In border country: haunts of ancient peace

In border country: haunts of ancient peace

A song of harmony and rhyme
In haunts of ancient peace.
– Van Morrison, ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’

Last week we spent an all-too-short four nights based in the Black Mountains region at the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons. It’s an area that has inspired poets and painters, diarists and novelists: Bruce Chatwin called this area one of the emotional centres of his life.

For me, the trip had been partly impelled by reading Tom Bullough’s novel Addlands which is set in the Edw valley, north of Painscastle and Hay on Wye. But the literary and artistic connections in a landscape that still seems lost in time are numerous: Bruce Chatwin, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Francis Kilvert, Allen Ginsberg and Owen Sheers, David Jones and Eric Ravilious are among those who lived here, passed through and were inspired by this area. Continue reading “In border country: haunts of ancient peace”

York Art Gallery: a bit potty

York Art Gallery: a bit potty

I went over to York last week to visit my sister, and while I was there we popped into York Art Gallery which recently reopened to the public after an £8 million revamp. However, my sister and a good number of York residents are justifiably outraged by the fact that it now costs £7.50 to visit the gallery. Compare this with Leeds Art Gallery or the Tate and the Walker in Liverpool where entrance to the permanent displays remains free. Continue reading “York Art Gallery: a bit potty”

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

Our main purpose in popping over to Manchester last week was to see the John Piper exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery.  Piper is an artist whose work I admire, but I have to admit that this exhibition – The Mountains of Wales – left me a little  underwhelmed.  Or maybe that should be overwhelmed? The Whitworth has brought together a large selection of paintings and drawings, all from a private collection, depicting mountains and rocks.  The trouble is that, taken together, the note sung by these works is a dark monotone: predominantly greys, browns and blacks with occasional splashes of colour.  As David Fraser Jenkins says in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Not one of the drawings looks as if it has been made on a sunny day.’ Continue reading “John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks”

British Masters: In search of England

British Masters: In search of England

What a dispiriting programme this was, the second in the British Masters series presented by James Fox. It offered a survey of British art in the inter-war years, an interesting period in British art when artists were facing up to challenging  continental currents in artistic expression, and responding to the aftermath of the War, growing social distress and intensified class conflict.

But, as in last week’s episode, Fox dealt in elision and hyperbole, determined to shoehorn glimpses of artists and their work into his argument that British artists collectively came to define what it meant to be British – to such a degree, he implied, that they helped Britain win the Second World War:

It was their paintings together that gave us a vision of the England that we were fighting for. In an age of anxiety, artists helped Britain find itself again.  In their paintings they remembered a country to which we could escape; they invented a country that all of us could love. And in the shadow of a new war, they forged a country for which all of us could fight.

While it is true that an argument can be made that artists such as John Nash, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and others helped define an image of England in the public mind, this largely came about as a result of a phenomenon not mentioned by Fox – the outstanding and iconic images  produced for Shell and London Transport posters by these artists and others during the 1930s. Here is a selection:

 

Graham Sutherland

A Staurt-Hill

Paul Nash

Vanessa Bell

Edward McKnight Kauffer

Eric Ravilious produced a series of acclaimed woodcuts for London Transport, and although Train Landscape (above) was not used as a poster, it might have been.

The image chosen to open and close the episode – The Cornfield by John Nash (top) was painted as a response to war, though not, as Fox implied, the Second World War.  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.

In the last four stanzas it’s as if Burnside has moved on to contemplate another painting discussed by Fox in the programme – Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (below).

After the usual tour of Cookham and the details of Resurrection, Fox quickly moved on to consider Spencer’s sex life, spending some time poring over Double Nude Portrait- The Artist with His Second Wife and what it tells us about his two marriages. Fascinating, perhaps, but more pertinent to Fox’s thesis about artists contributing to a sense of national unity during wartime would have been the eight panels he painted while working as a war artist at Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow, on the Clyde in 1940.

These works seem much more relevant to the question of how British people saw themselves in relation to the war effort.  Spencer depicts an egalitarian working environment, one operating through co-operation and co-ordination. There are no foremen. It’s a vision of a new social order and a challenge to the existing order, and articulates a mood that emerged during the war and was expressed ultimately in the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.

Perhaps Spencer’s complicated sex life was the sort of thing that Fox was referring to in his blog on the BBC website when he wrote in advance of the series, ‘I promise you that there will be some jaw-dropping stories’.  Or perhaps it was the story of the obnoxious president  of the Royal Academy and painter of endless horse portraits, Sir Alfred Munnings, getting pissed before making a speech in the presence of Winston Churchill in which he savaged modernists. But Dr Fox loves Munnings – he, too, helped define true Englishness.

