THE ORCHARD, CHIPPS oil on board 40″x50″, 1974
I had visited Chipps Cottage in the Chiltern Hills from as long ago as I can remember. The cottage was sold in about 1980, bringing a particular formative era of my life to a close.
Beyond the darkness of the enclosing hedge, the land slopes away, and one can see through it the blue, humid glint of a valley of chalk downland – it is typical of Chiltern countryside that the valleys are enclosed spaces of chalk grassland, while the hilltops are crowned with extensive beech woods, scattered villages and common land.
The meadow-like orchard would be scythed at midsummer, but in May, when I painted this scene, the grass was lush, the apple was in blossom, there were a few lingering bluebells among the grass, and a creamy-white topping of cow parsley. All this I found vibrant and ecstatic, but most ecstatic of all was the grass itself, the rhythm of its interplay with light, the beautifully engineered curved plane of each blade offering to the sun and moist air its utmost surface.
At the time I had little sense of this painting being a success, yet I find that in my subsequent work, despite an evolutionary change in vision and technique, I have it in the back of my mind to try to equal it.
BLACKBERRIES IN AUGUST, MUSWELL HILL Acrylic on panel 36″X48″ 1980
I had permission to paint this garden in August 1980, while its owners were on holiday – I was looking for a subject with long grass, and they had told me they seldom mowed their lawn.
I completed the picture in four weeks, working eight hours a day. At the time this was the longest I’d ever spent on a single painting. Meanwhile the brambles in the foreground grew rapidly and became the main subject of the picture, though I feel there are two lines of vision in the composition, one into and under the foliage, the other out and over. It was a prizewinner in the Greater London Council ‘Spirit of London’ Exhibition at the Royal Festival hall in London in 1980, at which the visiting judge was Frank Auerbach.
The painting was acquired by the G.L.C. and is now in the Guildhall Gallery, London. It was also exhibited in 1982 in Hornsey College of Art’s/Middlesex Polytechnic’s exhibition ‘A Century of Art Education, 1882 -1982’.
CLEMENT’S GARDEN oil on board 48″x36″ 1986
I began the painting in mid-April 1986, at first attracted by the long grass and grove of dandelions. I was working on it when the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster was in the news and wondered whether the heavy spring rain falling on the garden was affected by the nuclear cloud. Meanwhile the dandelion flowers became clocks and the horse-chestnut leaves in the foreground burgeoned to dominate the composition.
My attention was held and fascinated by the incandescent warmth of colour from the undersides of the leaves, compared to the coldness of the light glancing from their upper surfaces. I knew this wasn’t just light defining passive material, but resulted from an active biochemical interaction with light. To use a more recently coined phrase, the leaves were ‘eating the sun’.* They seemed to accumulate and emit light from within, so that the underside of one leaf appears more intense than the upper surface of another. This vibrant yet elusive colour relationship in nature continues to fascinate me, not only with its beauty, but also because of the amazing biology that underlies it.
My focus on the density of vegetation, the comparative absence of sky – other than in its reflection on the waxy upper surfaces of the leaves – and the ‘portrait’ format of the canvas, were becoming characteristic of my London garden paintings.
*’Eating the Sun’ by Oliver Morton, Fourth Estate 2007
HERBE FOLLE oil on canvas 4′ x 5’4″ 2000
A painting at the Normandy estate of Les Bouillons, painted with a theme of Marcel Proust in mind, hence the mid-distance glimpse of Hawthorn in flower. The painting was exhibited both at the Francis Kyle Gallery and at the National Theatre, London, to coincide with a staging of a screenplay by Harold Pinter based on A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, by Marcel Proust.
Despite its implicit theme of time, and some genuine connections between this Normandy landscape and Marcel Proust’s famous novel, this painting was essentially a record of what the Les Bouillons artist André referred to as my ‘immersion’ in nature. The long grass, sweet chestnut leaves and cow parsley in the foreground are evidence of the painting’s evolution from its commencement in early April well on into June. I had to establish a wire barrier to prevent a resident mule from eating the leaves. The title was suggested by Les Bouillons residents.
