILL BEVAN
In a second blog of what may turn out to be a series on Neglected British Artists (following my one on John Craxton) I turn to Robert Polhill Bevan (1865-1925). It would not be surprising if you’ve not heard of him although Bevan really should be much better known. Here is why I think this, in a short piece I wrote in 2012 after seeing a show of his paintings at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria.
Between 1900 and 1905 Robert Bevan was England’s most avant-garde painter – and no one, unless perhaps it was himself, knew it. London was still scrambling to catch up with impressionism when in France the post-impressionist revolution was already well under way. Bevan, born in 1865 as the son of a wealthy Sussex banker, could afford to sidestep the stultifying artistic training that London offered. He travelled instead to the Academie Julian in Paris, where he met Gauguin’s friend and collaborator Paul Sérusier as well as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who praised his drawings of horses. By 1890 Bevan had moved to the artist's colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany, where Gauguin himself held court. The Englishman was deeply affected by the bright colours, schematic designs and forceful brushwork he found being practised there, an approach completely at odds with the habits of artists working in England.
Back home, Bevan developed his technique largely in isolation. His first exhibition, at a Bayswater gallery, did not come until 1905, when he was forty. From the scant critical attention it received, it is clear he would have been better off showing in France, where his old Pont-Aven colleagues, exhibiting sensationally a few months later at the Salle d'Automne, were labelled Les Fauves - the Wild Beasts - by shocked but beguiled critics. Yet Bevan did not work in France again. For all his vivid fauviste brushwork and colours, and in spite of the strikingly modernist landscapes he produced during visits to Poland, his wife's homeland, he was at heart an English painter — and far from being a wild beast.
Bevan is therefore a fascinating figure, initially a landscape and sporting artist who led, for a while, the advanced guard of modernism in England, and who never abandoned his boundless admiration for Gauguin and Van Gogh. He did not in fact much relish his leadership role, because Bevan was in essence an artistic loner. Moving in various circles before the First World War, he was successively a member of the Fitzroy, Camden Town, London and Cumberland Market Groups of artists, the last of which was a small club of like-minded friends, based in Bevan’s own studios overlooking London's main hay market. But, in spite of these connections, Bevan preferred to plough his own furrow – ploughing having been a favourite subject of paintings in his youth – and this led him, once he had settled in London, to revisit the peculiarly English tradition of horse-painting.
Bevan came to this interest through fox hunting, and knowing the market for the art of horse sports in England. But, once married and settled in the capital, his attention gravitated towards London's quarter of a million draught horses, which kept the city moving in the era before the petrol engine. Regularly passing at a rate of thirty lots an hour through one of London’s six principal sales yards, and knocked down each time for a lower price, most of these animals lived out their lives in patient misery. Robert Bevan was the definitive painter of these cab hacks and clapped-out old vanners, starved coal-haulers and broken down brewery shires. His studies of sales in which they were traded are his best, his ‘signature’ work. These canvases are imbued with a humane melancholy. Bevan’s response to the horse’s declining status at the start of the machine age is never sentimental. The work has instead a documentary quality, and a clarity that connects Bevan with the 18th century, and with Stubbs, Sawrey Gilpin and Ben Marshall.
There is another connection, however, that glances forward rather than back. This principally concerns Bevan’s spare, disciplined vision of London, of the streets in Hampstead where he lived, or of out-of-hours and almost deserted Cumberland Market, which lay just to the east of Regent’s Park – a part of London’s working class fabric now lost, having been replaced in the 1930s with a GLC housing estate.
In these canvases you can see in the palette, the organisation of the space and especially in the little human figures scurrying about their business, a foreshadowing of LS Lowry. Bevan, like Lowry, filled his urban space with light, and gave it vivid patches of colour. The two men were rather alike in character, too — dedicated to their work, reserved and self-contained.
Alongside other members of the Cumberland Market circle – James Ginner, Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore — Bevan comes over well: when hot colours are the issue, his can be hotter; when steady control is called for, he is steadier. The next generation of painters such as Stanley Spencer, John Nash or CRW Nevinson, many of whom saw World War One service, would work out a more vivid, heightened, pain-wracked rhetoric. Bevan (too old himself for war service) was of a more understated temperament. But art is not only about emotion and raw power, and Bevan’s cool but compassionate brush made him a British painter of lasting significance.