Looking at the View: ‘take the small voyage out to the horizon and back again’

Looking at the View: ‘take the small voyage out to the horizon and back again’

John Nash The Cornfield

Visiting Tate Britain last week we found that the painters and decorators were in and rooms closed – there’s a major re-hang going on that will be completed in May, with the promised result that we will be able to  follow the story of British Art chronologically from 1540 to present day.

I can see the advantages of that approach, but I tend to prefer presentations that surprise by bringing together works from different periods or schools.  And Tate Britain has actually got a display of that kind on show now – it’s called Looking at the View, and it presents paintings from the 17th century to the present alongside photographs and video, all in non-chronological pairings designed to demonstrate how different artists have approached ‘the view’ in similar ways.  This is how the Tate introduces the exhibition:

This exhibition is about looking. It brings together works which are amazingly similar even when made centuries apart, and reveals how subject matter, focus, framing and composition operate in a complex relationship between viewer and view. The representation of a landscape is not defined only by considerations of period or place. Different viewpoints place the spectator in a range of relationships with the landscape: inside or outside, near or far, high above or immersed in detail. Such views appear natural but are, in fact, highly structured according to artistic conventions that have changed little over the centuries.  All of them offer insights into the ways in which a viewer is engaged in the process of looking.

The works are all drawn from Tate’s collection.  Some of them key works while others, less well-known, are rarely exhibited. One example of the Tate’s juxtapositions is the pairing of Tracey Emin’s ‘Monument Valley‘, a photograph of her reading in a chair against an Arizona desert background, with Joseph Wright’s 1782 portrait of Sir Brooke Boothby: both feature figures in a landscape reading a book, though neither are, to me, especially interesting.  I did note that whereas Emin is reading a copy of her own book, Boothby is reading Rousseau.  So there you have cultural decline in one!

The main interest of this display didn’t derive from the concept underpinning it (which, after that initial, brief introduction, the Tate left to our own imaginings, offering no further guidance through panels or captions), but from having the chance to view some beautiful works, among them many rarely put on show. Overall, it added up to a diverse survey of British landscape artists, that avoided chocolate box clichés.

Perhaps the best-known picture in the display is ‘The Cornfield’, painted by John Nash in 1918 (top).  John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time.  John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the  golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting.

John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:

Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,

and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
is orphaned
– not by shadows; not by light –

but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,

pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,

so everything, it seems,
is resurrected;
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,

but always,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:

the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,

the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.

Francis Cotes Paul Sandby 1761
Francis Cotes: Paul Sandby, 1761
Francis Cotes’ portrait of  Paul Sandby, painted in 1761, is an example of the romantic image of the artist that emerged in the late eighteenth century. Sensibility meant being emotionally sensitive to nature, and in keeping with that idea, the landscape painter Paul Sandby is shown, every inch the elegant, cultured and enlightened gentleman, sketching a view beyond the open window.
Annie Louisa Swynnerton Count Zouboff 1931
Annie Louisa Swynnerton: Count Zouboff, 1931

The rather louche Count Zouboff in this painting by Annie Swynnerton (1844-1933), first exhibited in 1931, is not engaged with the landscape behind him; rather, this seems to be in the tradition of aristocratic types being portrayed in front of landscapes which they either own or have had the good fortune to be visit. Swynnerton was born in Kersal, a suburb of Manchester, one of seven daughters of a solicitor.  She began painting to help support the family. Later she trained at the Manchester School of Art and in Paris. She married sculptor Joseph Swynnerton in 1883 and lived with him in Rome for much of her adult life. louche

Philip Wilson Steer The Bridge 1887
Philip Wilson Steer: The Bridge, 1887

Another less-often seen painting is Philip Wilson Steer’s Whistlerish ‘The Bridge’ (1887).  The painting was attacked by critics when it was first exhibited in 1887, and dismissed by one as ‘either a deliberate daub or so much mere midsummer madness’. Steer considered giving up painting after this savaging, but its atmospheric lighting and subdued colouring has something of the feel of the ‘dreamy, pensive mood’ of Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’ (though they hadn’t fared any better with the critics).

