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Sanctuary Spotlight: Douglas Percy Bliss

In the last of our series on favourite artists in our Sanctuary exhibition, Liss Llewellyn Gallery Manager George Richards writes about Douglas Percy Bliss, a lesser-known but no less intriguing contemporary and friend of Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden.

In the autumn of 1922, the Royal College of Art admitted three students who would go on to make a unique contribution to the representation of British gardens and landscape. This fraternity lived and exhibited with one another; they exchanged ideas and techniques, and made pilgrimages to sites such as ‘Rat Abbey’ – Samuel Palmer’s run-down cottage in Shoreham – in order to study the local countryside. The three artists were inseparable. However, time has since driven a wedge between them, for while Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden are widely celebrated, the work of Douglas Percy Bliss is less appreciated. So we would like to encourage this reappraisal by looking at three of Bliss’ works in a little more depth.

Douglas Percy Bliss (1900-1984), Lovers Sheltering from a Storm, c.1935

Lovers Sheltering from a Storm was first shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1936 (no. 55, Gallery 1). Chosen as one of the highlights by the Illustrated London News, the painting featured in a special editorial entitled Contrasts Between Reality and Imagination. This seems apt, and the picture might credibly be described as hyper-real, for it shows an enhanced reality whereby the colours of the trees and foliage feel all the more acute, while the expressions of the lovers is heightened and cartoonish.

In addition to his fondness for Palmer and Francis Towne, Bliss is known to have admired the strength of feeling in the Pre-Raphaelite School, achieved through their scrutiny of minute details. Such interest is evident in this painting, as each element is afforded equal care, and rendered with the same level of intensity. Around this time, Bliss began a series of comical watercolours entitled Masterpieces in the Making, which showed a range of Old Masters and nineteenth-century artists at work.

Bliss’s illustration of Ruskin

This included images of all the major Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a tongue-in-cheek caricature of Ruskin and the Hinksey Diggers called The Gospel of Labour at the Home of Lost Causes. This recalls an episode from when Ruskin was Professor at the University of Oxford, and persuaded twelve undergraduates from Balliol College – Oscar Wilde among them – to build an improved road in North Hinksey, bordered by banks of flowers. This was the subject of great ridicule in magazines such as Punch. So while Bliss likewise found humour in the moralising excess of Ruskin’s character, the theory of Truth to Nature looks to have held some sway in his’ highly-finished early works.

The technique of Lovers Sheltering from a Storm also reveals Bliss’ training as a wood-engraver in his postgraduate year at the Royal College of Art. Led by Frank Short and Paul Nash, Bliss would have been taught to meticulously cover the entire block with marks and undulating lines. In fact, a wood-engraving by Bliss of the same subject was produced for Studio Magazine, 1929. The art critic of The Times praised Bliss’ wood-engravings for concentrating ‘a world of imagination in an inch or two of space’, and the same can be said for his painting from this period.

Douglas Percy Bliss, Snow in Blackheath

Snow in Blackheath (Christmas, 1938) signals a shift in Bliss’s work. At this point, he seems to have preferred a slightly more restrained mode of painting landscape, favouring views of his extensive back garden in Lee Park, Blackheath. In the recently published (and brilliantly titled) Gargoyles & Tatie-Bogles, Simon Lawrence observes that in 1937, Bliss became the founder and first Secretary of the Blackheath Society. Lord Vaizey acted as President with poet John Betjeman in support. This society protected the Georgian and Regency architecture of the district, and stopped speculative builders from hacking down trees, and altering the environment. The Society is still active to this day, and Bliss has ensured that the idyllic views of South-East London live on beyond his canvases.

Douglas Percy Bliss, Winter, Artist’s Garden (1953)

Winter, Artist’s Garden, 1953 is perhaps the strongest demonstration by Bliss of this exhibition’s central theme: the idea of garden as Sanctuary. Bliss served in the RAF during the Second World War, and upon his release in November 1945, moved into Hillside Cottage in Windley, Derbyshire. This was a scattering of houses along a single lane rising up through the Derwent Valley; it was to become Bliss’s own Valley of Vision. As Christopher Woodward observes, the personal process of reconstruction after the war was often not through an engagement with wider landscape but, rather, one’s own private garden. Indeed, a large number of Bliss’ paintings since 1946 depict the immediate surroundings of Hillside Cottage.

This can be seen in one of Bliss’s best known works, Gunhills, Windley (1946-52) which is part of the Tate Gallery collection. An anecdote from the artist’s daughter, Prudence, shows Bliss’ determination to record the view faithfully from the first floor window of his cottage. She recalls that this painting took many years to complete, and on the rare evenings when the sunlight appeared promising, he would drop whatever he was doing (often gardening) and run for the house. Painted a year after Gunhills was finished, Winter, Artist’s Garden employs looser, more playful brushwork – a register perhaps more suited to representing one’s own plot.

His family say that were he not an artist, Bliss would have liked to have been a landscape gardener, and he is known to have admired figures such as John Tradescant as well as the great eighteenth-century English landscape designers. As we have seen, his distinctive style and palette has echoes of Palmer and the Pre-Raphaelites, yet at the same time reflects the graphic art and design work that he and his contemporaries were producing. It evokes the golden age of the railway poster, and the celebration of the British countryside that evolved in the Neo-romantic art of his teacher and imprimatur, Paul Nash. But his vision was also singular, and we are delighted to have been able to showcase his work in the most pertinent of settings. To this end, we are indebted to the Garden Museum for their support in our championing of the unsung heroines and heroes of British art.

Sanctuary: Artist-Gardeners 1919-1939 is a selling partnership with Liss Llewellyn to support the Museum’s learning programme: commission on sales is in support of our programme of art and horticulture activities with London schools and communities and our brilliant Learning team Janine, Ceri, and Samia.

The paintings in this article are available to purchase. Acquiring an artwork is a fantastic and valuable way to support the Garden Museum while we are closed due to Covid-19. If you would like to know more about this piece or others please contact christina@gardenmuseum.org.uk.

Image: Douglas Percy Bliss (1900-1984), Lovers Sheltering from a Storm, c.1935. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.