Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art, 1692 - 2019

A major exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, spanning nearly 400 years of art on the theme of Fire.

Curated by Rachael Nee, Professor Christiana Payne and Gemma Brace

I have been fascinated by fire for at least twenty years. Over the years I had amassed so much information and artists who who with this them that I was fit to burst. I put forward the idea of a ‘Fire’ related exhibition to the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol and they agreed.

There were so many artists to choose from and  as a way of honing it down we decided to put it within the container of British artists and artists that work in the UK, as this had not been done before. It also allowed the spotlight to be shone on some excellent, but not so well known artist like Stephen Cripps, whose work is among my favourites.

The Royal West of England Academy Bristol and some installation photos.

Sarah Pickering, Landmine, 2005
Sarah Pickering, Landmine, 2005

Organising an exhibition of this scale is a mammoth undertaking, two years from start to finish. Not something I could’ve done myself and it was great to work with Professor Payne and Gemma Brace who have many years experience.

There were many exciting moments like being allowed into the store room of both TATE Modern and TATE Britain. I met some artist hero’s like David Nash and found new ones like Aura Satz.

‘Flashes to Ashes’ brought together a number of important historical, modern and contemporary artworks on the theme of fire, including work that incorporates fire in its making process.

It examined how artists’ approaches have changed over time, recording historical, religious, domestic or natural events as well as exploring fire as a material phenomenon informed by contemporary themes and issues, combining art and science.

The exhibition covered a broad range of approaches and concerns in a variety of media; such as painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, moving image and installation.

Jeremy Deller, Come Friendly Bombs and Fall on Eton, 2018
Jeremy Deller, Come Friendly Bombs and Fall on Eton, 2018
From JMW Turner to Turner Prize winners – a few of the 50 artists exhibited
  • JMW Turner
  • William Blake
  • John Martin
  • Joseph Wright of Derby
  • Eric Ravillious
  • Stanley Spencer
  • Graham Sutherland
  • David Nash RA
  • Stephen Cripps
  • Cornelia Parker RA
  • David Nash RA
  • Jeremy Deller
  • Roger Ackling
  • Mat Collishaw
  • Douglas Gordon
  • Susan Hiller
  • John Latham
  • Aura Satz
  • Sophie Clements
  • Anthony McCall
  • Emma Stibbon RA
  • Tim Shaw RA
Susan Hiller, Measure for Measure II, 1993-2012
Susan Hiller, Measure for Measure II, 1993-2012

Fire was arguably the first technology driving the progress of civilisation through science, industry and technology. Harnessing fire has brought technological advances of cooking, pottery, metal and glass and onwards to the steam engine to drive the Industrial Revolution.

As a political tool fire sends a visceral message with shocking finality. It has been used on and against the human body, from martyrs burned at the stake to desperate acts of self-immolation. Cities and homes are razed, we see objects loaded with symbolism such books and flags set alight with regularity.

Samuel Scott | 1702–1772 French Firerafts Attacking the British Fleet off Quebec, 28 June 1759
William Blake, 1757–1827 God Writing upon the Tables of the Covenant
William Blake, 1757–1827 God Writing upon the Tables of the Covenant

Fire is also a prolific story-teller (and fundamental to many religions and mythology). Prometheus stole it from Zeus to give back to humanity, fire-breathing dragons protect piles of gold, the phoenix regenerates from the ashes after living five hundred years, a giant wicker man goes up in flames. There is the quiet flame of contemplation and reverie with the ritual use of candles across many cultures as signifiers of absence, the soul, loss and transcendence.

Fire fascinates and mesmerizes, yet, following on the theme of duality, it is also ferocious, terrifying and untameable; the horrors of Grenfell Tower, incendiary bombs, arson and immolations.

‘Fire: Flashes To Ashes’ sought to address a number of these themes addressed above. Tracing fire’s representation and materiality throughout British Art across the last four centuries, showing that fire continues to be welcomed and feared in equal measure.

John Latham, The Original Reading and Writing Machine, c.1960
John Latham, The Original Reading and Writing Machine, c.1960
FIRE - Book

A catalogue with essays written by all the curators is available from The Royal West of England Academy. It features an image and text from every artist exhibited. Please click on image to the left.

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