A Machine for Living: Untitled 1999 by Dan Holdsworth
Dan Holdsworth: A Machine for Living, 1999

This is a photograph of the Bluewater shopping complex at night.  It is one of a series by Dan Holdsworth entitled A Machine for Living, 1999-2000. The photograph shows exits from the motorway leading to vast empty car parks. The shopping complex itself looms in the background of the image beneath a heavy sky.  Holdsworth used long exposures at night to exploit the available light sources, and this process has rendered the landscape in unnatural colours. The sky is a hazy red, as are trees in the immediate foreground, while the sparse foliage dotted around the car park is a sickly yellow. Electric lights in the car park give off an eerie, excessively bright glow. The scene is completely empty of people, and this barrenness, along with the saturated colours, conveys a sense of unease. Holdsworth has said, ‘I’m often quite interested in dislocating the image from the place. I’m not so interested in where it’s located. What I’m interested in is a psychological landscape.’

Bluewater was built on the site of a disused quarry near a major motorway junction in Kent. Dan Holdsworth’s photo makes it look like the vision of a future beautiful place, as conjured in Simon Armitage’s poem,  ‘A Vision’:

The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the  full-blown balsa-wood town
on  public display in the Civic Hall?
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,

blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.

And people like us at the bottle bank
next to the cycle path, or dog-walking
over  tended  strips of fuzzy-felt  grass,
or model drivers, motoring home in

electric cars. Or after the late show –
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects – a true, legible script.

I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.

Welsh Landscape with Roads 1936 by Graham Sutherland
Graham Sutherland: Welsh Landscape with Road, 1936

‘Welsh Landscape with Road’ (1936) by Graham Sutherland depicts a lane through a valley in the hills near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that paintings like this expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional essence’ of a place, a sense of the ancient past hinted at here by the inclusion of the animal skull and the standing stones in the distance. Sutherland painted icons of deep country, but – as Alexandra Harris writes in Romantic Moderns, ‘in a manner so abstract that all sense of a through road disappears, leaving concentric forms that both embrace and repulse’.  Sutherland remarked: ‘Surely if English painting is to gain strength it will do so in the open … and not behind the sheltered wall’.

Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna ?1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner: Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna,1828

I suppose the Tate couldn’t have left Turner out of this exhibition – though they have selected a less well-known oil painting, ‘Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna’, possibly painted in 1828 on his second visit to Rome. It’s a tonal study of the Campagna broiling in a heat haze that may have been observed from nature, though his Italian sketches were generally composed in the studio.

John Brett The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs 1871
John Brett: The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs, 1871

John Brett’s ‘The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs’, painted in 1871, reminded me a little bit of Kurt Jackson’s studies of sea surfaces off the coast of Cornwall. Brett’s view is probably from the cliffs above Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and was based on detailed notes on colour and meteorology that John Brett made as he sailed round the south-west coast in the summer of 1870. The focus of the painting is the effect of crepuscular rays of sunlight on the sea, which Brett had studied closely and aimed to reproduce accurately.

William Nicholson The Hill Above Harlech
William Nicholson: The Hill Above Harlech

Another seascape.  William Nicholson (father of Ben) lived at Harlech in North Wales towards the end of the First World War and after. This view is from high above Harlech Castle, and looks across Tremadoc Bay to the mountains on the Lleyn Peninsula.

When the  sea’s to  the  west
The  evenings are one dazzle –
You can find no sign of water.
Sun upflows the horizon;
Waves of shine
Heave, crest, fracture,
Explode on the shore;
The wide day burns
In the incandescent mantle of the air.

Once, fifteen,
I would lean on handlebars,
Staring into the flare,
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull.

Then, on the stroke of bedtime,
I’d turn to the town,
Cycle past purpling dykes
To a brown drizzle
Where black-scum shadows
Stagnated between backyard walls.
I pulled the warm dark over my head
Like an eiderdown.

