‘The Wind in the Willows’ Inspires Art Exhibition

Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, Viper Weave, 2023


An exhibition of contemporary art inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows will display over 20 works from artists such as Stanley Donwood, Malene Hartmann Rasmussen and Charlie Billingham.

Tales from the Riverbank will bring together works from leading British-based contemporary artists, working in photography, ceramics, painting and drawing, that explore the iconography and themes that have made The Wind in the Willows such a celebrated and significant text.

Over one hundred years since its publication The Wind in the Willows has grown in stature as a masterpiece of literature, and continues to inspire a range of multimedia adaptations and interpretations. The familiar story of Ratty and Mole’s precarious friendship with Toad, set in a recognisable yet other-worldly Britain with Edwardian-dressed animals boating on winding rivers and driving ‘motorcars’ down country lanes, has been cemented as a British classic.

Charlie Billingham, photo BJ Deakin

Kenneth Grahame’s novel is also imbued with issues still pertinent today, such as the perils of technology in a rapidly advancing world, the comfort of nature and wildness, the destructive power of greed and privilege, as well as themes of illicit behaviour, uncontrolled obsession, forbidden love, and incarceration. As with J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, there is an underlying context of tragedy – Grahame’s son Alastair, the intended reader, took his own life at the age of 20.

Characters

Deep literary references abound too. The chapter detailing Ratty, Mole and Badger laying siege to Toad Hall and throwing out the usurping proletariat weasels is invokingly titled The Return of Ulysses. At one point in the story the characters meet Pan, referred to as the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, and proceed to worship at the feet of the pagan God. The image of Pan was used for the front cover of the very first edition, the beginning of many visual interpretations and efforts to explore the world of the novel.  

Stanley Donwood (b.1968) is well known for his Grammy award-winning artwork that has accompanied Radiohead’s output since the early 1990s, as well as producing paintings, drawings and prints addressing socio-political issues. Many of his works draw on the geographical features of forests, mountains and rivers, and the exhibition will feature the dark canopies of his woodland drawings.

Charlie Billingham (b.1984) uses imagery from 18 th – and early 19 th -century satirical prints and drawings, recomposed through processes of cropping and collage to create new compositions for his paintings, where Regency and Georgian figures are reimagined for modern audiences. This mixing for uncanny effect is also a key component of The Wind in the Willows, where creatures are given the full regalia of Edwardian dress. On display will be Billingham’s tobacco-smoking toads, showing the possibilities of satire through anthropomorphic creation.

Ceramicist Malene Hartman Rasmussen (b.1973) also imagines anthropomorphic creatures, from bears to insects and arachnids, as part of a career that encompasses a residency at the V&A Museum. The visual story that the British-based Danish artist works with is often based in nature, especially the flora and fauna that populate woodland habitats. On display will be one of Rasmussen’s Viper weave, a bed of interconnected snake bodies, reminiscent of weaving techniques as the title suggests, and also of the flowing ripples of a river. Like Grahame’s novel, Viper weave explores myth, animism and wildness.

Rupert Muldoon (b.1981) creates landscapes, specifically river paintings, using his own distinct method in the now rare medium of egg tempera. Brushstrokes of blue and yellow capture the light of the riverways at the start and end of the day. The river is an important catalyst for the events of the novel, and Muldoon is one of the most exciting contemporary artists capable of capturing the spirit of water.

Entwined

The prison episode in The Wind in the Willows sees Toad’s vivacious pursuit of his passion lead him to the dank and depressing confines of incarceration. Photographer Gina Soden (b.1985) documents abandoned and derelict buildings in various places across Europe and her series taken at Reading Gaol will be on display, particularly significant as it includes images of Oscar Wilde’s cell. As well as contributing to the British periodical The Yellow Book, which is entwined with Wilde, Grahame himself has been the focus of speculation regarding his own sexual identity. The Wind in the Willows is often noted as a celebration of male companionship and Toad’s highly privileged, free-wheeling behaviour and dandy-like interests that bring him into conflict with Edwardian law are reminiscent of the moral debates that occurred at the time.

There is something utterly charming about the intimate friendship of the book’s four protagonists and their constant co-dependent attempts to maintain a dying way of life while protecting their vulnerable friend. Of course, this is unsustainable. Up-and-coming artist Zach Toppin (b.1987), in a debut gallery show, brings work that addresses the characters’ vulnerability and hints at the futility of their situation.

Stanley Donwood, Watchers

The exhibition will also feature work by musician and artist Keaton Henson (b.1988), whose drawings and paintings conjure up mystical dream worlds lurking under the surface of British suburbia. Henson also brings a personal connection to the show as his grandfather, comedian Leslie Henson, famously portrayed Toad in some of the first stage dramatisations of the story. His artwork follows this theme, with a depiction of an anthropomorphic toad brimming with toxic masculinity and seemingly in despair.

The exhibition has been created by TIN MAN ART and is curated by its Director James Elwes, who says:

“Deeply complex, this book celebrates nature, wildness and pagan gods while simultaneously expressing fear of these things. Each artist contributes their own chapter to this story; endowing it with diverse, personal perspectives and unique visualisations that show how important art is in understanding our evolving culture, psychology, politics and history.”

Hell Lane (2019), Stanley Donwood

Dawn Pipers (2023), Charlie Billingham

Viper Weave (2023), Malene Hartmann Rasmussen

Tales from the Riverbank
4 Cromwell Place, London SW7 2JE

Public Opening Hours:

  • Tues 10 October, 11am – 6pm
  • Weds 11 October 11am – 7pm
  • Thurs 12 October, 11am – 7pm
  • Fri 13 October, 11am – 7pm
  • Sat 14 October, 11am – 7pm
  • Sun 15 October, 11am – 4pm

To book or to make enquiries: www.tinmanart.com

See also: Bluerider ART arrives in London

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