Roland Jarvis through his daughter’s eyes
It is not altogether fanciful to refer to Roland Jarvis as an extraordinary man. He was in his eighties when in 2015 he had his first one-person show in Hastings, at the Fleet Gallery. Reviewed at the time by Lauris Morgan-Griffiths, it was an exhilarating exhibition laying out his talents in his paintings, drawings and installations. Following his death last year, a retrospective has opened at the same gallery. Lauris recalls the man through the eyes of his daughter.
Sadly, Roland Jarvis died last year, so this gives the opportunity to present a retrospective. But even this cannot cover all his interests, skills, curious mind, engineering history and sublime imagination.
In the large colourful canvases around the gallery are some of his much visited themes: local landscapes, architecture, circuses, clowns and acrobats, sportspeople, bikes and bikers. Because many of his images are vibrantly colourful, it would be easy to think of them as only happy and fun. But there is a depth to the paintings. Stories and humour lurk as well as a creep of black denoting a sombre side.
Because I reviewed his show two years ago, I thought it would be interesting to get a flavour of the man through his daughter, Sophie Mason. Even she concedes there was a dark side to her father: “There was always something mysterious there”.
Roland moved to Hastings after his Camberwell studio burned down and he lost almost all of his early work. His parents had already moved to Hastings and after that disaster he relocated here, eventually buying a studio in Tackleway.
Sophie explains: “It was ideal for him. He’d never had such an amazing space. It was 45ft long by 20ft high with a glass roof letting in so much natural daylight”. It might have had amazing daylight, but being boiling hot in summer and freezing in winter, he flip-flopped his work to the seasons – painting in summer, migrating to warmer parts of the studio to make his sculptures and clocks in winter.
With a smile Sophie explains she would never have called her father domesticated; the whole studio and living area was Roland Jarvis’ work space.
As a child she remembers, “He constructed and arranged the space to suit him – he created a balcony with a bed and I remember playing cards and Triominoes (a game similar to dominoes) with him. There was a sense of decay as his sloping glass roof was covered in green slime and leaves. And it reeked of oil paint, turps, paraffin from the heater, cigars and always the smell of his much-loved strong coffee brewing on the stove.”
Undomestic maybe, but his paintings and drawings were carefully stored and his tools – pliers, screwdrivers, lathes, wrenches – were meticulously arranged in serried ranks. He collected tools for his ready-mades and clock-making and when he couldn’t find something he needed, he simply fashioned his own.
Never content to stand still, always pushing himself, never frightened of risk-taking, he swerved into film-making. Exploiting his technical skills, teaching himself how to edit on computers, he made remarkable, sophisticated films.
It was a natural progression. Mark French, who was a close friend and made a film about Roland, called him the “last of the Cubists with a healthy dose of Expressionism”. He describes his film process: “He refashioned his sculptures and art work, cutting images up, painting over them, flipping, reflecting them in mirrors – and reversing them, playing with perspective and time.” He was influenced by the artists of the early 20th century and you can really see Cubism in his images, then writ large in his films. “He had a unique style, it was sophisticated – he brought his sculptures to life; he animated the inanimate.”
There are two rather poignant themes that he pursued: The Ship of Fools and the blind.
Sophie is not sure why The Ship of Fools. But the concept came from a story of villages around the Rhine, who would put some of the local villagers they wanted to get rid of into the river – and let them drift away down the Rhine to who knows where? It was cruel, but the idea of these people as ‘fools’ and misfits haunted him. (If not that explanation, it could also be a reimagined version of The Ship of Fools from Book 6 of Plato’s Republic about an unruly crew.)
His concerns with the blind were more understandable. Losing one’s sight would be catastrophic for any artist. Sophie says: “He used to say he felt very lucky to have his eyesight and he contributed regularly to the RNIB”.
Roland was a talented horologist and many of his clocks will be sold at Bonhams, the London auction house, in June. Going through his studio and his work was an interesting and poignant task for Sophie. “I got to know him better from immersing myself in his paintings and I got to like the work better too.”
Roland Jarvis Retrospective To 22 April at Fleet Gallery, 53 Norman Road, St Leonards TN38 0EG. Open over the Easter weekend, 11am-5pm, closed Tuesday 18th, then open Wednesday 19th-Saturday 22nd, 10am-5pm. Roland Jarvis on Facebook.
Also in: Visual Arts
Keith Tyson’s Turn Back Now »