Yet in that final stare when I
(Five times, perhaps, fifteen)
Creak protesting away –
The sea to the west,
The land  darkening  –
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by dazzle.
– ‘Sea to the West’, Norman Nicholson

Interior of the Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield ?exhibited 1813 by John Hill circa 1780-1841
John Hill : Interior of the Carpenter’s Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield, 1813

I was really struck by this painting – ‘Interior of the Carpenter’s Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield’ exhibited around 1813 by John Hill. This was Hill’s first finished picture – he was entirely self taught.  What is interesting about this picture, apart from its details of a carpenter’s workshop in the early 19th century, is that window at the far end of the workshop.  These are men working in an idyllic, Eden-like setting, but they have work to do. At least for the time they are working, they are oblivious to the beauty beyond.

The Tate website adds these details:

The interior depicted is that of a small joinery shop, flagstoned and largely timber-built, with a view of the countryside seen through an open window at the back of the shop. It is at this vantage point that the master carpenter (distinguished from his assistants by his moleskin hat and dark jacket) is portrayed at work, planing timber. His two assistants are in shirt-sleeves; each wears the traditional carpenter’s cap made of stout white paper folded into a box-like shape (also worn by the Carpenter in Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice Through the Looking-Glass).

A Tate monograph on the painting that:

None of these details are picturesque props; all of them are painted from first hand knowledge of the carpenter’s trade. The three men at work in this interior are not posing for the artist. Each of them is absorbed in his work and in command of the task to which he is putting his skills’. … Each of the three men is evidently a fully-qualified carpenter, for each has beside him his carpenter’s tool box, usually elaborately constructed and inlaid, which he would have made during his apprenticeship. … The only unrealistic note is the axe lying unprotected on the flagstones in the foreground: no carpenter would leave an axe on the floor like that.

The Beanfield, Letchworth 1912 by Spencer Gore
Spencer Gore : The Beanfield, Letchworth, 1912

‘The Beanfield, Letchworth’, painted by Spencer Gore in 1912, uses flat and vivid colour to give form and distinctive angular patterns to the landscape. Gore developed this style during time spent in Letchworth Garden City from August to November 1912. Trees in full leaf and a golden yellow sky indicate high summer or early autumn; on the distant horizon, the puffing chimneys of the Arlesey brickworks are visible.

Gore was a member of the Camden Town Group, and he was staying at Harold Gilman’s home in Letchworth Garden City. This was a period when Gore felt the need for development in his art. A fellow member of the Camden Group wrote:
He needed change. He seems to have felt something of the same dissatisfaction with Impressionism that Cézanne felt; its lack of definition and solidity. The feeling was intrinsic; it was not a pressure from outside. … He began to simplify and to mass the colour schemes of his pictures, grouping the tones into hot and cold colour. There was a gain in strength, solidity, and pattern; there was some loss of atmosphere and sparkle. At Letchworth he made a desperate break. He began to analyse his colour tones very broadly, and to put them down in arbitrarily defined masses; his drawing became simpler, more massive, angular. It was a period of transition and the paintings of the time revealed the working of his mind in a very interesting way.
Julian Opie There Are Hills in the Distance 1996
Julian Opie: There Are Hills in the Distance, 1996

If you want work that is ‘simpler, more massive, angular’, then ‘There are hills in the distance’ (1996) by Julian Opie should suit. It is a large wall painting, the dimensions of which are determined by the space in which it is to be installed (here it was along two adjacent walls, across the corner of a room) . It depicts a simplified landscape composed of three shades of green, representing foreground fields or grassland, plus two of blue, representing the distant hills alluded to in the title.

Colour gradation in the greens and the blues corresponds to the notion of distance. Paler colours represent areas that are further away. These colours are painted onto the wall in sloping horizontal strips below a large area of light blue sky. All the colours are monotone. The painting is made using water-based acrylic paint applied with a roller for even application. Low-tack masking tape is applied to the wall at the edges of each area when painting. The work is not dependent on the artist’s presence for its execution. The painting is carried out by professional sign painters following his instructions, which consist of templates, measurements and a list detailing the order in which areas should be painted. These include the specifications that ‘the idea is not to decorate the room but to make a panorama or view’. I was reminded a little bit of Bridget Riley’s designs for the old Royal Liverpool Hospital.

Lisa Milroy Sky 1997
Lisa Milroy: Sky, 1997

I liked this lithograph by Lisa Milroy titled ‘Sky’.  She’s a Canadian painter who now lives and works in the UK. She is mainly known for painting everyday items (such as shoes or light bulbs) in the form of grids that look like pages from a catalogue.  I thought this work, which reminded me a little of Constable’s cloud studies, was far preferable.