BRAMBLES IN A NORTH LONDON GARDEN oil on canvas 40″x30″, 2001.
Drawing or painting from observation is never outdated. It is the ‘perennial philosophy’ of visual art.
When drawing or painting from direct observation, one usually tries to put aside all preconceptions about appearances, and work in the here and now. One sometimes experiences what my friend the artist Gerry Keon has called ‘the shock of the quotidian’.
In painting this picture it struck me – with the impact of an amazing coincidence – that while I’m using a visual medium in analysing the light reflected from or filtering through the leaves, the plants themselves are also using light – the cold light of day as much as the warm sunlight – in the photo-biological process of photosynthesis, upon which the ecology, economy, culture and consciousness of the planet depends, including my ability to exist here painting them.
Blackberries, biochemistry and daylight, and a startling sense of reciprocal involvement, became the hidden theme in this painting, unifying all the other linked aspects: the spaces which emerge with vegetation and its growth, and the half-hidden paths threading through the well-lit foreground to the dark background trees, which the naturally unrestricted process of drawing discovers. Thus an overgrown urban garden can come to speak for much more than itself.
‘Brambles’ was initially exhibited in the first of my one-man shows at the Francis Kyle Gallery in 2002, and in 2007 at The Geffrye Museum, London in the exhibition ‘Home and Garden: Paintings and Drawings of English, middle-class, urban domestic spaces 1914 to 2006’. Christine Lalumia, writing about this painting in the catalogue notes to the exhibition concludes: “Accidentally or on purpose, this has become a wild garden, almost an unofficial nature reserve. Protected by large trees, the light is soft and dappled, and the dampness palpable. One can almost hear the snails munching through the foliage. This is suburbia gone wild, a hidden world behind the neat facades of the houses. Indeed, there is something ambiguous about this picture: the horizon is very close, there is little visible sky and the garden is completely enclosed by plant growth. But, ironically, a sense of claustrophobia is avoided precisely because of this: the garden is so overgrown that the boundaries have disappeared, making it seem infinite. On the other hand, the garden is literally an enclosed refuge. The contradiction creates a tension: are we trapped in the undergrowth or unbounded and free in this wild garden?’
AN OVERGROWN ROCKERY also entitled ‘Saint Savior’s Church, Muswell Hill, London’, oil on canvas 4’x3′ painted in a ‘well neglected’ north London garden.
Saint Saviour Church, looming in the background of this painting, was due for demolition. I was told it was gradually sliding down the muddy hillside. Built between 1903 and 1909, more or less contemporary with the surrounding houses, it was pulled down in 1994, some years after the painting was completed, so the picture is a historical record.
The water mint, flowering in the immediate foreground, also bears witness to the rather damp conditions that affect this garden, which slopes up to a row of trees, beyond which is the deer park of Alexandra Palace in North London.
The garden belongs to my friend and colleague, Jackie Baker. It is an ever changing subject for paintings, which she has kindly made available to me over many years. It is too large for Jackie to keep fully cultivated, and her interest in natural history also inclines her to keep at least some of it in what I’ve called a ‘well neglected’ state.
An article by Ruth Pavey, the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead and Highgate Gazette (‘The changing season caught on canvas’ Ham&High Feb. 3rd 2006) describes Jackie’s garden and the three-way relationship between artist, gardener and garden. She writes about ‘the intense particularity of Pearce’s vision, style and practice’, and hints at the way my painter’s ideas and Jackie’s plans for the garden interact.: ‘As we looked at the subject of one of John’s recent paintings, the fountain of brambles still arching over the right hand border, Jackie pointed out the remains of a rockery slumbering beneath, a possibly ominous observation from the painter’s point of view’.
The ‘rockery’ in the picture is overgrown with familiar wild species such as the mint, rosebay and bramble. My painting advocates the quiet anarchy of a ‘hands off’ approach, yet, strictly speaking there isn’t really such thing as a ‘wild garden’: the human world is ever present as a background, or environment, one way or another reflecting and predisposing nature’s free expression.