The final work that Fox considered was John Piper’s Interior, Coventry Cathedral (below), painted in the immediate aftermath of the German bombing raid on the city on 14 November 1940. For the 12 hours German bombers laid waste to the city below, destroying thousands of buildings and killing hundreds of civilians.  Early the following morning, Piper, an official war artist, painted the aftermath of the attack.

James Fox said of the painting:

It shows the city’s great medieval cathedral in ruins. The roof has collapsed, the windows are smashed, and the rubble is still smouldering.  It was a metaphor for the entire British nation as it teetered on the brink of annihilation. In the darkest hour of World War 2, the public actually saw it as an image of defiance. Because in the face of all that terrible destruction, those old English walls are standing firm. And if a building won’t give up, neither will the people.

The story is a good one, and the contextualisation was appropriate.  But surely, in a series about art, there should be more of a focus on the art itself?  What makes this a great piece of art – apart from the circumstances of its creation?  How does it relate to Piper’s other work and his artistic strategies?  This is not a new complaint about art documentaries on TV,  and the response is usually along the lines of: to attract and hold an audience it’s necessary to focus on drama and personalities, rather than abstractions. And there isn’t time to go into all the twists and turns of art movements.

But how long would it take to outline the role that artists like Paul Nash or John Piper played at this time in creating something new – a blend of abstraction and an older tradition of landscape painting to produce an approach that was distinctively British?  Surely that is an interesting story – not the fanciful idea that they helped win the Second World War?

It’s a story that Alexandra Harris tells in her prize-winning book Romantic Moderns. She writes that ‘Piper is so well-known today for his romantic vision of churches and country houses that it can be difficult to imagine him as a leader of the abstract movement’. In Breakwaters at Seaford (1937, below), jetties and waves are inked ‘with calligraphic sketchiness’ and paper is torn and ripped, leaving raw edges exposed, to evoke a sense of winter wind and waves.

A painting like this that is part-collage reveals the influence on Piper of the Cubist practice (Braque, for instance) of pasting pieces of paper, newsprint and so on into a painting.  This can be seen clearly in Beach with Starfish (below).
But, says Harris, ‘whereas Braque and Picasso made their collages indoors, arranging wallpapers and veneers with infinite deliberation to signify tables, bottles, and guitars, Piper sat outside with a board on his knees, opening his work to nature and to chance’.

Piper crystallised his ideas in an essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’, in which he argued that ‘abstraction is a luxury’ – and as old as the hills.  He wrote that,

The early Christian sculptors, wall-painters and glass-painters had a sensible attitude towards abstraction. However hard one tries … one cannot catch them out indulging in pure abstraction. Their abstraction, such as it is, is always subservient to an end – the Christian end, as it happened.  Abstraction is a luxury that has been left to the present day to exploit It is a luxury just as any single ideal is, and like a single ideal it should be approached all the time, but not pre-supposed all the time. To pre-suppose it always, if you are a painter is to paint the same picture always: or else to give up painting altogether because there is nothing left to paint….

Piper was determined to renew the connection between art and life, that would look for the sacred in ordinary, local things.On the beach, for example:

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.

This tension between nationalism and internationalism, between abstraction and the English landscape tradition, in British art of the period makes for an interesting story, and challenging questions. Has British art been at its best when drawing on influences from abroad? Or when it draws strength from native customs and traditions?

Paul Nash was a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (no mention of them by Fox), and the critic Herbert Read. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.  But then, in Axis, England’s most adventurous art magazine at the time, Paul Nash expressed his desire to be a modernist while still working in a native tradition:

Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today […] The battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

He explained why he was ‘For, but Not With’ the abstract painters, able to appreciate abstraction, but ultimately more satisfied by nature: by stones and leaves, trees and waves.  Nash wanted to create a national identity for modern art, and began by exploring the coastline of Dorset, its cliffs studded with fossils, and the chalk downland marked by paths like mysterious engravings on the land.

Nash was a member of the English Surrealist movement, and his greatest paintings were symbolic representations of specific landscapes – the Dorset coast (above), the ancient stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and of other ancient sites in England including Wittemham Clumps (below).  The Clumps – the two dome-shaped hills topped by a thick clump of trees – had been familiar to Nash since spending family holidays nearby from 1909. He painted the Clumps in a series of dream-like works, three of which present the vernal (or spring) equinox, with the sun and moon depicted simultaneously in the sky.