LS Lowry Hillside in Wales 1962
LS Lowry: Hillside in Wales, 1962

In the 1960s Lowry made a number of visits to South Wales, discovering of the mining villages and renewing his interest in the industrial landscape as a subject for his paintings. In contrast to his views of Lancashire towns, the Welsh mining villages prompted pictures that combine a sense of urban life within a rural environment, the village here nestling in the side of the hill.  This picture was painted from notes and sketches made on the spot near Abertillery.

Lucian Freud Two Plants 1977-80
Lucian Freud: Two Plants, 1977-80

From the wide-angle view to the close-up: in the mid-1960s Freud made a series of paintings of botanical subjects. ‘Two Plants’ is almost photographic in its detail and precision. He began the painting in 1977 and it took three years to complete. Freud described it as ‘lots of little portraits of leaves’, adding ‘I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying’.

The Crossing Place of Road and River
Richard Long: The Crossing Place of Road and River. A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon,1977

Someone who walks long distances whilst looking at the view is Richard Long. The Crossing Place of Road and River, also known as A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon, consists of two elements. One is a black and white photograph of a rough track approaching and crossing over a narrow river, above the handwritten words ‘the crossing place of road and river’ (above). The other is a drawing consisting of two lines, one blue, one black, above the words ‘a walk of the same length as the River Avon / An 84 mile northward walk along the Foss Way Roman Road’ inscribed in red ink. ‘England 1977’ is written below in black. The blue line, with its forked end, describes the contours of the River Avon from mouth to source. The black line marks the trajectory of the Foss Way, the road built by the Romans along which Long walked over a period of several days. The two panels of The Crossing Place freeze Long’s walk in time through two different viewpoints: the overview provided by the drawing and the literal view provided by the camera.

Tristram Hillier La Route des Alpes 1937
Tristram Hillier: La Route des Alpes, 1937

Tristram Hillier studied at the Slade School of Art, London, in 1926, and later in Paris. He lived in the South of France until 1940, where this picture – ‘La Route des Alpes’ – was painted in 1937 when he was staying near Vence. The artist later wrote of the work:

Here I started to paint landscape again, not in my earlier manner en plein air, but attempting to construct my pictures from rough drawings which I would elaborate in the studio, in the style of the Flemish and Italian masters whose work I had recently had so much opportunity of studying.

William Coldstream On the Map 1937
William Coldstream: On the Map, 1937
William Coldstream’s ‘On the Map’ dates from 1937 and the great era of rambling.  However, the figures in this painting do not seem equipped for a hike; they are, in fact, fellow-artists Graham Bell (standing holding a map) and his friend Igor Anrep. They look out across the landscape with a ‘stare as long as sheep and cows’ perhaps:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
– ‘Leisure’, WH Davies

Winifred Nicholson Glimpse Upon Waking 1976
Winifred Nicholson: Glimpse Upon Waking, 1976

Standing in front of this painting by Winifred Nicholson I couldn’t help hearing those soaring lines of Guy Garvey’s:

Throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right

‘Glimpse Upon Waking’ was painted in 1976 by Nicholson, who developed a very personal impressionistic style that concentrated on domestic subjects and landscapes, the two motifs often combined – as here – in a view out of a window that sometimes features flowers in a vase or a jug.

Winifred Nicholson married Ben Nicholson in 1920 and for a time they were both part of the artists’ colony in St Ives. The couple influenced each other’s work, with Ben admitting that he learnt a great deal about colour from Winifred. After her divorce from Ben in 1938, Winifred spent most of the rest of her long life (she died in 1981, aged 88) in Cumberland.

lifting your eyes
take the small voyage
out to the horizon
and back again
– Thomas Clark, ‘The Grey Fold’

From Waterloo Bridge

We left Tate Britain and strolled along the embankment, looking at the view.  In a steady drizzle which had lasted all day, the towers rising up from London’s changing skyline dissolved into a murky haze, and the river was slate grey.

