[Britain's Busiest Bandstand, built 1935]
I went to Eastbourne on a cold January day. I've been thinking about the visit ever since. It was dry and bright but the place was deserted. Britain's 'Busiest Bandstand' was exaggerating its claims, the chippy I wanted to visit was closed, and the elegant streets with red brick pavements were silent. I realised I could cross the road with my eyes shut if I wanted to, so little traffic was there.
[the bandstand's seating area]
And yet, a visit to any provincial town or city at whatever time of year is always going to be instructive and interesting. Eastbourne has some tremendous C19 villas, a wonderful sea front with brilliant carpet-bedding planting in summer, is close to the Sussex Downs, and mixes gentility and shabbiness, four star hotel living and startlingly cheap hostel rooms, seasonal seaside jollity and seasonal seaside emptiness. It's mostly a place to retire to for strolls and cups of tea, quiet roads and predictable routines.
But it's not where you'd expect to the find 'the contemporary art museum for South East England' as the Towner Art Gallery now styles itself. You have only to look at the residents and visitors in and out of season (I've been to Eastbourne a few times in summer) to see that they are hardly your target modern art audience. Eastbourne is about age; it's good for young families and older retired people. It's very much like respectable Bexhill and Bognor along the coast, while Brighton and Hastings are the edgier, noisier, more experimental neighbours that are more likely to attract a modern art audience.
It is, however, just the sort of place you'd expect to find a fine collection of Eric Ravilious' work. Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne, was educated and went to art school there. He captured the beauty and value of the everyday and of ordinary English life, and is particularly famous for his watercolours of the Sussex landscape. Ravilious and Eastbourne go together perfectly, and the Towner does not simply hold some of his work, it holds the single largest collection, 600 objects in all (out of a total Towner holding of 4,000 works).
The gallery moved a while ago from an elegant but homely Old Town C18 manor house to a purpose-built building tacked onto the 1960s Congress Theatre near the seafront. It's all ultra-modern concrete and glass and space, white walls and feature staircases. It has a huge entrance area with shop, a large cafe, great facilities and views, two floors for exhibitions and a further 'space' for events. And, on the day I visited, precisely two Ravilious watercolours and five tiny but exquisite woodcuts. That was it. I honestly thought I'd missed a room or gallery and even phoned after my visit to double-check that I had indeed seen all that was on show from a collection that must be the envy of many a gallery aware of Ravilious' current (and enduring) popularity and pulling-power.
Instead of magical watercolours, witty designs, magisterial woodcuts by an akcnowledged master, the Towner was showing a 'forest' installation of dead trees as part of a small winter-themed display, and a bought-in exhibition about folk customs in land-locked England. Instead of reading and understanding the town's undoubtedly conservative tastes, it is imposing contemporary art on it. It is denying access to a marvellous collection entrusted to the gallery which promises to make its art available free of charge to the public.
I was told I could do a 'store tour' to see more of Ravilious' work, as long as I pre-booked on a last weekend of a month and paid. This is all well and good, but I know many people go to Eastbourne expecting to see plenty of Ravilious' art on the walls of the gallery on any given day - and it's a crushing disappointment to find this is not the case.
The Towner is a fine modern gallery. But glorious architecture and posh facilities are worth nothing if the art doesn't come up to scratch. I would forego all the extras if I could just go to see a great deal of the great art in the Towner's own collection (it has many great paintings by lots of good artists, not just Ravilious). Modern art galleries are popping up all over, but there is only one 600-piece collection of Ravilious' work. If we can't see it in the Towner, where can we see it? I'm sure there would be plenty of galleries happy to take it - and show it.
[I have phoned again today. There is one work of art (a painting) by Ravilious on show at the moment in the gallery that is, according to the website, 'the centre for study and display of Ravilious's work.]