Why are Open Houses on in May?

Delving about in my ephemera, for my last post about the Two Fringes, I came across a couple of brochures of alternative Open House events. Around the time of the split from the Festival and then the Fringe, some AOHers, notably from the Fiveways trail, proposed moving the Open Houses Festival away from the 'umbrella' of the May Festival to other parts of the year.

This was trialed by a Council-backed (City of Culture/Where Else Campaign) initiative called Manifest, which took place in October 2002, for three weekends. Various talks/workshops/exhibitions/open houses took place, from Portslade to Rottingdean. But it never happened again.

Then, of course, came the Christmas Open Houses, still going strong. In its first year, 2003, there were just 16 venues; last year there were 65. The brochures are designed by AOH's Chris Lord, with woodcut illustrations on the cover by Judy Stevens, always on the theme of The Twelve days of Christmas. We look forward to its 13th year to see how she will illustrate that one!

In 2006, 11 Open Houses had a July opening for two weekends, as part of the Celebrating Age festival, featuring more mature artists, i.e. those over 50! The participating venues (I was in Jackie Jones' house at 51 Upper Lewes Road) were not impressed by the level of publicity it got, attendances were poor and it was never repeated. The consensus is that May is best!

Incidentally, almost all these events had websites, now gone to the great digital graveyard in the sky...

When Brighton had two Fringes

A recent Twitter exchange with the new Fringe Director @JulianCaddy, who by all accounts is a breath of fresh air, jogged my memory about the origins of the Fringe. Unlike Edinburgh's Fringe, which started the same time as the International Festival in 1947 and has since grown bigger than its posher rival, the current Brighton Fringe was created by Festival Director at the time Nick Dodds. Under Gavin Henderson, the Festival embraced all of May's cultural events, including also the Artists' Open Houses. Henderson was also responsible for using Brighton artists and makers to design the covers of the brochures. Under his successor, Christopher Barron, the miscellaneous events and artists houses were grouped at the back of the festival brochure under the heading of Umbrella. My collection only goes back to 1997, so earlier than that I don't know.

Dodds, however, wanted to split off the 'non-programmed' events (i.e. not taking place in the Dome complex) into an Edinburgh-like fringe. There were lots of heated meetings about it, main opposition coming from the AOHers. As a compromise, the 2002 festival brochure (the one with the jelly bean cover) included a bound-in supplement called Brighton Festival Open.

But also in 2002, some bright sparks - Helen Medland and Jeff Hemmings - started up the Brighton Fringe! This was described in their intro as the fifth ever Fringe 'after an enforced sabbatical last year'. This is where my memory fails me. I do remember seeing Fringe brochures from the 1960s in a small exhibition at North Star Studios once, but I think they related to the Open Studios that preceded the Open Houses.

In 2003 there was another Brighton Fringe ('the sixth real Brighton Fringe Festival'). But 2003 also saw the publication of a brochure by the new Brighton Festival Fringe, with the first 13 pages devoted to the Open Houses!

So for one year only, Brighton had two Fringes! What happened to Brighton Fringe you may ask? I don't know, but I believe pressure was put on them by the official festival. There was also the question of funding. The first 'official' Fringe was funded by the main festival, who were in turn funded by the Arts Council and Brighton Council. AOH stayed with the Fringe for a few years, before deciding to break off and produce a brochure of their own in 2005, but that's another story. And that's a cue for me to sort out my ephemera collection.


Edward Burra in Chichester

I really am still in two minds about Edward Burra. There's a Burra in Bury art gallery called 'News of the World', I have fond memories of seeing it as I was growing up, but I always assumed he was American, what with the unusual name and his best known pictures being of jazz-age Harlem. What I also didn't realise was that he worked almost excusively in watercolour.

So I set off to Pallant House in Chichester on half-price tuesday to see more. As ever they put on a fine exhibition, and I loved the first room of art deco sailors and showgirls from French ports, and in the corridor before you even get in is a fabulous and rare oil painting, and all in that flattened perspective with vibrant Léger-style shading of arms and legs. How did he achieve that depth of colour with watercolour? I squinted close up and all I could deduce was that he was using very dry paint, perhaps pounced like Maxfield Parrish. When I got home I googled about his technique - more later!

Anyway, after that first room with its smallish pictures, plus his photo album of tiny contact prints, we get to the Spanish war and some huge paintings that I thought were horrible. And I was pretty much disappointed from then in - everything he did I could think of someone who'd done it better. The early inter-war stuff you could compare with George Grosz and William Roberts (also featured in a Pallant House exhibition, 2007). The spanish paintings remind you of Dali, and put Burra in that sad category of English Surrealist. His Sussex paintings are not even in the same league as Ravilious. I find his pictures on the cusp of ugliness, with those big lumbering forms looming up in the foreground and the hideous lips on everyone. But I still can't help being fascinated.

The technique to achieve this intense tempera-type finish, I found out from a Guardian review, was as follows:

He came to prefer watercolour to oil, partly because it was physically easier to handle for a man who, perforce, painted sitting down [he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other ailments]. Though he seems to have had a good idea of where he was going from the start, he did not make preliminary sketches. He started at the bottom right-hand corner, and in his 20s and 30s, drew a compartment, or section, in light pencil (he later dispensed with this). Then, using a rather small brush laden with paint lightly moistened with spit, he completed the entire section before moving on to the next, achieving a suave, velvety surface of intensely saturated colour.

Do go and see it, though. It's on until 19 February.