go and glimpse the lovely inattentive water
discarding the gaze of many a bored street walker

where the weather trespasses into strip-lit offices
through tiny windows into tiny thoughts and authorities

and the soft beseeching tapping of typewriters

take hold of a breath-width instant, stare
at water which is already elsewhere
in a scrapwork of flashes and glittery flutters
and regular waves of apparently motionless motion

under the teetering structures of administration

where a million shut~away eyes glance once
restlessly at the river’s ruts and glints

count five, then wander swiftly
away over the stone wing-bone of the city
– ‘
Another Westminster Bridge’, Alice Oswald

From Waterloo Bridge 2

British Masters: A New Jerusalem

The final episode last night of  the BBC 4 series British Masters, presented by James Fox.  He must have been in the studio this weekend re-editing his voiceover since the programme –  about postwar British painting – was bookended by his assessment of the work of Lucian Freud, referred to in the past tense.  That was sadly appropriate, but as for the rest – Fox hadn’t lost his penchance, seen in parts one and two, for hyperbole and conservatism.  ‘Today’, he intoned, ‘our great British painting tradition is in peril’.

Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947

The argument that Fox presented was this: in the decades after the horror of the Holocaust, when many had lost their faith in humanity, British artists turned to the great British figurative painting tradition to address the question, what does it mean to be human?  He argued that in early portraits such as Girl with a Kitten, 1947 (above), Lucian Freud ‘articulated the anxiety of his age’.  Despite the circumstances of Freud’s relocation from Berlin to London in the 1930s, I  suspect this painting has more to say about his first marriage to Kitty Garman (the woman portrayed) than wider existential concerns.

Similarly, Fox suggested that Francis Bacon ‘stared deep into his own soul to explore the human capacity for evil’. But here, too, it’s arguable that Bacon’s paintings express more about a sense of loss and guilt arising from the relationship with George Dyer, his most important and constant companion and model, who committed suicide in 1971, just two days before the opening of Bacon’s major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)
Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)

Much more convincing was the section on Graham Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period.  Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads (above), explaining:

About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty.

He began a series of ‘Thorn Head’ paintings in 1945 (below), initially inspired by the commission to paint a Crucifixion and by photographs of concentration camp victims from the recently ended Second World War.The thorns became a metaphor – for torture, the concentration camps, military hardware – for a ‘cruel and broken world in which nature and man was doomed to destroy itself’.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949
Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949

In his studies for the Crucifixion, commissioned in 1945 for the church of St. Matthew in Northampton (below), Sutherland became intrigued by the notion of Christ’s crown of thorns and began to incorporate the natural forms he encountered along the Pembrokeshire coast, abstracting them to give his work a surrealist appearance. His artistic inclinations lay more in the spiritual aspects of nature rather than religion but when he was commissioned to paint a crucifixion for St Matthews church in Northampton he drew deeply on the emotions he experienced viewing the photographs of concentration camp victims that had recently been published. These images became the inspiration for a painting that was critically hailed as defining the human condition in the immediate post-war era: ‘Belsen, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – all the world’s suffering condensed and distilled into one suffering body’ in Fox’s words.

Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton
Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton

Fox linked this postwar mood of anxiety and pessimism to the critique of consumerism and its invasion of the seclusion of the home and domestic life in Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (below) before moving rapidly on to assert that  ‘as national pessimism gave way to a new optimism, David Hockney dared to suggest Paradise might be available to us all’.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

In Hockney’s bright and colourful California paintings, such as A Bigger Splash (1967, below), Fox saw British art moving on from despair to optimism.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash

Yet, in the early 1970s, just as the world finally began to recognise the genius of Britain’s painterly tradition, Fox claimed, young artists at home turned against it.  And here, once again, Fox chose a dramatic event to support his thesis, implying that the artist Keith Vaughan took his own life as a consequence of the growing marginalisation of figurative painting such as his.  But was that the case?  Vaughan maintained extensive journals which reveal a gay man troubled by his sexuality.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 1975 and committed suicide in 1977, recording his last moments in his journal as the drugs overdose took effect: Fox let the camera linger as Vaughan’s spidery writing slid off the page.

Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954
Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954

With glimpses of Tracey Emin’s unkempt bed and Damien Hirst’s preserved animals, Fox drew his conclusion that the great British tradition of painting is today in peril, as interest and money gravitates towards other artistic forms.  But, is this to overstate the case?  As Marina Vaizey has remarked at the ArtsDesk:

Painting, and representational painting, in spite of all the theories and all the varied media that have absorbed artists in the pre- and postwar periods, has never gone away, even if we are in thrall to light bulbs going on and off, exploded sheds, inside-out houses: the art world now has room for everything. But Lucian Freud, although he would have abhorred the notion that in any way he was a crusader, almost single-handedly kept the whole idea of the significance of painting the world as one person saw it alive and at the centre of things.

But Hockney is still painting  (after a brief foray into photo-collage), while Lucian Freud persisted until last week. There are painters painting in Britain – if not always in the metropolis.  The tradition continues in the work of Kurt Jackson, Mary Newcomb, Peter Doig, John Knapp-Fisher, David Inshaw and George Shaw. There’ll always be painters.

Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
John Knapp-Fisher: Cresswell Street, Tenby 1998
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
George Shaw, The Time Machine 2010

Three artists paint Pembrokeshire

Graham Sutherland: Western Hills

A short break in Pembrokeshire set me off in search of painters whose work reflects the shapes and forms, the light and shade of the land.  Like Cornwall, this corner of the British Isles has attracted many artists whose paintings have been inspired by the landscape of this county of craggy cliffs, golden sands and hidden valleys. Foremost among them are Graham Sutherland, John Piper and John Knapp-Fisher.

Although largely overlooked now, Graham Sutherland became one of the most famous artists in the world in the 1930s and 1940s, largely due to his passion for painting the Pembrokeshire landscape. Sutherland was born  in London in 1903, but did not begin to paint in earnest until he was in his mid-30s, when, after visiting Pembrokeshire for the first time in 1935, he began painting landscapes that were inspired by the inherent strangeness of natural forms, with echoes of the visionary paintings of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, as well as his contemporary, Paul Nash.

The first one-man exhibition of his oil paintings, mainly Welsh landscapes, took place in 1938. During the Second World war, Sutherland was an Official War Artist, painting scenes of bomb devastation and of war work in mines and foundries. He was at the height of his international renown in the 1950s when he was commissioned to design the huge tapestry of Christ resurrected for Basil Spence’s new Coventry Cathedral.

Graham Sutherland was so moved by the Pembrokeshire landscape that he  bequeathed a substantial collection of his work to the county in 1976, which for many years was exhibited in a dedicated gallery at Picton Castle. Then the gallery closed and for many years the collection languished unseen. Now, however, his works form a permanent part of the changing exhibitions at Oriel y Parc, the new gallery on the outskirts of St Davids.

Graham Sutherland: Pembrokeshire Landscape – Valley above Porthclais, 1935 

When we visited the gallery this weekend, we found several works by Sutherland displayed as part of the current Stories from the Sea exhibition, including ‘Bird over Sand’ (1975) and ‘The Wave’, below.  Sutherland once wrote about what brought him back, again and again, to this part of the country:

The quality of light here is magical and transforming. … Watching from the gloom as the sun’s rays strike the further bank, one has the sensation of the after-tranquility of an explosion of light.  Or as if one has looked into the sun and had turned suddenly away.  Herons gather.  They fly majestically towards the sea.

Graham Sutherland, Bird over Sand, 1975

Graham Sutherland The Wave

Graham Sutherland, The Wave

Another of Sutherland’s paintings on display currently is ‘Welsh Landscape With Roads’, painted at Porthclais in 1936, and on loan from the Tate.

Welsh Landscape with Roads 1936 by Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980

Graham Sutherland, Welsh Landscape with Roads, 1936

The Tate’s note on this work states:

Sutherland wrote that such paintings expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional’ essence of a place. He conjures up a sense of the landscape’s ancient past through the inclusion of the animal skull and what may be standing stones in the distance. The unnaturalistic colouring, dramatic shaft of sunlight and minuscule fleeing figure create a threatening atmosphere. While the theme of a tiny man dwarfed by nature was common in eighteenth century painting, Sutherland’s transformation of the landscape into a eerie, primordial scene is distinctly modern.