Like Piper, Nash wanted to reconcile modernity with Britishness. Having tried abstraction, he returned to painting of natural forms – stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in many cases rubbed shoulders with) Picasso, Max Ernst, Magritte and other modernists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and the British landscape. He saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.

The 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths (above) shows Nash working in both traditions – juxtaposing avant-garde with the mystical spirit of a place in the English landscape. Near the horizon a hill-fort or barrow is visible, while dominating the foreground are his equivalents for the megaliths, the Avebury standing stones.  Assembled in a cornfield are the powerful geometric forms of a gridded screen, standing and lying cylinders, and a steel-grey girder.  Alexandra Harris explains that equivalents was a word that Roger Fry ‘often used to explain the goal of non-representational art, arguing that instead of mimicking the world the picture must be allowed to make its own, equivalent, reality’.

Nash was not the only artist ‘worried that they might be heading for … abstract oblivion’. Another was Ivon Hitchens.  For Hitchens, the landscape was important as ‘a peg on which to hang a painting’. In other words,he wanted to paint something more than the landscape in front of him. After his house was bombed in 1940, Hitchens moved to a patch of woodland near Petworth in Sussex, living at first in a caravan. Here, using just patches of colour and brush strokes, he created landscapes (below) with a sense of movement, depth and space.

Eric Ravilious followed a similar path, working to create a traditional, non-chauvinistic sort of Englishness, and became one of the best-known artists of the 1930s.  Inspired by the landscape of the South Downs, his paintings featured, in his words, ‘lighthouses, rowing-boats, beds, beaches, greenhouses’.  Some dismissed Ravilious’s art as cosy or parochial, but he was a masterful watercolourist whose paintings are never merely pretty. They reveal the same complicated relationship with modernism as the work of Nash or Sutherland. ‘I like definite shapes’, he wrote, and his landscapes approach the abstract with their flat planes and hard lines and patterns.

A far less well-known painter in the inter-war years was David Bomberg.  He had studied at the Slade alongside Stanley Spencer and C.R.W. Nevinson and in his early work had been greatly influenced by cubism.  But in the post-war years his work, too, became increasingly dominated by landscapes drawn from nature that combined abstract, expressionist forms with naturalism.  During and shortly after the Second World War he spent time in Cornwall, where he painted Tregor and Tregoff (below).

In 1944 he painted Evening in the City of London, which, like Piper’s painting of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral, seemed to express optimism through its strong blocks of warm colour. It has been described as the ‘most moving of all paintings of wartime Britain’.  Bomberg once said: ‘I want to translate the life of a great city … into art that shall not be photographic, but expressive’. Andrew Graham Dixon writes:

Like many another wartime Londoner, Bomberg was struck by the seemingly miraculous way in which Christopher Wren’s great cathedral of St Paul’s had survived the incessant bombing attacks of the Nazis. He took care to show the cathedral from a distance, framed by the desolation around it. According to the artist’s wife, Lilian Bomberg, “He got permission to climb to the top of a church, in Cheapside, I think, and painted St Paul’s from its east side.” The church in question was probably St Bride’s. Access to public buildings deemed to be prime targets for enemy attack was severely restricted.

The tension between realism and abstraction can also be seen in the work of Henry Moore. In his sculpture he had moved steadily from classicism to abstraction and his work became a target for the popular press.  When his abstract Mother and Child in stone was put on display in a front garden in Hampstead, the work proved controversial with local residents and the local press ran a campaign against the piece for two years.

Yet the Shelter Drawings, created by Moore after he was commissioned as an official war artist, transformed his reputation. Along with the coalmining drawings also produced during the war, they transformed miners and London’s working class sheltering in the Underground into heroic figures, stoic and quietly determined.

James Fox touched on the two traditions of painting and photography that mingled from the 1930s onwards. There was often collaboration between photographers and documentary film-makers – such as Humphrey Spender, Bill Brandt and John Grierson – and painters, including Stanley Spencer, and the example Fox chose, William Coldstream.

I didn’t find the Coldstream images especially interesting (Fox observed that his early work was ‘rather pedestrian’, but I love the photos that Spender took in 1937-38, when he went to Bolton on behalf of Mass Observation, the ‘fact-finding body’ set up by Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrison to document the lives of ordinary British people. As Spender saw it, his role as photographer was to provide visual “information” to complement the written accounts.  This is his famous ‘Washing Line’ shot:

James Fox mentioned how Bill Brandt was photographing the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall at the same time as John Piper was painting the great house.  Brandt photographed people in all kinds of circumstances in the 1930s:

Finally, what about some art produced by people at the other end of the social scale to the likes of Piper, Spencer or Nash?  The Ashington group consisted of Northumberland miners who first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves.