This painting, under the title ‘Saint Saviour’s church, Muswell Hill, London’ is on display at the Nature in Art museum, Gloucester: Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall, Sandhurst Lane, Twigworth, Gloucester, GL2 9PA. Direct tel: 01452 733942 Tel: 01452 731422 http://www.nature-in-art.org.uk
MIDSUMMER oil on canvas 32″x24″ 2005
This is another rendering of Jackie Baker’s garden in north London, showing a profusion of wild plants and cultivated varieties. The painting was begun in May and finished at the height of summer.
A WALLED GARDEN oil on canvas 30″x40″, 1999, of the former vegetable garden of a small farmhouse in La Trancardière, Normandy.
Painted over many weeks, getting to work in the early morning, but stoppingas soon as the sun started to shine on the gable end.
It must be obvious that every detail of this work was a product of many moments of scrutiny and decision. Yet now, when I look at such a work, while I of course remember being there, setting things up and the painting going through many stages, I have almost no memory of doing any particular part of the picture, and can hardly believe that I did it. This is not meant to sound clever, simply a fact.
WILD PLANTS, NORMANDY oil on canvas 4’x 5’4″ 2007. A study of plants growing in their hidden world of profusion in the Normandy bocage. I feel this is one of my best paintings, though it was sold before I was able to get a really good photo of it.
My representation of nature could be termed ‘realist’, but I’m a great admirer of Jackson Pollock’s masterpieces. The sort of composition I favour is definitely post-cubist. That gives scope to a more subtle interplay of the physical surface of the painting with spatial illusion. I am painting on my feet, composing the scene from slightly changing angles. As Harold Rosenberg wrote of abstract expressionism, what goes on tne canvas is ‘not a picture but an event’ (ARTnews Dec 1952 quoted by Martin Gayford 2018)
I worked on the edge of woodland, looking across a more open wetland area in which many of the plants were higher than an elephant’s eye. In the immediate foreground water-mint is identifiable, tall nettles, and water-dropwort, a very poisonous relative of hemlock.
This is a community of wild plants on the surface of the planet Earth, quietly getting on with the task of carbon sequestration, setting an example that ought to evoke humility on the part of humankind.
LA SIENNE oil on canvas 4’x5’4″ 2001. A wild upper reach of a river in Lower Normandy.
I remember the moment when I came upon this scene as a sudden expanse of light – a moment of self-realisation! Hidden behind copses, the river widens to a pool, below a rocky cataract. The river seems to exist in its own world. At first rather daunted by the moving water, I made some preliminary studies, including this 15″x20″ canvas:
It was November, and sometimes, after heavy rain, the river valley became a lake. Like other French rivers, at such times the flow was regulated by sluices. I often approached the site wearing waders and using a ladder to bridge hidden dykes. The painting took many weeks, so the otters got quite used to me.
THE FISHPOOL, LA FOUBERDÈRE, GRATOT, NORMANDY oil on canvas 4′ x 5′ 4″ 2005
It is unusual for me to include a quickly moving creature such as a fish; to do so is to freeze a single moment, whilst the painting as a whole distils a far longer span of time. The golden carp, and a less conspicuous native species in the shallows, frequented this area of pond in the last weeks of work on the painting and seemed to demand inclusion!
COW PARSLEY, ORVAL oil on canvas 40″x30″ 2005
Knowing his literary background, I always included notes, such as these, with each picture I submitted to Francis Kyle. “According to the environmentalist Richard Mabey (Flora Britannica 1996) ‘Cow parsley is arguably the most important spring landscape flower’. It is as ubiquitous in May time as hawthorn. Geoffrey Grigson (in The Englishman’s Flora 1958) refers to cow parsley as a ‘plant of lace and moonlight’ and notes traditional associations with the devil and witchcraft.
The name ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’, despite its genteel appeal, has never quite caught on. ‘Cow parsley’ means an inferior form of parsley, but association with cattle is appropriate to a flower of May, when the sun enters the zodiac sign of Taurus, the bull, whose upturned horns may be those of the new moon in this most fertile month.