Graham Sutherland Estuary Trees and Rocks watercolour

Graham Sutherland, Estuary Trees and Rocks, watercolour

Graham Sutherland Rocks on a beach

Graham Sutherland, Rocks on a beach, watercolour

Sutherland would wander around the coves on St Davids head with a little sketchbook in his hand, searching the seaweed and driftwood, looking for objects with interesting shapes: eroded rocks, tree-roots, a bleached skull, strange branches, rusty chains.  All these details were isolated from their natural surroundings, and in his paintings and drawings were re-configured to express the emotions he experienced in the variety of forms seen in the landscape.  The current exhibition at Oriel y Parc includes two watercolours from his Pembrokeshire sketchbooks (above).

Graham Sutherland Road to Porthclais with setting sun

Graham Sutherland, Road to Porthclais with setting sun

Sutherland was especially inspired by the topography around Porthclais, just south of St Davids.  When he painted ‘Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun’  (above) he gave the motif of paths and sunken lanes wending through the fields a Palmer-like hallucinatory intensity: golden sun against black sky, darkness and brilliant light.

Graham Sutherland Entrance to a Lane 1943

Graham Sutherland, Entrance to a Lane, 1943

There’s a similar intensity in ‘Entrance to a Lane’ (1939), above.  Though apparently abstract, this painting represents a lane at Sandy Haven, in the south of the county. This painting is in the Tate collection, and their text for it reads:

By ‘paraphrasing’ what he observed, Sutherland felt he captured the essence of the landscape. This innovative technique fused the observational powers of John Constable with the daring of Pablo Picasso. The prominent black forms also reflect Sutherland’s debt to the landscape drawings of Samuel Palmer, whose work enjoyed a revival in the 1930s. This painting belongs to a tradition of images of wooded landscapes which seem to enfold the viewer. In 1939, with war looming, such a natural refuge may have had special significance.

John Piper: From St. Brides Towards St. Davids

The neo-romantic  English painter John Piper also came to Pembrokeshire for the first time in the 1930s. The Oriel y Parc exhibition featured one of his paintings, ‘St Brides Bay’ (above).  He first became acquainted with the landscapes of south Wales in 1937 when he married Myfanwy Evans.  He made on the spot collages of Pembrokeshire beach scenes, and also became fascinated by Welsh architecture: the chapels, castles and ruins, which were to influence much of his later works. In 1963 he bought two abandoned cottages, with no electricity or phone, at the foot of Garn Fawr, the distinctive rock outcrop topped by an Iron Age fort that dominates Strumble Head.  From here, he set out to explore the surrounding countryside, ‘trying to see what hasn’t been seen before’, as Welsh painter Kyffin Williams expressed it.

John Piper Garn Fawr 1962

John Piper, Garn Fawr, 1962

John Piper: Garn Fawr 1979

John Piper: Garn Fawr on the road to south Pembrokeshire, 1980

John Piper Garn Fawr near Strumble Head 1962

John Piper, Garn Fawr near Strumble Head, 1962

Piper painted Garn Fawr many times, like Cezanne with Mont Ste Victoire, always finding a new way of revealing what he perceived.  The cottage is still there.

John Piper’s cottage at Garn Faw

Like Sutherland, Piper paid homage to William Blake and Samuel Palmer; like him too, he was a war artist and contributed to the new Coventry cathedral (stained glass windows).

John Piper: Pembrokeshire landscape, 1962

The titles (of my work) are the names of places, meaning that there was an involvement there, at a special time: an experience affected by the weather, the season and the country, but above all concerned with the exact location and it’s spirit for me. The spread of moss on a wall, A pattern of vineyards or a perspective of hop-poles may be the peg, but it is not hop-poles or vineyards or church towers that these pictures are meant to be about, but the emotion generated by them at one moment in one special place’
– extract from European Topography by John Piper, 1969

John Piper: Pembrokeshire a distant prospect, 1964

John Piper: Coast of Pembroke, 1938

Louring clouds that belong to romantic painting hanging over a bare beach that might have been made for Courbet. At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continous line that girdles England, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach. Behind this rich and constricting belt against the sand dunes there is drier sand, sparser shingle, unwashed even at high tides, with dirty banana skins now and sides of boxes with the THIS SIDE UP almost unreadable. That, in whatever direction you look, is a subject worthy of contemporary painting. Pure abstraction is undernourished. It should at least be allowed to feed bare on a beach with tins and broken bottles.