The images that the group produced were fascinating and  captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community – above and below ground, from scenes around the kitchen table and on their allotments, to the dangerous and dirty world of the coal face.  Was this the England for which James Fox was searching?

Leslie Brownrigg – The Miner, c.1935

Harry Wilson – Committee Meeting, c.1937

George Blessed – Whippets

Fred Laidler – Fish and Chips

A walk around Strumble Head

After a chilly and wind-blown couple of days, the weather on our short Pembrokeshire break bucked up yesterday as we set out on a walk out to Strumble Head.  We parked at Pwllderi, It had been spotting with rain as we set off from Solva but we could see the blue skies moving in from off the coast, and within half an hour the day turned sunny and warm.

First, we headed up Garn Fawr,  the craggy outcrop that dominates the Strumble headland.  At the top of the ridge are the remains of an Iron Age hillfort from around 100 BCE, considered one of the finest in Britain (above).  At the summit of the craggy outcrop there were superb views across the headland to Strumble Head lighthouse.

Then it was a rocky scramble down to the coastal path.  The coast up to Strumble Head offers the walker some of the most dramatic scenery in the Pembrokeshire National Park.  It is a landscape of headlands and bays, created between 500 and 440 million years ago. At that time Pembrokeshire was south of the equator and volcanoes were active throwing out lava flows that cooled to form very hard igneous rocks. In places the molten rock did not reach the surface, but cooled slowly trapped below the ground. Over millions of years these igneous intrusions have resisted erosion far better than surrounding rocks to become rocky crags like Garn Fawr.

The shoreline with its rocky coves and caves is a haven for grey seals, and we spent some time watching two or three at Porth Maen-Melyn, the next cove round from Pwllderi.

For wildflowers, May and June is the best time to walk the clifftops here.  Bluebells (what seemed a distinctive variety, larger, deeper blue, more ragged petals) still hazed the path edges, along with red campion, sea campion, foxgloves and gorse.  At one point we noticed a lone early purple orchid.  There were occasional splashes of heather and, on the cliff-top sward, drifts of ox-eye daisies and bird’s-foot trefoil.

The rock outcrops were covered in the abstract patterns  of lichen and, wherever some moisture and nutrients had  collected in a tiny crack, clumps of stonecrop.

Walking up the lane from Strumble Head lighthouse we encountered this magnificent display of richly-coloured thrift.

Coughs breed along this coast, but we didn’t see any on this occasion.  Ravens soared above us, and we caught sight of the occasional peregrine.

Looking back the way we had come, the brooding bulk of Garn Fawr was inescapable.  Approaching the lighthouse the coastal path passes two derelict brick buildings, abandoned Ministry of Defence installations from the Second World  War.

Strumble lighthouse, erected in 1908, is actually situated on the small island of Ynsmeicel, reached by a small footbridge.  It’s now fully automatic and unmanned.

We turned inland, up the lane to Tresinwen, where we found a very neat and pretty group of buildings belonging to an organic farm.

Further on , and looking like a Rachel Whiteread installation, there was this improbable-looking cottage on which every visible surface was painted brilliant white.  The blue sky, blue car and blue pot seemed to be elements of some surreal artwork.

We followed the road up the shoulder of Garn Fawr and onto an old cart track which followed the ridge before eventually dropping down to the metalled road at Pwllderi.  There we ate delicious sandwiches from St Davids Food & Wine.  Overlooking the bay is a memorial stone for Dewi Emrys, whose poem ‘Pwllderi’ was written in Pembrokeshire dialect.

The upper plaque reads ‘Dewi Emrys 1879-1952’ and the lower one ‘a thina’r meddilie sy’n dwad ichi pan foch chi’n ishte uwchben Pwllderi’. In English,  ‘and these are the thoughts that will come to you when you sit above Pwll Deri’.

On the eastern flank of Garn Fawr, just next to the car park, stands the cottage which the artist John Piper bought in 1963.  He painted Garn Fawr many times, rather like Cezanne with Mont Ste Victoire, always finding a new way of revealing what he saw.

Here on the edge of Europe I stand on the edge of being.
Floating on light, isle after isle takes wing.
Burning blue are the peaks, rock that is older than thought,
And the sea burns blue—or is it the air between?—
They merge, they take one another upon them,
I have fallen through time and found the enchanted world,
Where all is beginning.The obstinate rocks
Are a fire of blue, a pulse of power, a beat
In energy, the sea dissolves,
And I too melt, am timeless, a pulse of light.

– ‘Achiltibuie’, by Nan Shepherd

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

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