Growing on the verges of country lanes, cow parsley is annually mowed, usually before I have had time to paint it. This time I obtained the complicity of the landowners at the Normandy manoir of Les Bouillons, and was able to stay the mower’s hand till work on the picture was completed.”
In the catalogue note of my 2005 exhibition, Francis Kyle referred to this painting as ‘vertiginous’, and writes of the ‘springy, textural density’ achieved by the brushwork, distinguishing the technique from more traditional approaches to realism in the way ‘the action of painting becomes identical with the subject’.
As with my 1970s paintings of ‘Chipps Orchard’, the grass is important.
THE PATH HALF-LOST oil on canvas, 24″x18″, exhibited in ‘This Twittering World’, an exhibition at the Francis Kyle Gallery in 2011 with a theme of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The Literary context here is optional, though not misleading.
I wrote the following description for Francis Kyle: “‘The Path Half Lost’, shows an oblique view of a garden path surrounded by overgrown flowerbeds, with wild and cultivated plants: hellebore, buttercup, nettle, dock, rosebay and wild geranium. The viewpoint from beside the path could suggest a point outside of time.
I had in mind the phrase: ‘Into our first world’
It seemed to me that in Burnt Norton The garden represented the poem itself. Within it Eliot contemplates personal memory, but also ‘other echoes’, from a whole cultural universe inhabited by both reader and poet. Like Dante, he has lost his path in a dark wood. Like Orpheus, he negotiates a shadowy world of hints and suggestions by means of his art.
Eliot and his American friend Emily Hale had lost their way, on a woodland walk in Gloucestershire in 1934, when they strayed into the garden of Burnt Norton manor. The poem conveys a heightened awareness under the eyes of unseen observers: leaves full of children, unheard music in the shrubbery, and trepidation appropriate to holy ground. Out of the formality and aridity of a drained concrete pool ‘the lotos rose’, and the poet glimpses a mirage of the absolute. The vision fades, and a bird urges them to leave, because ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’.
Eliot completed the Four Quartets during his time as a fire warden in the Second World War. Like his, my own work has autobiographical and historical echoes. I was born in North London near the end of the Second World War, and the vivid glow of childhood recollections is set against that sombre background: playing at the edges of my father’s allotment, or on the bomb sites which nature had regenerated with reassuring biodiversity.
There may be few parallels in poetry to T. S. Eliot’s tone of meditative soliloquy in Four Quartets, but I have found that painting can follow a comparable path in a quest for ‘the point of intersection of time and the timeless’.”
L’ORIGINE DU MONDE Oil on canvas 4′ x5′ 4″, painted in a wild, secluded Normandy estate, ‘La Fouberdière, May 1st to August 1st 2014, and exhibited in the Conciergerie, Château de Regnéville Sur Mer, Normandy from 15th – 20th August the same year.
While painting this canvas I felt it was different from my previous outdoor paintings and that a theme which had engaged me for many years had had its say. I felt that photosynthesis was not as central to the meaning of the work as I had felt it to be in previous pictures.
The work of understanding the world is always unfinished and the title of my painting could equally have been ‘L’énigme’.
The title ‘L’origine du monde’ is borrowed from Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877). I felt what I was gazing upon was something even more concealed or forbidden than Courbet’s subject, yet equally fundamental to human life on earth; and also with something of Courbet’s cool audacity and frank realism. Unlike Courbet’s subject, whatever it is is hidden when in full view – presumably suggesting a human blind spot.
One visitor to the exhibition at Regnéville, a university lecturer, felt that this painting exemplified the philosophy of Maurice Merleau Ponty (1908 – 1961). Reading Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Le doute de Cézanne’ and others of his writings convinced me he was right: ‘Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being’ (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception 1945.)
Oddly enough, just as I was finishing work on this painting, Francis Kyle, who had been doing a superb job promoting my artwork for a decade and a half, rang to announce he was going to close his gallery in Maddox Street.
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Dylan Thomas 1914-1953