– from Abstraction on the Beach, 1938

John Piper: Caerhedwyn Uchaf, Pembrokeshire, 1981

Our first encounter with the work of John Knapp-Fisher was when we came down to Pembrokeshire in the 1980s.  We came back with postcard reproductions of his distinctive watercolour and ink paintings with their limited palette of earth colours and striking chiaroscuro, often depicting brightly-lit whitewashed buildings emerging from a dark background (below).

John Knapp-Fisher: Moon Over Watch, 2002

John Knapp-Fisher was born in 1931, studied Graphic Design at Maidstone College of Art from 1949, and later worked  for the theatre as a designer and scenic artist. He moved to Pembrokeshire in 1965 and two years later opened his studio gallery in Croesgoch, a small village strung out along on the Fishguard to St Davids road.

John Knapp-Fisher: Cresswell Street Tenby, 1998

Among the artists that Knapp-Fisher identifies as influences have been painters of the Cornishschool like Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, as well as John Piper. In Cresswell Street, Tenby (above), the boat on the skyline seems to be a humourous nod to Wallis, as well as being a reflection of Knapp-Fisher’s lifelong love of boats and the sea  (he has built them, sailed them and lived aboard one for several years).

John Knapp Fisher: Solva, 1993

Knapp-Fisher’s name has become synonymous with Pembrokeshire landscape painting and his work is highly sought after by collectors in Britain and abroad.  He has exhibited widely and is now, as he approaches his 80th birthday, one of Wales’ most popular and well-known artists.

John Knapp-Fisher: The Steps

Knapp-Fisher has written an excellent introduction to his work in his book, John Knapp-Fisher’s Pembrokeshire, republished in a revised edition in 2003.  He writes straightforwardly, without pretension or pomposity, about his working methods and the things that inspire him:

With my work I tend to concentrate on small areas, often within walking distance of where I live.  I will go out in all lights and weather making notes and sketches – sometimes finishing the picture (if in small format) on the spot.

John Knapp-Fisher: Trees and Water, 1989

John Knapp-Fisher: Hedgerow in the Back Lane, 1980

John Knapp-Fisher: Deraint’s Cottage

I am probably best known for ‘dark’ dramatic paintings with buildings catching the last rays of the sun against a stormy sky. … Most of the paintings in this oeuvre are inspired by day subjects of a light often seen on the north west Pembrokeshire peninsula. An example is ‘Abereiddy Evening’ (1974), below.

John Knapp-Fisher: Abereiddy, 1974

Most of John Knapp-Fisher’s early Pembrokeshire paintings were done with inks and watercolours, but recently he has turned more to oil, and utilised  a wider colour palette, as in ‘Beach and Sky’ (1993) and ‘Sunset North Pembrokeshire Coast’ (1986), below.

John Knapp-Fisher: Beach and Sky, 1993

John Knapp-Fisher: Sunset North Pembrokeshire Coast, 1986

Anecdotal views – pretty ‘photographic’ subjects are of no interest to me.  Pembrokeshire, like many other beautiful holiday areas, attracts artists who cater solely for the tourist industry.  I believe in decentralisation.  Why should London attract serious painters … while Pembrokeshire is relegated to a state of mediocrity?  Distinguished painters have worked here in the past – Turner, Sutherrland, Piper, Richard Wilson, Augustus and Gwen John, and David Jones – as well as a significant number in the present, both young and old.

When we visited the Croesgoch gallery this week, there was an air of excitement as John Knapp-Fisher approaches his 80th birthday, with a major new exhibition in Cardiff this summer, and a TV documentary due to go out at the same time.  His work continues:

I have worked at my art when my spirits have soared and when I have felt low and alone.  I hope to continue to wander the paths and lanes, the seashores, farmyards and hills – sketchbook in hand.

John Knapp-Fisher outside his studio gallery at Croesgoch

Links